Image: A lender-owned home for sale
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"It's difficult to get a good assessment of what the valuations would be in this type of market," said Global Insight economist Brian Bethune. "Everybody knows that there's some downward pressure, but how much? This whole appraisal process has become a lot more complicated."
updated 3/12/2008 6:37:28 PM ET 2008-03-12T22:37:28

If your neighbors have lost their homes, you could pay the price when you try to sell or refinance — even if your credit is good.

Neighbors matter when it comes to putting a price tag on homes. Appraisers use comparable sales data to calculate the value of a home, a number lenders require for selling and refinancing. And comparable sales in neighborhoods plagued by foreclosures knock down the value of homes.

The problem, which makes it much more difficult for borrowers to pull cash out of their homes, is another sign of how a sick housing market infects the entire economy, one neighborhood at a time. If borrowers are unable to refinance at lower rates, that could cause even more foreclosures, real estate experts say.

"The abundance of foreclosures has turned into a snowball effect," said Karen Mann, a San Francisco Bay area appraiser.

Mortgage brokers and appraisers in California, Florida and Nevada — states where inflated home prices have dropped the most — say more homeowners are stuck in this situation.

The number of U.S. homes facing foreclosure jumped 57 percent in January from a year earlier, and more than 230,000 homes nationwide received notices from lenders, according to Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac Inc. The highest foreclosure rates have been found in California, Florida and Nevada.

Far-flung suburbs popular with first-time buyers have been hit the hardest by the foreclosure drag. In Northern California, home buyers often stretched to buy homes they couldn't afford by borrowing as much as 100 percent of their home's value, Mann said.

Now, some of those homeowners are walking away from mortgages and turning properties over to their lenders.

In Wellington, Fla., an upscale area near West Palm Beach known for its polo and equestrian club, several houses sold last year for $720,000 to $780,000, down from a typical price of more than $1 million in recent years, said local mortgage broker Jim Sahnger. That puts nearby homeowners trying to refinance or sell in a bind, he said, because they owe more than their house is worth.

"Either you're coming ... to the table with money, or you're going to be unable to close," Sahnger said. "Not everybody has the resources to make that happen."

Appraisers commonly base their calculations based on property sales over the last six months within a half-mile radius of the property. But declining markets make that calculation difficult — especially if there are no recent completed sales and a large number of nearby foreclosed properties on the market.

"It's difficult to get a good assessment of what the valuations would be in this type of market," said Global Insight economist Brian Bethune. "Everybody knows that there's some downward pressure, but how much? This whole appraisal process has become a lot more complicated."

Foreclosure listings don't represent the true value of neighboring properties because they're often damaged goods, says Loreen Stuhr, a Las Vegas appraiser. "We see cases where, the homeowner, in frustration, has trashed the property before they left," she said.

A better approach, she said is to look at older sales of non-foreclosed properties, and make adjustments to take into account the market's decline — a drop in home values of up to 2 percent every month in Las Vegas.

In Southern California, the problem is acute in densely populated neighborhoods, particularly those with lot of condominiums, said Lou Pacific, a mortgage broker and real estate agent in Mission Viejo, Calif. Pacific said he is deluged with clients — at least 75 at the moment — trying to get out of this jam.

Many of these homeowners, he said, have "been living off the equity in their house for years." But, if the property was worth $800,000 a year ago, it's "lucky to be worth $450,000 today," he said.

Rita Bradley, a Southern California appraiser, makes no apologies. Appraisers, she said, are obligated to look at all the properties in the area, including bank-owned properties on the market. "Just because you can pull a sale from five months ago doesn't mean it's really indicative of what's happening in the neighborhood today," she said.

Consumer groups predicted that the wave of foreclosures would pull down property values and lower property tax revenue for state and local governments.

In a study of foreclosures in Chicago in the late 1990s, Georgia Tech associate professor Dan Immergluck found that each foreclosure on an urban block lowered property values by an average of nearly 1 percent, and about 1.4 percent in low-income neighborhoods.

But that real estate market was relatively healthy compared with today's housing market downturn.

"I would expect the effects to be much stronger," in the current real estate decline, Immergluck said. "In some neighborhoods and in some places now, those sales of foreclosed properties will become the dominant type of sale."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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