A mushrooming crisis over potential flaws in foreclosure documents is threatening to throw the real estate industry into chaos, as Bank of America on Friday became the first bank to stop taking back tens of thousands of foreclosed homes in all 50 states.
The move, along with another decision on foreclosures by PNC Financial Services Inc., adds to growing concerns that mortgage lenders have been evicting homeowners using flawed court papers.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp., the nation's largest bank, said Friday it would no longer complete foreclosures in all 50 states as it reviews documents used to process foreclosures. That applies to homes that the bank takes back itself and those that it transfers to investors such as mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
A week earlier, the company had said it would only do so in the 23 states where foreclosures must be approved by a judge.
The bank did so in reaction to mounting pressure from public officials inquiring about the accuracy of foreclosure documents. A company spokesman, Dan Frahm, said the bank still believes its documents are correct but wants to satisfy officials' concerns.
"Our ongoing assessment shows the basis for our past foreclosure decisions is accurate," he said.
Banking and housing analysts, meanwhile, fear the foreclosure document problems could prolong the housing bust, and hundreds of thousands of inevitable foreclosures will be pushed off into some legal limbo for years.
"If you are looking at the key in this country to economic stability, it's the housing industry," said banking analyst Nancy Bush of NAB Research. "This is a huge mess that helps nothing."
State and federal officials have been ramping up pressure on the mortgage industry over worries about potential legal violations amid growing evidence that mortgage company employees or their lawyers signed documents in foreclosure cases without verifying the information in them. Also Friday, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he would hold a hearing on the issue next month.
"American families should not have to worry about losing their homes to sloppy bureaucratic mismanagement or fraud," Dodd said. "Regulators at the federal, state, and local levels have a responsibility to uphold the law and protect consumers from unfair foreclosure, and lenders have a duty to not cut corners around the law."
A document obtained last week by the Associated Press showed a Bank of America official acknowledging in a legal proceeding that she signed thousands of foreclosure documents a month and typically didn't read them. The official, Renee Hertzler, said in a February deposition that she signed 7,000 to 8,000 foreclosure documents a month.
Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged five large mortgage lenders to suspend foreclosures in Nevada until they have set up systems to make sure homeowners aren't "improperly directed into foreclosure proceedings." Nevada is not among the states where banks had suspended foreclosures.
Also Friday, PNC Financial Services Group Inc. said it is halting most foreclosures and evictions in 23 states for a month so it can review whether documents it submitted to courts complied with state laws. An official at the Pittsburgh-based bank confirmed the decision on Friday, which was reported earlier by the New York Times. The official requested anonymity because the decision hasn't been publicly announced.
PNC becomes the fourth major U.S. lender to halt some foreclosures amid evidence that mortgage company employees or their lawyers signed documents in foreclosure cases without verifying the information in them.
In addition to PNC and Bank of America, Ally Financial's GMAC Mortgage unit and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have announced similar moves in the past two weeks.
In some states, lenders can foreclose quickly on delinquent mortgage borrowers. By contrast, the 23 states use a lengthy court process. They require documents to verify information on the mortgage, including who owns it.