December 12, 2013

Drop in foreclosures, but not in Maine

With loan default notices also on the rise, observers say it will be a while before Maine sees a rebound like other states.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As foreclosures nationwide drop to their lowest level in six years, Maine remains one of only five states where the number of homes being repossessed by banks is rising.

That doesn’t surprise state officials, who said Thursday that Maine is on track this year for a record number of pre-foreclosure notices to homeowners.

Across the U.S., the number of homes being repossessed by lenders has fallen to its lowest level since July 2007. Lenders foreclosed on 30,461 homes in November, down 19 percent from October and 48 percent from November 2012, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a foreclosure listing firm.

But in Maine, foreclosures increased 6 percent in November from the same month last year, according to RealtyTrac.

Four other states – Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut and Iowa – reported more repossessed homes last month than in November 2012. Those states, like Maine, require courts to sign off on foreclosures, which generally makes the process longer than it is in other states.

“My theory is that national lenders are now turning their attention to states like Maine after first dealing with states in which either the population was more transient or homeowners were quicker to abandon properties,” said Will Lund, superintendent of the state’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. “Lenders did not view Maine as a top priority in terms of their national approach to dealing with defaults.”

Lund said the increase in repossessions isn’t a surprise, given the large number of homeowners who are going into default, the first step in the foreclosure process.

By law, homeowners who receive default notices have 35 days to become current on their mortgage payments, Lund said.

This year is on track to be the busiest on record for default notices, with more than 44,000 letters projected to be sent to Mainers by the end of December. The previous high was 41,462 notifications, in 2011, according to the bureau.

“I can assure people that the foreclosure situation is not over in Maine, but I do feel we are near or almost at the peak,” Lund said. He said he expects that defaults and foreclosures will level off and start to decline in mid-2014.

The increase in foreclosures shows that the state’s economic recovery has been slower than average, said Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine.

“Our economy has lagged the national recovery by quite a bit. We’ve been slower in terms of getting jobs back, and incomes in Maine haven’t been growing by very much at all,” he said. “There’s still a fairly high amount of consumer distress.”

Despite the increase in foreclosures, Colgan said Maine “never had as big of a problem as the country as a whole.” Maine’s position may look worse because states where the foreclosure crisis was more severe had “nowhere to go but up.”

Thomas Cox, a lawyer in Portland who has represented Mainers facing foreclosure, said the national decrease in foreclosures is “just a temporary hiatus.”

He said hedge funds have “propped up the market” by buying up foreclosed homes, especially in California and Florida, and those investments have run into trouble because the companies have had difficulty finding people to occupy the homes.

In 2009, Cox exposed the practice of “robo-signing,” with one company admitting that it signed thousands of foreclosure affidavits in 23 states without knowing whether the information was true. He said he remains in touch with foreclosure lawyers around the country.

“I wanted to believe that we are getting near the end of it, but in the next three to five years we could see millions of foreclosed homes (nationally) coming back at us,” he said. “I think we have many more foreclosures in the pipeline.”

In Maine, the foreclosure situation should improve but it could take a couple of years, Cox said.

“Our economic recovery is not as robust as it has been in other parts of the country,” he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: @grahamgillian

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