Monday, March 31, 2008

The WSJ discovers Moral Hazard, and it involves choosing to sleep under bridges

by Ken Houghton

First, there's was Buyer's Remorse. Now, the WSJ gives us Buyer's Revenge:
Mr. Buompensiero, a gray-bearded inspector for REO Asset Services-1st Realty Group, rang the bell. When no one answered, he taped a letter to the door offering the occupants $1,000 to move out. The catch: They won't get a cent if they trash the house before they leave.

"If it was me, I'd take the money," Mr. Buompensiero said as he drove away. Either way, they're "going to get thrown out in a couple of weeks."

And this is not only A Good Thing, it's a Standard, if unadvertised, Business Practice:
No one tracks how frequently such payoffs are made. In Las Vegas, agents hired by the banks to handle foreclosed properties say the "cash for keys" approach, as it's known in the industry, is a regular part of the job. After all, formal eviction proceedings can take months and cost potentially much more than a payoff.

Strangely, all of the evidence comes from people with a clear principal-agent problem:
About 95% of the auctioned properties, however, go unsold and revert to banks eager to get the properties off their books. Some owners just walk away peacefully. But agents say a significant number take what they can carry and take revenge on the rest.

There's no data, apparently, so there's really no economic solution. So why is the WSJ discussing it?

Because some people are at least "haggling over the price":
The owner, a 43-year-old man with two children who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, says he bought the property in 1993 for $140,000. Three years ago, he says he had the house appraised for $440,000 and took out a $207,000 home-equity loan to pay off credit-card bills and buy his wife a new van. His initial payments were an affordable $1,800 a month.

He fell behind, however, after he went through a divorce and his landscaping business faltered, just as his interest rate was rising. The man worked out a payment plan with the bank and borrowed heavily from his father, but, including penalties, his monthly payments rose to $4,000, he says. After two months, he says, he ran out of money, and the bank foreclosed.

He called Mr. Carver after receiving the cash-for-keys note, but was left cold by the bank's initial $500 offer to leave the house soon, intact and broom-swept. "If I stay here it will cost them a lot more money," both men remember the former owner saying....

Mr. Carver consulted with the bank and upped the offer to $2,800.

"Better than nothing," the owner responded.

Last week, Mr. Carver went to the house, found it clean and whole, and handed the man a check. "Everybody walks away somewhat happy," Mr. Carver said. "I guess."

There's a doctoral thesis in this. However...

(more in next post)

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