June 24, 2019

Help Homeowners Facing Foreclosure: Part One of Three

Foreclosure definitionForeclosures and short sales face thousands of Carolinians. I wrote this three-part series to give readers facing Carolina foreclosures and short sales straightforward information that is grounded in North Carolina law and the federal Bankruptcy Code.

Sadly, four years into the financial meltdown, I continue to get a steady stream of calls asking for help preventing home foreclosures, forced sales and sheriff’s sales, and facilitating short sales. To complicate matters, some real estate agents and fly-by-night entrepreneurs are putting themselves forward as specialists who can help homeowners make an pain-free exit from under their troubled properties. It’s distressing for me to see how many people fall for these schemes and scams.

If, after reading this, you would like to consult with me about your situation, I would welcome that opportunity.

What’s the difference between a forced sale, foreclosure and a short sale?

Before taking this topic any further, we need to be using the same language.

  • Forced sale is not used often, but when it is it would include a sheriff’s sale or a foreclosure sale.
  • Foreclosure is the process by which the lender repossesses real property upon the borrower’s default.
  • Short sale, though, is a consensual deal between the lender and the borrower in which the lender agrees to take less than what’s owed; a short sale is not a forced sale in the strictly legal sense of the word.

The foreclosure process in four straightforward steps

Step One. The vast majority of North Carolina foreclosures are “by power of sale” in the loan documents. In this type, the lender files a foreclosure proceeding in the state court in the county in which the property is located, giving notice to anyone. Upon proper notice to the responsible parties, a hearing is held at the clerk’s office. Note that not all NC foreclosures are by power of sale, just most.

Step Two. A deputy clerk, an assistant clerk, or the clerk of court presides over the hearing for an order of foreclosure; the lender must show only four elements:

  1. that there is a valid debt secured by the property,
  2. that the borrower is in default on that debt,
  3. that there is a power of sale in the security agreement, deed of trust, between the borrower and the lender, and
  4. that the responsible parties had ten days’ notice or more prior to the hearing.

These four elements can be shown by affidavit and usually are — in other words, there is no live testimony.

As part of the power of sale clause, the lender hires a “trustee” or “substitute trustee” — a neutral party — to foreclose on the property.

Step Three. The trustee/substitute trustee attends this hearing and provides the proof of these four elements. The clerk has no authority to consider anything other than these four elements; if they are met, then the clerk will enter an order of sale, allowing the property to be auctioned on the courthouse steps. It is generally pointless for borrowers to attend these hearings and try to delay the process.

If a borrower believes he has equitable grounds to stay the foreclosure, then he has the right to file a lawsuit in the county’s superior court, asking that a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and/or permanent injunction be issued to stop the foreclosure. These lawsuits are expensive and generally are a long shot.

Step Four. In the absence of a successful superior court suit, or a delay at the lender’s discretion, the property will be auctioned on the courthouse steps about 25-30 days after the hearing. The bank usually places a credit bid at the sale — buying the property back for something short of the full amount of the debt. Anyone can bid, but live bidders are relatively rare.

There is a ten-day “upset bid” period following the sale, in which anyone can file a bid on the property that exceeds the sale price by the greater of 5% or $750.00. The filing of any upset bid triggers a new ten-day upset bid period, until the period passes with no new filed bids. Once the ten-day upset bid period expires, the sale is final; the trustee/substitute trustee signs a “trustee’s deed” giving the property to the winner of the sale, and files documents related to the sale.

The relationship between foreclosure and bankruptcy protection

A bankruptcy filing by a borrower stops a foreclosure proceeding until such time as the lender obtains from the bankruptcy court an order giving it relief from the automatic stay of all creditor activity.

Generally speaking, a Chapter 13 debtor can propose a plan that provides for payment in full of pre-bankruptcy mortgage arrearage, and at the same time keep current on post-bankruptcy payments, and keep the house. Falling behind on either aspect will likely lead to the lender getting relief from stay and then having the right to re-start the foreclosure process.

Also speaking generally, a Chapter 7 debtor can’t do anything to stop the mortgage company from getting relief from stay and thus restarting the foreclosure process, unless the debtor is able to do what he couldn’t do prior to the institution of the foreclosure — do a mortgage modification with the lender; refinance; or otherwise come up with a large lump sum to get current on the mortgage and then keep current with the monthly payments.

I just can’t have my credit ruined by a bankruptcy!

People often tell me that “I just can’t have my credit ruined by a bankruptcy!” and these people have a pending foreclosure, are in default on several credit card obligations, and are past due on other debts. While a foreclosure is probably less prejudicial to your creditworthiness than a bankruptcy, the reality is neither is good and a bankruptcy may be the only way to get a fresh start.

Another consideration in favor of bankruptcy: foreclosures are governed by state law and the practice and procedure varies wildly from state to state while bankruptcy is federally regulated. If you own real property in more than one state, consult with a bankruptcy attorney to see if the bankruptcy process may produce a less expensive outcome.

Stay tuned for parts two and three of this series, but if you need information about how bankruptcy might help you with your foreclosure, pick up the phone and talk to a qualified bankruptcy attorney now.