(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2, “Let’s make a deal: loan mod for 50% of price appreciation.”)

A loan modification is a change in the loan contract agreed to by the lender and the borrower. The modifications of major concern today are those designed to reduce the payment burden on borrowers faced with impending rate increases that will make the mortgage payment unaffordable to them. Many are subprime borrowers.

Homeowners faced with this prospect, whether they are already delinquent or not, should request a modification. They are very unlikely to get one if they don’t ask, and they should make the investment required to make their case. The stakes are very high: They can save their house and their credit.

The Decision Process: In most cases, the decision on a modification is not made by the firm that owns the loan. It is made by a firm servicing the loan under contract to the owner. The owner could be a single lender, or it could be a group of investors who own pieces of a mortgage-backed security collateralized by a pool of loans.

Whoever the owner, the servicing firm is contractually obligated to find the solution to payment problems that will minimize loss to the owner. If the lowest-cost solution is a contract modification, great — everyone involved prefers a modification to a foreclosure. But if a foreclosure would generate lower costs for the owner, the decision will be to foreclose. The cost of foreclosure to the borrower does not enter the decision.

Yet the decision is far from cut and dried, and it can be materially affected by whether and how the borrower presents his case. On this issue, I have benefited from an exchange with Warren Brasch, an attorney who represents borrowers seeking loan modifications.

Equity: Perhaps the most important factor affecting the modification decision is the amount of equity the borrower has in his property. If the borrower has enough equity in the property to pay any deferred interest plus foreclosure expenses, foreclosure is almost bound to be the lower-cost solution.

Equity depends on property value, which the borrower is much better positioned to know than the servicer. The borrower knows or can easily find out how many houses in the neighborhood are for sale and what the trend has been in recent sale prices. In a weakening market, it is easy for the lender to overestimate value, and the borrower must prevent that.

Moral Hazard: Servicers fear that if they are liberal in granting modifications, borrowers who don’t need a modification will seek one anyway. They protect themselves against this by entertaining modification proposals on a case-by-case basis, while placing the burden of proof on the borrower.

Borrowers must accept the burden of proof. In addition to the data on property value, they need to document that they cannot afford the payment increase that is pending, and they must document exactly what they can afford.

For this purpose, borrowers should calculate their total debt ratio: the sum of mortgage payment, other debt payments, property taxes and homeowners insurance as a percent of their gross (before-tax) income. This number should be calculated now, what it will be after the rate adjustment, and what they will be able to afford. On the last, Brasch suggests that a servicer may be willing to accept 45 percent as a reasonable maximum.

Servicing Cost: Servicers have a self-interest in minimizing modifications because they add to costs. They try to minimize costs by computerizing the servicing process to the maximum degree possible, and standardizing customer support procedures so that low-paid and easily trained employees can perform them.

Modifications must be handled by a special group who are more highly trained and better-paid, and the increased costs from expanding their number cuts into the bottom line. Hence, there is a tendency to be nonresponsive in the hope that the borrower will go away.

Borrowers have to be persistent. According to Brasch: “If a servicer says they will call you back … forget about it. You need to call them and call them constantly. They will lose your paperwork, fail to return calls, put you on hold, and then hang up. It’s what they do. Keep fighting, calling, faxing. This does work!”

In making their decisions about whether a modification would be less costly than a foreclosure, servicers usually ignore an asset possessed by the borrower that could tilt the balance toward modification. This is the right to future appreciation in the value of the borrower’s house. In exchange for a modification that might otherwise be more costly to the owner than a foreclosure, the borrower could pledge a percent of the future appreciation, which could shift the balance to modification. This will be discussed in the second article in this series.

The writer is professor of finance emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comments and questions can be left at www.mtgprofessor.com.

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