Buying or Selling Subject to Existing Deeds of Trust

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This is something that often happens with highly appreciated properties where the owner can no longer keep up the payments, they get hit with a notice of default, and along comes Joe or Jane seemingly riding to the rescue on a noble white steed, offering to buy the owner out of the property "subject to" existing deeds of trust.

This is a terrific position for the buyer to be in, and a rotten position for the seller. Nor are the prices usually very good for the seller - that white knight usually ends up looking a lot more like a thief. So why does it happen? Why does the seller agree to it?

Here they are sitting on this highly appreciated asset, with loads of theoretical equity, and they cannot make the payments. If they go through the foreclosure process, chances are better of flying to the moon by flapping your arms than of getting any of the equity back out. Yes, in California it's got to sell for at least 90% of appraised value or it doesn't sell at auction, in which case the lender owns it. But those appraisals are intentionally low, because the lenders don't want to own them. Furthermore, all of the payments that weren't made, and the interest on them, all gets piled into the loan, as do fees for the default process and the trustees sale. If you have a mortgage loan, read your contract. Sight unseen, I'll bet you a penny there's a clause in there saying they can sock you for "reasonable" fees in the event of default or foreclosure.

So you have a $450,000 property which you paid $120,000 for and owe $320,000 on, but something has happened and now you can't make the payments. You put it on the market for $450,000 and don't get any takers. Then along comes someone and says, "I'll take over your payments and pay you $20,000 if you sign the property over to me."

This is certainly a gray area, legally. The loans have "due on sale" clauses, and the lender can call the notes as due in full in such situations. The buyer basically tells them, "tough", knowing that if they foreclose, the lender ends up in the situation they didn't want to be in in the first place, of owing the property, not to mention that the person who bought "subject to" can cost them a lot more money by delaying it in court. Meanwhile, if they don't act quite so hard-nosed, this new owner is making the payments. They have the option of refusing the payments, but then we're dealing with the foreclosure process, and in the meantime, the checks for payment are there every month. What do you think most lenders will do? They will accept the payments!

Notice, however, that I didn't say the payments get there on time. This is the second raw deal that the seller has to swallow. The buyer's cash flow is a little tight, and the payment gets there 40 days late on a consistent basis. Who gets marked late? Whose credit gets dinged every time this happens? Not the buyer's. That buyer never applied for a loan with that lender on that property, the lender doesn't have their signature on a contract that says, "I agree to pay..." It's the seller's credit that gets hit. Kind of a nice situation to be in, no? Make a late payment any time you feel like it and your credit doesn't suffer! Not only that, but since the loan is still in the seller's name, the payments don't hit the buyer's debt to income ratio, allowing them to qualify for more loans, with larger payments, than they really should. Trying to leverage their investments like that is one reason why the folks who make a habit of "subject to" deals usually have tight cash flow. They don't want to let the property go into default, but as long as they don't get to the stage of being 120 days late (90 in some places), they have the best of all possible worlds!

Suppose, for whatever reason, it becomes a short sale? Well, since the seller is the one that violated the loan contract, there will be recourse on them, not the buyer. Many times the buyer makes side deals for "pay me" type stuff and manages to make money, or at least get their money back, even though the property doesn't sell for enough to pay off the existing liens.

If you are getting the idea that agreeing to a "subject to" deal isn't the smartest thing in the world, why do buyers agree to them?

Desperation and Panic. They listened to the agent that told them that they could get more money than was likely by market conditions, or they listed with the cheap bump on a log agency that really doesn't do anything to market the property, or they just sat in denial until far too late. Nothing happens instantly in real estate; it always takes several weeks at a minimum to get a property sold, even if you get a fantastic offer on the very first day. In some cases, I can get a loan done in one or two days, but that's not a situation you want to be in, because I don't know anyone who won't charge more in such a situation, and all of the usual loan caveats apply. But for whatever reason, the owners let the situation go too long, let themselves get behind the power curve, and suddenly realize that they are not going to catch up. They are looking at losing the property and getting nothing, so they panic. This is only one of the many reasons why staying ahead of the situation in real estate is so important. At the point where you're looking foreclosure square in the face ten days from now, there's not much else that can be done. I can offer you entire supertankers full of sympathy, and it won't make any difference. So if you're in this kind of situation, get the property on the market quick, price it attractively, and find an agent who will market it effectively, so that you avoid getting into the situation where the shark's offer is the best one you're going to get.

Caveat Emptor


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Brodie said:

I'm just gettig strted in the real estate industry and I had never heard of this...what happens when the house sells??? Who gets what ? ANd how is the buyers loan and sellers loan disposed of?? Thanks !

DM: The "subject to" buyer is typically buying with cash. What happens when the house sells again: The final buyer's lender (assuming there is one) is going to want clear title, so the original seller's lender needs to be paid off at that point, but it can still end up being a short sale, and it's no skin off the nose of the guy who bought "subject to" existing loans, who is not liable for those loans. Selling "subject to" is a nightmare that can keep happening for years, and I recommend against it for many reasons aside from the fact that it is, when you get right down to it, illegal. But it does happen.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 15, 2008 7:00 AM.

Deferred Payment Mortgages - Not As Bad As I Expected was the previous entry in this blog.

Agents "Buying" Listings: Promising the Undeliverable and Hurting Their Clients is the next entry in this blog.

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