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Can a Bank File a Deficiency Judgment After a Foreclosure or Short Sale?

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hand seizing a house made from hundred dollar bills

Foreclosures and short sales can result in a deficiency judgment.

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Question: Can a Bank File a Deficiency Judgment After a Foreclosure or Short Sale?
A reader asks: "We completed a short sale, in southern CA, with a first mortgage and second (line of credit). The sale closed with the first lender getting $360,000 of the $402,000 owed, and the second getting $1,000 of $148,000 owed. Six months later, the second mortgage company's debt collector called demanding that we settle for an amount of $60,000 on the $148,000 balance once owed. Can the bank file a deficiency judgment against us after a short sale?"
Answer: Deficiency judgments sometimes pop up after a foreclosure or short sale. That's because many sellers don't obtain legal or tax advice in advance, so the deficiency judgment comes as a surprise. Moreover, deficiency judgments are a complicated process to understand.

Promissory Notes and Mortgages

Contrary to what people think, deficiency judgments stem from the fact a borrower defaulted on a promissory note, not the mortgage. A promissory note is a promise to pay. It can also provide for personal liability, depending on your state laws. Personal liability means the lender can come after your assets if you do not make your payments.

A promissory note is secured by either a trust deed or a mortgage, depending on the financing instrument each state uses. Typically, the mortgage or trust deed is recorded in the public records where the property is located, which gives the public constructive notice that the home has a lien against it.

Foreclosure

If the promissory note is not paid as agreed, the beneficiary has the right to foreclose upon the property, because the property is the security for the promissory note.

If the borrower does not bring the payments current or pay off the existing loan(s) during the foreclosure period, the home will go to auction. If the home sells for more than the amount that is owed, there is no deficiency; however, that rarely happens. Generally it sells for less.

Banks get the home in foreclosure when nobody bids enough to pay off the bank. The bank also has a right to sell the home for less to the highest bidder at the auction, but generally banks prefer to sell to a private party after the foreclosure, hoping to get more money on the open market.

Short Sales

While the home is pending foreclosure proceedings, sometimes banks will agree to cut their losses. They do a short sale by accepting less than the amount that is owed.

The home seller hires a real estate agent to find a buyer for the short sale. The buyer makes an offer and, if the bank accepts it, the home is sold at a loss to the bank.

Deficiency Judgments

A deficiency is the difference between the principal balance due and the amount received, providing the amount received is less than the amount owed.

Whether the bank can pursue a deficiency judgment after a foreclosure or short sale depends in part on whether the promissory note makes the seller personally liable for the debt. Some states allow for personal liability.

Deficiency Judgments in California

The good news for California borrowers is all purchase-money loans on a one- to four-unit residential dwelling are exempt from deficiency judgments.

Hard-money loans in California -- loans taken out after the home was purchased through a refinance or second mortgage -- can be subject to a deficiency judgment under the following conditions:

  • The lender forecloses under judicial proceedings (California Code Civil. Proc. § 726).
  • Most lenders foreclose through a trustee's sale; however, which does not give the lender the right to pursue a deficiency judgment, with one exception (see second hard-money second mortgages below).
  • A three-month time limit applies to actions for deficiency judgments under a judicial foreclosure.
  • If the second mortgage is hard money and the lender has lost security for that loan through a foreclosure or short sale -- making the security for the promissory note worth nothing -- the beneficiary of that second mortgage can pursue a deficiency judgment (Roseleaf Corp. v. Chierighino, 59 Cal. 2d 35 (1963).
  • SB 931, effective Jan. 1, 2011, offers deficiency protection to California short sale sellers if the loan is in first position. It does not apply to foreclosures.

Negotiating Collection

Some hard-money lenders sell the promissory note to an investor after a foreclosure for pennies on the dollar. Then, the investor will attempt to collect the debt.

Even though a lender may have accepted, say, $1,000 for a $100,000 second mortgage through a short sale, the security for that hard-money second is released but the promissory note may not be. A short sale seller such as our reader might believe the ordeal is over, until one day he receives a phone call, asking for repayment.

  • Realize that the lender most likely will negotiate for a discounted payoff.
  • The lender may ask for a new promissory note to replace the old promissory note. In that event, make sure the lender sends a "paid in full" promissory note.
  • If the lender has already sold the note, the discount may be greater.
  • Not all hard-money promissory notes must be paid in cash. Some lenders will accept payments.
  • If the lender directs payments to another entity, realize that the note may have been sold at less than its face value, and that new lender may accept an even lower amount as payment in full.
  • After the note is paid in its entirety, ask the lender to return the promissory note marked "paid in full."

I am not licensed to give legal advice and provide this information for general information purposes. If you desire legal advice or more information, please contact a real estate lawyer.

Source: California Association of Realtors

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, DRE # 00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.

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