When is the last time a banker called up a real estate agent, gave that agent a short-sale listing lead, then gave the seller thousands of dollars as an incentive at closing, plus thousands more from the Homeowner Affordable Foreclosure Assistance (HAFA) program, as a way of thanking the owner for not slipping into foreclosure?

Realtor Mark Cooper, CEO of Re/Max Edge in the St. Louis, Mo., area, reported a short sale in which the "homeowner walked away at the closing with $28,000, with no recourse for selling his home with a $280,000 mortgage for $174,000."

Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are reportedly among the lenders aggressively offering seller incentives.

According to Tom Kelley, a spokesperson for Chase, this is beneficial for all parties. "Although (these distressed) sellers … are not affected by the sales price, they have every motivation to keep the home in good repair, to work closely with the Realtor, and do what they can to help it sell," Kelley said.

To qualify for the payment, the homeowner cannot be eligible for a loan modification. Chase mails a letter to the homeowner with a specific proposal to encourage a short sale instead of a pending foreclosure.

For the lender, this represents an aggressive strategy to reduce foreclosures. And for the homeowner who is facing foreclosure, and has limited or no financial resources, it is surely a welcome relief to walk away from the closing table with thousands of dollars in hand.

Cooper recounted a personal experience with the incentive program. "This spring, I received a call from a person who introduced himself as a representative from Chase and asked if I was interested in taking a short-sale listing," he said.

I asked where he got my name, and was informed that it was from the CDPE (Certified Distressed Property Expert) website. I said that I’d be happy to assist and I was immediately connected to the short-sale prospect whom they had on the other line," Cooper said.

"We made an appointment to meet. I showed up with a binder full of forms and checklists and listed the home that day. About 90 days later, I received a contract on the home. The short sale was approved three days later and we closed the transaction five days after that," Cooper said.

"In addition to the lender and HAFA incentives, I was also able to get approximately $5,000 in property taxes and HOA liens taken care of for him. After the inspection, I had a contractor look at his roof, file a claim, and have his roof replaced for no charge. Insurance covered it," he added. "He was excited, to say the least, and told me I have created a customer for life."

Al Espinor, a Realtor for Century 21 M&M Associates in Stockton, Calif., said he got two short sales from one homeowner, and the sellers walked away with tens of thousands of dollars.

Chase sent a letter summarizing the incentives: "Return your listing agreement, owe nothing more on your mortgage, and get $30,000" to a mortgage holder who had failed to qualify for a loan modification. The letter also recommends that the sellers work with experienced real estate agents.

According to Espinor, here is how it happened: "I recently received a phone call from a homeowner in my city of Stockton, Calif., who left a message indicating that he was referred to me by his lender and needed to list his property.

"I called him back within five minutes and he told me that Chase had referred him to contact me since I was a Certified Distressed Property Expert professional who could help him initiate a ‘Chase Incentive Short Sale,’ " Espinor said.

So much for the "lenders don’t call us back" mantra by real estate agents.

"I set up an appointment that same afternoon, met with him and his wife, read the Chase incentive letter, listened to Chase’s story, and answered (the sellers’) questions. They thought it was some kind of joke, and I was not so sure that it was real, myself," Espinor said.

"Following our conversation, he felt so hopeful that (the sellers) went ahead and gave me the opportunity to serve them and help them list their property for a short sale. The incentive from Chase for doing so amounted to $30,000, and since the home was their primary residence, they qualified for an additional $3,000 from HAFA (Homeowner Affordable Foreclosure Assistance).

"My co-agent found a buyer and we were able to close within 60 days." For the record, the mortgage was $500,000 — the home sold for $250,000.

"After I helped sell their primary residence, Chase offered a $20,000 incentive to sell their investment home.

"This sale was a real challenge, since the yard had almost no backyard and offers were coming in for much less than the investor and Chase would be willing to accept, but by using the right forms, and working hard to make it happen, Chase agreed to lower the price.

"After holding back-to-back open houses, and following up with agents, and having the buyer from the first offer bail out, we found a buyer. We are now about to close escrow and help these property owners get on with their life and concentrate on rebuilding a business and start over fresh.

"To their credit, they did everything possible to make the home salable, including hiring a professional landscaper. (The husband) said since Chase was being so good to him, he felt obligated to do what he could to help Chase sell the home at the highest possible price in the shortest time.

Espinor said, "My client reminds me every time we talk" about how he helped them out of a bind.

No one knows how long this market will last or how it will end, but for those homeowners in distress, foreclosure may not be the only way out, since some lenders have figured out a proactive, win-win way to protect the seller, the home and hopefully themselves from larger losses.

Espinor said he has closed short sales through Wells Fargo, IndyMac and Bank of America, adding that they all have their way of doing things.

Our hats are off to the lenders who are thinking out of the box and to the agents who are working to get these deals done.

Next: A look at who the lenders are, if they believe the short-sale incentives are working, and how they select Realtors to participate.

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