The number of New Jersey home repossessions by lenders has soared in the past two years and is on track to increase again in 2015, in sharp divergence to the national trend.
Completed foreclosures, where banks and mortgage companies have taken the homes, climbed 34 percent in the state last year, to about 5,780, after an 11 percent surge in 2013, according to The Record’s analysis of RealtyTrac data. By contrast, on the national level, completed foreclosures fell by double digits in each of the past three years.
In the first three months of this year, Bergen County was on pace to nearly double last year’s total of sheriff’s auction sales with 201 properties sold.
A CoreLogic report released Tuesday showed that in May 4.9 percent of mortgaged homes in New Jersey were completed foreclosures, the top rate in the country. The percentage of homes where the mortgages are seriously delinquent also was the highest at 8.4 percent.
The statistics indicate the foreclosure debacle, which has eased in other states following the housing meltdown that began in 2007, may only now be peaking in New Jersey, where foreclosures had been crawling through the system.
The reasons for the slow processing include a state judiciary that has tried harder than other states to hold banks accountable for illegal and improper paperwork. Also, New Jersey’s non-profit housing groups, which have support in the state Legislature, have worked to help keep homeowners in their homes. It has taken debt collectors about two years and 10 months on average from the time an initial notice is delivered until the property is repossessed, according to real estate information company RealtyTrac. Only Hawaii’s process is longer.
Now repossessions are moving faster. According to housing activists and lawyers who defend homeowners faced with foreclosure, the acceleration has coincided with a pickup in the real estate market. Although bankers deny it, homeowner advocates say that uptick seems to have made banks more eager to complete foreclosures, cash out and recover what they can from their losses.
“There have been secondary-market buyers coming in as a reaction to the housing market starting to rebound a bit,” said Adam Deutsch, a lawyer with Denbeaux & Denbeaux in Westwood, which has defended hundreds of New Jersey homeowners in contested foreclosures.
New Jersey has throughout the foreclosure debacle had a lower home-repossession rate than most states when measured as a percentage of the total number of homes. Last year, for example, the state ranked 30th, with about one in 350 homes going all the way through the repossession process, according to an analysis of RealtyTrac data. Nationwide, the rate in 2014 was about one in 225 homes.
Bankers tend to blame the courts, lawmakers and housing activists for the state’s inability to clean up its foreclosure mess in a timely fashion. They say homeowner assistance programs have delayed the inevitable.
“This [surge in repossessions] represents the ones that should have been completed years ago,” said Michael Affuso, director of government relations for the New Jersey Bankers Association.
Homeowners facing foreclosure often stay in their homes without making any mortgage payments for years as the process drags on, partly because lenders refuse to accept partial payments once a loan is in default.
But it’s not a free ride for the homeowner. Missed interest payments and late fees, as well as arrears in taxes and insurance, typically are added to what is owed.
Bankers are reluctant to speak on the record about their foreclosure practices. “It is a politically sensitive and customer-sensitive issue,” one industry veteran said. But regulatory filings by publicly traded lenders offer some insight into the effect the surge in homeowner defaults has had on these companies.
Homes in foreclosure continue to be a drag on New Jersey’s housing recovery, and the sooner they are sold to buyers who want to live in them, or to investors who want to resell them or rent them, the better, said the New Jersey Bankers Association’s Affuso.
“This is a nightmare for a bank,” Affuso said. “They’ve already written the loans down and they want to get rid of them.”
Even so, there were nearly 49,000 new foreclosure complaints filed statewide last year, the most since 2010, according to data from the Office of Foreclosure. The counties with the highest numbers last year were Essex, Camden, Ocean, Middlesex and Bergen, in that order.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Affuso said. “We are closer to the next recession than we are from the last recession and there are still about 85,000 properties in foreclosure, and probably 40 percent are older than 2013.”