Homeowners are often worried that the foreclosure process will never end. The bank will sue them, publish their personal financial problems in the newspaper, take their home back, evict them, and then sue them again for any deficiency from auctioning the property. With the anticipation of a deficiency judgment, borrowers may feel like they will never be able to restart their lives and move on after foreclosure.
However, this is most often simply not the case. The potential for a deficiency judgment, while it exists, can be microscopically small. For a variety of reasons, banks do not pursue homeowners after foreclosure, even if there is a deficiency. As well, there are numerous state and local statutes and court decisions that place limits on how much money a bank can even obtain from this type of lawsuit.
First of all, many lenders decide not to sue for a deficiency judgment because they know that homeowners are unlikely to have any other assets with which to pay the debt. Most borrowers default on their home due to financial hardships such as a job loss or major medical expense. It is probably safe to assume that families in this position do not have the income or assets to pay a judgment for tens of thousands of dollars.
In many cases, the bank, in order to obtain such a judgment, will have to spend several hundred or thousand dollars out of its own pocket. Court fees must be paid if another lawsuit is to be brought into court, and attorney costs will be paid out of pocket by the bank to proceed with the deficiency lawsuit. After losing so much money from the foreclosure and auction of the home, banks most often cut their losses instead of look for a deficiency.
State statutes regarding deficiency judgments also come into play and can dramatically affect how much the bank is able to sue for or recover from the former homeowners. However, borrowers should also be aware that most anti-deficiency judgment statutes apply only to purchase-money mortgages, and second mortgages or refinances may not be affected by these particular laws.
In fact, some states have simply banned deficiency judgments against borrowers when the foreclosure was done nonjudicially through a power of sale clause in a deed of trust. Borrowers in these states can be completely safe from being sued after foreclosure. Although the nonjudicial process affords the fewest legal protections during the foreclosure, it may offer the best chance of avoiding being sued again after the auction.
Other states place restrictions on how much a lender can recover from a deficiency by limiting the amount of the judgment. This is done by giving borrowers a credit for the "fair value" of the property. The fair value is determined by figuring out what the property is actually worth, and this will most often be defined by the statute itself. It may not mean the sales price at auction or the market value of the home, so it is important to read to the state law on the issue.
Another restriction that has been placed on banks seeking deficiency judgments is strict time frames in which the judgment can be initiated. If banks were able to wait years before suing the former owners, it may be nearly impossible for the family to get on with its financial life. Instead of having borrowers live with the threat of a lawsuit, states have decided that deficiency judgment suits must be pursued almost immediately after foreclosure, or the opportunity to do so is eliminated.
Lenders may also have procedural restrictions placed on their ability to sue borrowers after foreclosure. In some cases, the bank may have to provide additional notices to the owners informing them of the intent to seek a deficiency judgment. As well, the bank may be required to seek a determination of deficiency in the original lawsuit, rather than bring a lawsuit seeking the judgment after the sheriff sale has been conducted.
Many of these restrictions may come into play at the same time, while banks will run into one after another in other foreclosures. These limitations and additional requirements, along with the likeliness of never being able to collect on the judgment, ensure that the majority of homeowners are safe from being sued for a deficiency. While it is not impossible to be sued by the bank, the legal hurdles to overcome in pursuing this lawsuit make it somewhat rare in the world of foreclosures.