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Keepin' It Real Estate: Trial Modifications Are Criminal


They steal from the middle class in favor of the banks.

The Obama administration is busy touting the burgeoning success of its mortgage modification program. Unfortunately, it's a farce: Out of one side of his mouth, the President touts a dedication to the besieged middle class, while from the other, lauds a loan modification program which steals money from struggling homeowners in favor of banks -- already the recipients of billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts.

The ploy would be amusingly hypocritical if it weren't so sad.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Treasury Department claims that the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, has begun more than 650,000 so-called "trial modifications" since its inception this February. The commonplace explanation for the latest in a host of failed mortgage modification schemes is that it's a natural first step to getting struggling borrowers back on the regular monthly payment track.

HAMP mandates that in order to qualify for a permanent loan modification, borrowers must first complete a trial period of three months with lower payments, in addition to submitting the proper documentation required for a more permanent solution. On the surface, this seems logical, even fair: Only after a show of good faith should homeowners be allowed a second chance.

Lenders like Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and Citibank (C), however, are required to show no similar evidence of good faith.

And I've yet to read a news story that accurately describes how this program works: Even as banks ask borrowers to cough up monthly payments on a house that's likely to be hopelessly underwater, the foreclosure process continues.

Notices of default turn into notices of trustee sale, which turn into trustee sales, which turn into repossessions and eventually evictions. Meanwhile, as the homeowner is given a false sense of security that scraping together payments each month could save his house, lenders are under no obligation to grant a stay of foreclosure.

In other words, banks determined to take a loan through the foreclosure process can easily -- and with Washington's blessing -- grant a trial modification which allows them to pinch a final three months of payments from homeowners already on the verge of financial insolvency, while offering nothing more than an empty promise in return.

To be sure, many of these homeowners got themselves in over their heads by overextending their debt load on an overpriced home. Foreclosure, in some cases, is a reasonable solution.

But an initiative touted as a long-awaited success in the battle against foreclosures is in fact just another way for Washington to redirect money from the pockets of ordinary Americans -- however economically downtrodden -- to big banks surviving solely by suckling the government teat.

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