What is a Short Sale and How Does It Work

Most short sales arise when a seller owes more on their house than they can sell it for (upside down). The owner of the home then attempts to make an arrangement with their lender to sell the house for less than is owed.

The term "arrangement" was used in the definition and is intentionally broad because the arrangement depends on the bank that holds the loan. Though there are general practices, every bank does it differently. This article will give you the most common arrangements, but if you take part in a short sale, it's crucial you assume nothing until you have the bank's policies in writing.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. This is not some dream come true alternative to foreclosure where the money you owe magically disappears. The deficiency will be accounted for. The deficiency can be 100% loaned to the seller in the form of a promissory note, which they then must repay. It is a cumbersome process. If you are entering into a short sale as a buyer or seller, don't expect it to go as quickly as any other sale. There's a lot of "back and forth". The employees of the lender that are negotiating the sale ARE NOT there for the benefit of the seller. Their only goal is to collect as much money possible for the lender and they will use whatever means necessary. You can be sure they will misrepresent their own policies and flat out LIE to the seller in order to intimidate and scare them into paying more money. If you think I'm exaggerating, the joke will be on you.

Different banks have different policies. The best case scenario is to get a bank that actually "writes off" the deficiency. All that happens here is that the seller has some minor derogatory credit reporting, but doesn't actually owe the bank any more money. This credit reporting can consist of anything from "creditor settled for less than the amount due" all the way to "foreclosed."

Some banks are stupid enough to require that the deficiency be paid at closing. Think about it. This does no good because it's the same thing as the seller selling their house without doing a short sale and simply bringing cash to the table. If a bank tells a seller they need to bring cash to the table in a short sale, they are either idiotic, or more likely LYING.

In cases where the money is "written off" it's important to understand that the lenders will never actually "write something off." In most states (I don't know the law in every state), the lender has the ability to show any deficiency as 1099 income for the seller. All this really means is that the seller has to pay taxes on that income.

Another way that the deficiency can be written off is in the form of a judgment. This will often occur in conjunction with the 1099 reporting. It might say something on the seller's credit report such as "judgment filed against John Doe in the amount of $xx,xxx by ABC lender." This will appear in the "public record" section of the seller's credit report for 10 years (7 years is only for late payments, 10 years for public record info.) It can either show up as satisfied or unsatisfied. Satisfied is obviously better because it means that the worst thing that can happen is that the lender will report 1099 income.

Unsatisfied could be a problem, because it means that a court has found in favor of the lender to collect the deficiency from you. Now they still might simply do the 1099 thing, or they might try to collect it from you. They can keep trying to collect it from you until they get it. They can garnish your wages. Your only hope then is that you qualify for a chapter 7 bankruptcy.

This brings up an important note. NEVER EVER ASSUME THAT A DEBT THAT YOU OWE A LENDER IS GONE UNLESS YOU HAVE THE DETAILS OF THE RELEASE OF THAT DEBT IN WRITING. For instance, someone who had done a short sale had a first and a second loan. The bank agreed to the short sale, which ended up being enough to pay off the first loan, but not the second. The seller had assumed that because the bank agreed to the short sale that they wouldn't have to worry about the deficiency from the second mortgage. Now they are surprised that they are being pursued for the deficiency. REMEMBER, the lender(s) will always want ALL their money accounted for somehow. NEVER assume something is written off unless you have a formal, signed, written, unconditional release of lien and/or judgment from the lender specifically stating that no further action to collect this debt will be taken.

A final note on how the short sale can come about... Most banks will not agree to a short sale in writing until you have a formal offer. You can simply call your bank and ask them if you could do a short sale at a certain price and they might say "sure, no problem, we'd be happy to facilitate that offer." BEWARE. That doesn't mean a thing. Before your short sale is APPROVED, you'll have to submit an application, hardship letter, financial statements, tax returns, pay stubs, the purchase agreement from the buyer, a HUD statement from the pending transaction, payoff letters from all lenders involved, and several other things depending on the lender.