Lost in the shadows: Beaufort County's hidden inventory of homes

gmartin@islandpacket.comOctober 22, 2011 

This home in Bluffton falls into a group of about 700 homes in Beaufort County which are stalled in foreclosure proceedings and not yet on the market.

JONATHAN DYER/THE ISLAND PACKET

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From the other side of the street, in the shade of overhanging oaks, it's hard to see anything unusual about the home on Bluffton's Grande Oaks Drive.

But after walking up the driveway to the red front door, it becomes clear that it's empty: Old newspapers wrapped in plastic are strewn about and thorny, waist-high weeds sprout near the front steps.

Yet unlike most other empty houses, there's no "For Sale" sign.

According to information from the Multiple Listing Source, a real estate resource, the property entered foreclosure in September but has not yet been placed on the market.

The home has been abandoned for more than a year, according to a neighbor.

More than 3,831 homes and condos are for sale in Beaufort County, but there's also a "shadow inventory" that includes homes like the one on Grande Oaks Drive -- homes in proprietary limbo, empty but not yet on the market.

Such homes are part of an impending wave of foreclosures and vacancies that could keep real estate values depressed for years to come, according to several Beaufort County agents.

THE SCOPE

Their forecastcomes on the heels of a positive quarterly report, issued Monday by S.C. Realtors, indicating relatively strong home sales in the Hilton Head area through the first nine months of 2011.

Shadow inventory can be broken into three categories:

  • Properties repossessed by lenders but not up for sale.

  • Properties caught in foreclosure.

  • Properties for which loan payments are in deep arrears but not yet in foreclosure.

  • According to 2010 Census data, there are about 93,000 housing units in Beaufort County. Of those, 1,662 are in foreclosure, according to real estate research firm RealtyTrac.

    Those numbers indicate that about one in every 56 homes in the county are at some point in the foreclosure process, a rate considerably higher than the state average of one in 98. Nationwide, about one in 88 homes face foreclosure.

    The numbers don't take into account prospective sellers that pulled their property off the market within the past few years, after failing to attract an acceptable offer.

    In Beaufort County, many of these homeowners are elderly, according to local agents and an attorney handling foreclosure cases. Their homes, destined to re-enter the market once property values rebound, are also part of the local shadow inventory.

    "It's hard to imagine the number of people in their 60s that liquidated their retirement savings to pay for their mortgages, still holding out hope," said Dan Prud'homme, a broker at Carolina Realty Group on Hilton Head Island. "It's just tremendously scary."

    THE WAIT

    Before proceeding with a foreclosure, banks must comply with rules that have become more stringent, so it takes them an average of nearly two years to repossess a property, according to data firm Lender Processing Services.

    In South Carolina and 22 other states where foreclosures are handled in court, the timeline is even longer.

    Lenders also are waiting longer before taking action against homeowners who have stopped paying their mortgages, another considerable subset not accounted for in foreclosure rates, according to Beaufort County agents.

    Nationwide, nearly two million homeowners who haven't paid their mortgage in three months or more have not received a foreclosure filing. About 800,000 of those have not made a mortgage payment in more than a year, according to LPS.

    It's no different in Beaufort County.

    "People ask me, 'I just missed my first (mortgage) payment, how long do I have before I'm foreclosed on?'" Prud'homme said. "I tell them, worst case scenario, 18 months. It'll be nine months to a year before you even get served."

    Lenders are essentially letting these homeowners stay in their homes as a lesser-of-two-evils option. Foreclosing more quickly would mean not only more empty homes, but also force banks to pay a variety of collateral costs -- from property taxes and insurance payments to homeowner's association fees and yard work bills -- associated with their maintenance.

    "The banks don't want to jump on these bad loans and foreclose these homes," said Cathy Olivetti, a Hilton Head attorney helping clients facing foreclosure. "They don't want people to know about their bad assets."

    Such situations, where the banks are unwilling to foreclose and homeowners are unable to pay their mortgages, are so common in Beaufort County that Olivetti has a term for it: "Zombieland."

    "There's all this inventory out there," Olivetti said, "and some of it's just not going to be sold. It could take 15 years to resolve."

    More than a million foreclosures that were supposed to be completed nationwide this year have been pushed into the future, prolonging the housing crisis, RealtyTrac found.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    With foreclosures stalling and property values low,homeowners looking to cut their losses have increasingly turned to "short sales."

    In a short sale, a homeowner sells his home to the lender for less than the full loan payoff owed. Typically, the value of the real estate in short sales is worth less than the amount owed on the property.

    For homeowners, it offers quicker release from an untenable financial situation, and generally isn't as damaging to their credit rating as a foreclosure.

    For banks, it offers a way to add an asset without going through the protracted and costly process of foreclosure.

    Foreclosures have stalled locally since the state Supreme Court issued a moratorium on them in May.

    Several Beaufort County real estate agents said that for every foreclosure they handle, they see about three short sales.

    It's indicative of a national trend, according to Bob Raehn, a Bluffton-based agent, who cited the Richmond, Va., headquarters of SunTrust Bank as an example.

    "Just a few years ago, their Loss Mitigation department," which handles short sales, "had six people in it, I think. Now, I bet they have thousands. Lenders are just totally overwhelmed," Raehn said.

    Neither the intractable nature of the current foreclosure process nor the looming shadow inventory is likely to change anytime soon, according to Raehn.

    "If the American public knew what was going on, I think there'd be panic," Raehn said. "It's a lot bigger problem than what the public has been made to believe."

    Toluse Olorunnipa of The Miami Herald contributed to this story.

    Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

    Related content: Few taking advantage of federal foreclosure assistance in SC, October 13, 2011

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