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Foreclosure sales in limbo over title issue

Expected ruling may complicate transactions

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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A court decision expected as soon as today could negate the validity of sales of thousands of foreclosed homes in Massachusetts, causing havoc for buyers and sellers and further stalling the housing market’s recovery in hard-hit areas.

At issue is proof of ownership at the time of a foreclosure sale. During the housing boom, millions of mortgages were bundled into bonds and sold to investors, a process that resulted in lengthy and twisted paper trails that can obscure ownership. Many lenders believed they could complete foreclosure transactions and later produce formal proof they held the mortgage.

That changed in March when Justice Keith C. Long of Massachusetts Land Court found that two foreclosures in Springfield were invalid because ownership of the mortgages was not clear at the time of the foreclosures.

Long’s ruling, which came as a shock to many who deal with distressed properties, called into question the ownership of hundreds if not thousands of foreclosed homes in Massachusetts, prompting some lenders to delay sales out of fear they could later be voided, title companies to balk at insuring them, and nonprofits to steer away from certain foreclosed homes altogether.

“There are thousands and thousands of titles that have gone through foreclosures with these late filed’’ ownership records, said Lawrence Scofield, an attorney with Ablitt Law Offices in Woburn, who represented plaintiffs in three consolidated Springfield cases ruled on by Long. “Judge Long is saying you don’t really own it. That is the real, overwhelming, economic effect.’’

Two of the plaintiffs asked Long to reconsider the ruling, and a decision is imminent.

Among those watching the case are Boston city officials, who say they hope Long will clarify title issues for homes that have already gone into foreclosure. In the meantime, the judge’s actions have stymied the city’s effort to buy as many as 20 bank-owned properties, hurting much-needed redevelopment efforts in neighborhoods plagued by foreclosure, officials said.

“It has put some properties in the state of limbo,’’ said Evelyn Friedman, director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development.

While title issues can affect any home sale, Long’s ruling addressed procedures required under foreclosure law and therefore only affects properties foreclosed on by a lender. His decision builds on a growing national movement among housing advocates, courts, and some lawmakers to push lenders dealing with foreclosed properties to produce accurate documentation before deals are consummated.

Kathleen Engel, professor of law at Suffolk University, said the federal government should step in to help states deal with “toxic titles’’ that are clogging up the system from California to Florida. She said until recently few people were scrutinizing paperwork of foreclosing lenders, whose actions are causing problems for borrowers, investors, and municipalities. No matter how Long rules, she said, the problem isn’t going away.

“The fundamental problem is the paperwork was really shoddy,’’ said Engel. “The mess was created by Wall Street.’’

Locally, the Massachusetts decision has pitted advocates trying to revive neighborhoods against others trying to help homeowners stave off foreclosures.

Gary Klein, a consumer law attorney who filed a friend of the court brief in the case, said the real estate system placed “expedience and convenience’’ before the law. Providing home buyers with a “full set of procedural protections,’’ he said, is more important than comforting lenders who ignored the law. He said the lending community created the mess and it needs to fix it.

Klein said there is a benefit to the ruling for homeowners in trouble: It is slowing the foreclosure process, allowing them more time to try to save their homes. Indeed, since March, the number of foreclosure deeds has slowed, according to Warren Group, a Boston company that provides real estate data.

“There are probably at least a thousand families who are getting at least some period of temporary delay while lenders go back and get a proper paper trail,’’ said Klein, an attorney with the Boston-based law firm Roddy, Klein and Ryan. “Slowing foreclosures down allows people to get loan modifications and other relief.’’

The Springfield lawsuit was filed not by homeowners seeking to regain their houses, but by the foreclosing lenders who were trying to remove a “cloud from the title’’ of properties created because of where the lenders chose to publish foreclosure auction notices. A secondary issue was whether the notices - which did not officially name the mortgage holders - complied with the law, and that is what Long is concerned about.

The Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts, a statewide group with 3,000 members, joined the plaintiff’s attorney to ask the court to reconsider its ruling. Attorney Christopher Pitt, chair of the group’s Title Standards Committee, said many banks already have changed their procedures as a result of the March decision and are now coming to foreclosure-sale closings with completed paperwork.

But that doesn’t help people who already bought a foreclosed property from a bank.

“If a property has one of those arguably defective foreclosures in its back title, right now you may not be able to refinance or sell it,’’ said Pitt, who works for the law firm Robinson & Cole, which has an office in Boston.

In Springfield, the ruling scuttled purchases of two foreclosed properties in depressed areas, said Rudy Perkins, a staff lawyer with HAPHousing, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing. As a result, Perkins said, the agency now steers clear of properties with similar title questions.

“There is a danger that if this can’t be resolved, those properties will stay boarded up,’’ said Perkins. “It killed the deals and, unfortunately, it is going to kill deals on other properties.’’

In North Andover, real estate agent Linda Kody said some banks have moved to redo a foreclosure rather than wait for Long’s decision. Others are not moving forward with foreclosures. Twelve pending sales in her office have collapsed recently, Kody said, and another 25 bank-owned property listings are on hold as lenders wait for a ruling.

“It is very upsetting,’’ said Kody, president of the real estate firm Kody & Co. Inc.

Biju Kachappilly, a father of two, is one of the many hopeful buyers awaiting the decision. Kachappilly said his pending purchase of a four-bedroom, $400,000 Colonial in Tyngsborough in April fell through over questions about the title. He still hopes to buy the home, but in the meantime is paying higher rent on a month-to-month apartment in Billerica after notifying the landlord of his plans to move.

“We are trying to buy a house and move our family there; it is good for the neighborhood and it is good for the town,’’ said Kachappilly. “Many families and houses are in limbo because of this decision.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.