Making sense of the foreclosure numbers

From the NY Times:

IN gauging the severity of the foreclosure problem in New Jersey, the experts could hardly be farther apart. Some see the state as relatively unscathed at this point, with the situation about to improve; others see worsening conditions that may turn downright severe.

But then again these same experts are the first to admit that they are handicapped by extremely unreliable information. Real estate market analysts, lawyers, academics, public officials: there are clusters of them on either side of the debate.

“Precise numbers on foreclosures are very elusive,” said James W. Hughes, the dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. But he said he was hearing reports from researchers in the field that foreclosure filings in some county courts were increasing. That trend may pick up steam as federal home-buyer stimulus programs expire, and high-paying jobs continue migrating out of state.

Jeffrey G. Otteau, whose Otteau Valuation Group provides real estate market analysis to the industry, sounded a similar note on the quality of available statistics. “The numbers from the various sources do not square,” was how he put it. Mr. Otteau quoted data from RealtyTrac, a company based in Irvine, Calif., that monitors court filings around the country, in characterizing New Jersey’s current foreclosure rate as very low — just .04 percent of households. He also predicted that foreclosure actions would decline as the overall economy improved. RealtyTrac, a subscriber service, is a primary source of information about distressed properties for investors.

Cross-checking RealtyTrac numbers with other statistics often amounts to an “apples and oranges” problem, according to Mr. Otteau and Mr. Hughes. For instance, a report last month by the New Jersey court system estimated the number of foreclosure filings rose 29 percent from 2008. But the number is a raw count, not a calculation of rate.

Still, Mr. Otteau said, it does not jibe with RealtyTrac’s report as best he can tell. Goldie Sommer, a real estate lawyer who specializes in short sales for the firm Sommer & Engelhart in Fairfield, said she had ended up relying on the anecdotal reports of brokers who list properties available for short sale — and on the fact that she is extremely busy — to infer that the number of homeowners facing foreclosure was “bouncing up again.”

For instance Michael Hawley, of the United Association of Realtors, said that 35 to 40 percent of Essex County homes currently listed in the $300,000-to-$350,000 price range were short sales. At $700,000 and above, he added, 10 to 15 percent of listings are short sales.

An office manager for Weichert in Caldwell estimated that 15 percent of all listings right now were delinquent-mortgage properties; at Unicasa United Realty in Newark, a manager estimated that more than 60 percent of the agency’s listings were for properties whose owners were “underwater,” or owed more than the home was worth. In New Jersey, No Consensus on Foreclosure Problem

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