There is always opportunity in the margins.  Unfortunately, margins tend to attract the marginal.

The latest water cooler rumbling to emerge from a recent tour group meeting centered on a purported professional short sale negotiation company.  Here in the Valley, short sale negotiation has become its own cottage industry in the past year and a half, and for good reason.  Most Realtors had never encountered a short sale before the recent woes in the market.  You can include me among those ranks.  As such, there has been great demand recently for third party professionals who know the drill and have contacts within the various institutions for expediting the process.  While the skill-set required to negotiate with the bank is really little more than gumption, persistence and know-how, the learning curve can be steep, and the time commitment impractical.  Many agents would rather enlist the help of a specialist to handle this critical portion of the transaction than practice on their first few short sale clients.  The stakes are too high for an erstwhile, but bumbling rube to fumble it all away.  For many of us, it just makes good, practical sense for all parties involved.

Now comes the “but.”

Back to the recent tour meeting of which I mentioned, the latest scuttlebutt is that at least one major short sale negotiation company is the focus of an open investigation.  It seems there is some question as to whether this outfit was utilizing fraudulent measures to cash in on a much grander scale than the stated fee of their services.  Nothing has been proven, and no charges have been filed to my knowledge (hence the glaring omission of the company name here), but the concern is that this company might have engaged in the “double escrowing” of the short sales they were hired to negotiate.  Plainly stated, upon receiving an offer that both buyer and seller had executed and forwarded to the negotiator to submit to the bank for review/approval, this company is thought to have tabled said offer and worked to negotiate an even lower sale of their own with the bank.  Once accepted, they would orchestrate the virtual simultaneous closings in which they bought the property from the bank and turned around and sold it to the buyers at the higher price.  Neither the buyer nor seller would ever know that there were actually two transactions taking place concurrently.

Of course, if the negotiation with the bank failed, the buyer and seller would simply be informed that the offer had been rejected … eventually.  Even though the bank never saw it.  The buyer wouldn’t be overly thrilled to learn of this, of course, but the seller is the one who really stands to lose in such a scenario.  He is the one with the imminent foreclosure and interminable credit limbo on the line while the entity hired to negotiate on his behalf plays Russian roulette with his financial well being.

So while nothing is proven in this instance as of yet, it serves as a consumer alert.  While I was careful in the selection of the professional I have enlisted to negotiate with the various banks on my sellers’ behalf, some might mistakenly believe that any fly-by-night company that has branded itself as a “short sale negotiation specialist” is reputable.  Just as you would exercise diligence and perform your own investigations in the selection of your Realtor, don’t let your guard down when settling upon the service enlisted to actually talk to the bank.  Find out how long they have been in operation.  Are there any complaints lodged with the Better Business Bureau (though some may be such neophytes that they haven’t been around long enough to incur complaints)?  How long has your specific negotiator been involved in either the Real Estate or banking industry prior to their current position?

Maybe I’m just jumping at shadows, but I can’t help but wonder if this is a niche that won’t prove to be populated by failed Realtors, loan officers, car salesmen, financial advisers, taxidermists, Maytag men and arthritic slow-pitch softball umpires in hindsight.  There are some good ones out there who are absolutely invaluable to the busy Realtor and desperate seller alike, but I am under no illusion that there aren’t more than a few soulless chasms of dollars and teeth hiding behind the polished veneer of a snappy tagline as well.

When dealing with a property that you are trying desperately to sell before the bank forecloses, the stakes are elevated to financial Thunderdome proportions.  If your short sale survives the fight, you will walk away with a limp (credit damage, possible tax ramification, etc), but at least you walk away.  A foreclosure will effectively kill your aspirations of future home ownership for the next 5 years.

Choose your weapon wisely.


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