Will Agents List My Property if I Owe More Than It's Worth?
The answer is yes.
As with everything else pertaining to real estate, there are potential upsides and downsides. First of all, lenders in short sale situations often demand agents reduce their commission, so the agents are not likely to start from a discounted or low end commission. If it takes $12,000 to break even on a full service transaction, and you have to reduce your pay to make the sale happen, you're going to want more than $12,000 before the reduction. Discounters usually demand their money up front, but discounters aren't selling many properties in this sort of market. Along these same lines, it's a good idea to offer a larger than average commission to the buyer's agent. The average buyer's agent sees a short sale, and they say a transaction that takes twice as long as average, and that they have to accept reduced commission for while handling a whole lot of additional concerns. It makes the loan officer juggle rate locks and possibly submit multiple sets of paperwork. It makes the escrow officer juggle the entire transaction schedule, usually several times. Sometimes, the transaction approval with the seller's lender takes so long that an inspection or appraisal has to be re-done in order to satisfy the buyer's lender. It's tempting to just consider the property next door or down the street, even if it may not be such a bargain. With short sales, everybody marches to the beat of the seller's lender, which means I (as the buyer's agent or loan officer) have a whole slew of things that can go wrong beyond my ability to control, any of which results in my client ending up unhappy by costing them more money. Unhappy clients are poison to my business, no matter how great the deal they actually got was. Furthermore, I'm a lot more willing to not worry about my pocketbook than many other agents.
The person who drives this whole process, and makes it happen or fails to make it happen, is the listing agent. So if I see anything that tells me that listing agent is a bozo, or doesn't have their act together, I'm going to recommend that my buyer clients pass on the property, and I'm going to tell them precisely why. Pricing, staging, marketing, it's all got to have the fingerprints of a professional. If that listing agent has overpriced the property, if they have allowed the owner to leave excessive clutter, if they're saying things about the property that are not borne out when I go to view the property, I'm going to spell it out to my buyer clients why it's a bad idea to make an offer. I won't even look at "For Sale By Owner" properties trying to execute a short sale. I know, from experience, that I'm wasting my time, and my buyer client's as well. Lender approval of the short sale is not going to happen without an expert who is motivated to get the best possible price. You, as the owner, don't want to turn off either the buyers or their agents. So you want a listing agent that's demonstrably up to the task.
Now just because the lender accepts a short payoff in satisfaction of the debt, doesn't mean that all is forgiven. In some circumstances, they may go so far as to eat the loss entirely. I'm not certain I've ever seen such a case. They may report the loan as being paid satisfactorily to the credit bureaus, avoiding further hits to your credit, but they've just taken a loss. They want to deduct that loss from the earnings, as tax law permits them to do. But in order to do this with the IRS, they pretty much need to send the borrower they forgave a form 1099, reporting income from forgiveness of debt. Since this is taxable income under current law, expect to pay income taxes on the shortfall. President Bush has suggested a temporary halt to this practice, but to the best of my knowledge it has not yet been enacted by Congress.
For those agents who promise that the lender will forgive your debt completely, it really isn't under their control. You're trying to get the lender to forgive many thousands of dollars in money you owe them, plus you want them not to hit you with a debt forgiveness 1099, so they end up paying the taxes as well? Remember that not going through the entire foreclosure process is a benefit to the current owner as well as the lender, and there may be the possibility of a deficiency judgment as well. I'd be extremely skeptical of any promise to get you out of both or all three. If someone comes to me for a short sale, I can promise to try, but I can't promise to deliver. Nor can anyone else - it's not under our control. That's a cold hard fact.
So even though you're not really paying the listing or buyer's agent directly, as you would be in most normal transactions, you can expect to end up paying the tax upon whatever it is they end up making. After all, $10,000 paid to the listing agent and $10,000 paid the the buyer's agent means $20,000 that didn't go to your lender. As I've said before, that lender is going to want to see real evidence of poverty before they accept the short payoff. Getting short payoffs approved is not about "it's difficult!" or "I don't wanna!", it's about showing that there isn't any way that nets the lender more money. If it looks like they'll lose less if they foreclose, expect the lender to go the foreclosure route. They're not going to accept a short sale just because it would be uncomfortable for you, financially. You are (or actually, your listing agent is) going to have to persuade them that all of the other alternatives result in them losing more money than approving the short sale.
Agent commissions mean you'll owe more money in taxes, or deficiency judgment (if applicable) than without an agent, but that's only considered in isolation. If they convince a buyer's agent to show it to their client, if that results in a client being willing to make a larger offer, or an earlier one, if they negotiate the offering price upwards, and most especially if they get the lender to quickly approve a short payoff rather than dragging it out, or going through that whole dismal foreclosure process, all of these mean you ended up owing less money than you would have without that agent - precisely analogous to any number of research studies and studies that show that people who pay full service agents end up with more money in their pocket, even after paying the agent. It's very easy to look at the HUD-1 and ask yourself what an agent could possibly have done that's worth 3 percent of the sales price. There's no way to show or track, on an individual sale basis, the added value that the agent brought to the transaction. Those numbers just don't show up on the individual HUD-1, because there's nothing that documents them. On the other hand, they've been documented any number of times in the aggregate. The bottom line is that if the lender ends up losing less money, you end up with less in the way of potential tax liabilities, less in the way of judgments against you, and less damage to your long term financial picture, not to mention that the lender comes away better and the agent gets paid. If that's not the perfect picture of win-win-win, what is?
One last thing before I close: this presumes you have some reason why you need to sell the property. The local market being what it is, I am straightforwardly advising people not to list their property for sale right now if they have an alternative. It may be a great time to buy, but it's a rotten time to sell. If you can afford the payments, if you don't need out from under the mortgage as quickly as possible - in short, if your situation is sustainable - there's no need to do anything, and you'll be able to sell on better terms when there aren't forty sellers per buyer in the market.
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