updated 2/11/2010 12:37:25 PM ET 2010-02-11T17:37:25

Citigroup Inc. plans to let homeowners on the verge of foreclosure stay in their homes for six months — if they turn over the deed to their property.

Citi said Thursday it is launching the pilot program, dubbed "Foreclosure Alternatives," this week in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio. Initially, about 1,000 homeowners are expected to participate. Citi may expand the program nationwide.

In a normal foreclosure, a lender assumes legal control of the property and evicts the homeowner. But Citi's program, like other "deed in lieu of foreclosure" efforts, allows the homeowner to avoid a completed foreclosure. While the owner must still leave the home after six months, the program results in a less severe hit to the borrower's credit score.

The policy is an attempt to deal with what lenders see as a growing phenomenon: borrowers who choose to default on their mortgages. Close to one in every three U.S. homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to Moody's Economy.com.

Many housing analysts say these borrowers — particularly those who owe at least 20 percent more than their home's current value — are choosing to walk away because they see little chance that home prices will come back.

Also, many states have lengthened the time it takes to complete a foreclosure, making the process more time-consuming and expensive for the lending industry.

"Why should we all go through the foreclosure process and evict people?" said Sanjiv Das, Citi's top mortgage executive. Avoiding foreclosure, Das said, is "less painful for our borrowers as well as for us."

Borrowers in Citi's program will still need to pay their utility bills. But Citi will pay at least $1,000 in relocation costs and will consider helping out with other expenses. Citi also plans to provide relocation counseling.

The program is intended to help borrowers who don't qualify for a mortgage modification or a short sale — one in which the lender agrees to sell a home for less than the total mortgage amount.

Citi's policy is similar to one announced in November by Fannie Mae, the government-controlled mortgage finance company. Fannie is allowing homeowners to hand back the deed to their properties, then rent them back at market rates.

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