CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Short sales of homes – where the seller owes more than the home is worth – have surged this year in the Carolinas, driven by interest from investors, a streamlined process and an expiring U.S. tax credit.
Nationally, such sales in the third quarter rose 17 percent from the year before. In the Carolinas, the jump was more pronounced – rising 25 percent in North Carolina and 22 percent in South Carolina, according to the RealtyTrac research firm.
Experts attribute much of the increase to a tax credit set to expire Dec. 31 that lets sellers exclude forgiven mortgage debt from their taxable income.
Short sales took off after the real estate meltdown, as homeowners who needed to sell found their property values had plummeted. But recently, as the housing market has improved, distressed sales – which include short sales and foreclosures – have accounted for a smaller percentage of total sales.
In Charlotte, agents say demand for short sales has soared in recent months. The number of short-sale closings has stayed relatively flat, though. It’s unclear why the region’s short sales haven’t been on the rise like the rest of the state and the nation.
The area posted 138 closed short sales in January. Closings peaked at 181 during August, traditionally a busier season for sales, and dropped to 145 in November.
Local real estate agents, however, say they’ve seen demand increase dramatically in the last two to three months.
Agents at Carolinas Metro Realty, a full-service firm that specializes in short sales, say December is proving to be one of their more active months.
“We’ve definitely seen our volume increase,” said Frances More, a Realtor and broker-in-charge at Carolinas Metro Realty’s office in Dilworth. She estimates the firm may see 15 closings in December, more than typical.
She and other brokers at her firm attribute the demand largely to investors looking to cash in on the burgeoning rental market.
The tax credit factor
Another factor here and nationally: the possible Dec. 31 expiration of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. The bailout-era act temporarily allows home sellers to avoid taxation on mortgage debt canceled by a lender.
Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. House to extend the law for at least another year. The Senate Finance Committee passed a similar bill this summer. But mortgage debt forgiveness is on hold as Congress negotiates how to avoid the “fiscal cliff” – a term used to describe the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to take effect unless lawmakers reach a budget deal.
The tax savings for homeowners can be big: The average amount of forgiven debt in a short sale is about $95,000, according to RealtyTrac. In the Carolinas, it’s closer to $50,000.
Nationwide, according to mortgage industry estimates, about 11 million owners are under water – or owe more than their home is worth. An estimated 1.8 million North Carolina mortgages – or nearly 20 percent of outstanding home loans – are under water, or close.
Price effect diminishes
Charlotte real estate veteran Pat Riley, president and chief operating officer of Allen Tate Cos., said short sales are no longer depressing prices as much as they once did. That’s because the local housing market has been on the rebound, and there are proportionately more sales of non-distressed homes to provide a better gauge of property values, he said.
Short sales accounted for 22 percent of all U.S. sales during the third quarter. In Charlotte, they account for about 17 percent, Riley said.
Short sales were once notorious for being complicated and time consuming. But lenders have streamlined the process, and the public has become more educated about the process, says Elena Koshechko, a short sales support specialist at Carolinas Metro.
Near the start of the financial crisis around 2008, short sellers tended to be homeowners in affluent neighborhoods with homes priced around $500,000 and up, says Charlotte attorney Serge Semirog.
He said he believes they were among the first to do short sales because they had access to legal and financial advice.
Now, sellers tend to own starter homes worth $200,000 or less and are concentrated in north and northeast Charlotte neighborhoods.
Technology has sped up the process – a significant boon to short sales, which require much more documentation and legal work than routine sales. Real estate agents say they can upload documents and access them online immediately instead of faxing in 100-page documents only to learn they were never received.
Investors boost demand
On the demand side, agents at Carolina Metro Realty say investors believe major metro areas are running out of supply so they are turning to mid-tier cities like Charlotte.
Investors include national equity firms and hedge funds that are scrambling to buy single-family homes via short sale to rent out, More said. These investors often buy two to three properties at a time, she said.
More said her office is running low on available short sales. Buyers in the past few months have been making offers “left and right,” she said.
“Buyers want properties before they hit the market,” she said.