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Will short sales save the housing market?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Foreclosures are down and short sales are up, but what does this mean for the real estate market as a whole?

The answer depends on who you ask.

But first, some background: Short sales occur when a lender agrees to sell a home for less than what is owed on the mortgage. The lender forgives the difference, and the borrower unloads a home they can't afford.

In an effort to avoid adding to their already large portfolios of bank-owned homes (REOs), lenders are beginning to seriously consider short sales as an alternative to foreclosure. According to a Bloomberg report released Tuesday, banks including Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase last year started giving away cash to select homeowners who agreed to do a short sale instead of allowing the house to fall into foreclosure.

Experts at the National Association of Realtors (NAR) hear the short sale process is becoming more streamlined, which is good news for buyers and lenders. This more organized process means short sales can be unloaded quickly -- relative to foreclosures -- instead of sitting on the market for a long period of time.

(Typically homes spend more than a year from the date of the first missed payment until the gavel falls on the foreclosure sale, but in places like New York, a bank can take nearly 3 years before foreclosing on a property.)

Like foreclosures, short sales can hurt home prices in the neighborhood. According to NAR, short sales typically sold for 17 percent below market value in February. That's a steep price cut, but less than the average 22 percent discount for foreclosure sales.

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Given that short sales typically recover more money for lenders, you'd think that short sales would be the preferred way of unloading distressed property. They don't add to banks' REO inventory, they don't sit on the market as long as foreclosures and the impact on home prices is not as substantial as that of a foreclosure.

If foreclosures don't sell at auction they become bank-owned property, or REOs

But you'd be wrong. Since the housing bubble burst, the sale of foreclosed homes has far outpaced short sales. But that is beginning to change. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported data from Lender Processing Services (LPS) which indicated short sales had surpassed foreclosure sales for the first time, by 4.2 percent in January -- the most recent data available.

Jonathon Weiner, a vice president in the applied analytics division of LPS, told Bloomberg "It's a fairly recent phenomenon that short sales have been increasing." Short sales should be the dominant way of disposing of distressed property, Weiner said, because they can be processed quicker than foreclosures.

What does this mean for the real estate market?

An increase in short sales could mean that home values will fall further, faster. Weiner tells Bloomberg LPS' "baseline scenario is home prices will hit bottom by the end of this year," based on the fact that short sales now outpace foreclosures.

But not all analysts agree we've hit that threshold.

Walter Molony, a spokesman for NAR, said in an email that although NAR data does show an uptick in short sales for February, foreclosure sales still dominate the distressed market. Short sales rose to 14 percent market share month-over-month in February, but foreclosure/REO sales still lead at 20 percent. Moreover, the recently approved $26 billion foreclosure settlement means more than a million additional foreclosures are about to be pushed through the pipeline.

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Why the disparity of data? Molony attributes the difference in findings to methodology and the measurement period. Home price, foreclosure and short sale data for March is set to be released this week. These data sets may shed more light on whether short sales are indeed picking up and if they are surpassing the number of foreclosures sold, even if it turns out to be temporary.

Foreclosure sales have outpaced short sales since the burst of the housing bubble

NAR has urged the lending industry to streamline the short sale approval process, and recently commended the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) for issuing new rules to expedite the process. The guidelines require servicers of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans to respond to short sale offers faster, making a final decision within 60 days of receiving the purchase request.

"As the leading advocate for housing and homeownership, NAR knows that delays in approving short sale requests remain a significant challenge for Realtors and consumers and often results in canceled contracts and the property going into foreclosure," NAR president Moe Veissi said in a press release Wednesday. "Realtors greatly appreciate FHFA's efforts in establishing a timeframe for responding to sellers and potential buyer offers to help streamline the short sales process."

Regardless of whether or not they're outpacing the sale of foreclosures, the uptick in short sales and faster processing time could signal a positive turn in housing crisis.

Short term, more short sales mean home values will remain low, or fall further. But over time, plowing through short sales could mean we'll see fewer homes wind up in foreclosure or as REOs, which would push down home prices even more dramatically. At best, we avoid another big wave of foreclosures that would send home prices spiraling down even further, something no one wants to see, least of all homeowners who pay their mortgage on time each month.

If you're a homeowner and have questions about whether you qualify for a loan modification or refinancing under the Home Affordable Refinance Program (also known as HARP 2.0), contact the Homeowner's HOPE hotline at 1-888-995-HOPE or go to

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