A short sale is a sale of real estate in which the net proceeds from selling the property will fall short of the debts secured by liens against the property. In this case, if all lien holders agree to accept less than the amount owed on the debt, a sale of the property can be accomplished.
A short sale has two intrinsic and inseverable components. A Short Sale is successful when (1) a lienholder(s) (a.k.a. mortgage Company) is agreeable to net less than the amount owed on the note (debt) as the result of (2) an arm's length sale at or below the Appraised Value for that property. The agreeable selling price is intrinsically defined to be at or less than the appraised value allowing the process to be attainable. A prudent buyer will not pay greater than the appraised value, and a Bank or finance company will not provide a mortgage for greater than the appraised value, thus limiting the Short Sale proceeds to a maximum gross yield of the property's Appraised Value. A short sale may occur when the lienholder expects that a mortgage will likely never be repaid and the home's value (due to the home's condition, such as if a prior homeowner vacated the property and left it damaged or trashed, or general economic conditions in the area or nationwide) will not (either quickly or at all) regain equity to allow full payment of the mortgage.
It's important to understand that a Lien holder is not bound to accept the Appraised value and can demand a greater selling price. In this case, a “Sale” with a prudent arm's length buyer is no longer a reasonable or attainable expectation. Instead the demand for greater than the Appraised Value (but less than the amount owed on the debt) is called a “Short Settlement”. Some Lien holders will agree to a Short Sale but not a Short Settlement while demanding greater than the Appraised Value. This is a paradox as neither is achievable and both predestined for failure.
Therefore, a “Short Sale” can only be accomplished when a Lien Holder is willing to accept less than what is owed on the debt while also agreeing to accept a sales price that is at or below the appraised value for the property.
Creditors holding liens against real estate can include primary mortgages, second mortgages, home equity lines of credit (HELOC), homeowner association liens, mechanics liens, IRS and State Tax Liens, all of which will need to approve the sale in return for being paid less than the amount they are owed. The lien holders do not have to agree to accept less, but they often do since the alternative is to let the property go to foreclosure.
A short sale is a more beneficial alternative to foreclosure and has become commonplace in the United States since the 2007 real estate recession. Other countries have similar procedures. For instance, in the UK the process is called Assisted Voluntary Sale. While both short sale and foreclosure result in negative credit reporting against the property owner, because the owner acted more responsibly and proactively by selling short, credit impact is less.
The short sale process
A short sale process starts off like any other home sale: You contact a real estate agent (here's how to find a real estate agent in your area), list your home (mentioning that it's a “short sale/subject to lender”), then wait for an offer to come in. But once you accept an offer, things get tricky. You'll need to get the blessing of your lender—and since lenders lose money with short sales, they're rarely eager to hop on board.
“Some banks may even prefer to pursue a foreclosure, since they not only assume ownership of the property but may receive bailout money from the homeowner's mortgage insurance policy,” says Marlene Waterhouse, a real estate agent and the owner of Short Sale Solutions.
On the other hand, a short sale may appeal to a lender, since owning and selling real estate are hassles lenders may prefer to avoid.
To assess whether to approve your short sale, your lender will require you to submit some paperwork, including your offer letter as well as a “hardship letter” explaining why you can no longer make your mortgage payments, along with financial documents such as income statements or medical bills to back that up. At that point, the lender will most likely have your home appraised to determine if the offer you've received is fair. If it is, the lender may allow the deal to go through, although it may have some stipulations (more on that next).
How buyers benefit from short sales
Short sales can be bargains for home buyers, but prepare to jump through many more short-sale-buying hoops than you'd find in a foreclosure or even a typical home sale.
“I wouldn't recommend short sales for first-time buyers, who may get frustrated with the extra paperwork and long waits,” says Waterhouse. “A traditional sale takes 30 to 45 days to close after the offer is accepted. A short sale typically takes 90 to 120 days, or even longer.”
The reason for these holdups is that the mortgage lenders—which are stuck paying for closing costs that a seller would typically cover—will often counter with their own demands in an effort to raise their bottom line. So, short-sale buyers might hear, “We'll accept your offer, but you're responsible for all repairs, wire transfers, and notary fees.”
Our advice: Go ahead and negotiate, or walk away if you aren't satisfied with the terms of the deal. Ultimately it's up to you to decide whether it's worth it to absorb these extra costs. When in doubt, ask your real estate agent to help you crunch the short-sale-buying numbers.
Should buyers buy foreclosures instead?
While foreclosures can also be bargains, buyers should know that they come with a lot more risk than a short sale. For one, keep in mind that a foreclosure home is sold at a courthouse, sight unseen. So, there's no time for a buyer to inspect the house for structural problems; you also inherit all liens tied to a foreclosure. In this sense, a short sale might be a safer transaction.
Bottom line: When a short sale is done right, sellers, buyers, and the lender can all walk away happy.