Tax Credit Expiration Unlikely to Deter Homebuyers: Study


Original Post Date: April 28, 2010

By Brittany Dunn

Only time will tell how the residential real estate market will be affected by the expiration of the homebuyer tax credits, but a survey released Wednesday by Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, Inc., found that the sunset of these incentives is unlikely to deter future purchase activity.

While more than 90 percent of consumers surveyed said the tax credits have helped both first-time homebuyers and the U.S. housing market overall, 65 percent of consumers shopping for a home said the end of these credits will have little or no effect on their interest in purchasing a home.

Consumers are still unsure about the direction of the housing market, but the survey revealed that they are becoming more optimistic about real estate values, with 46 percent of respondents expecting real estate prices in their area to increase over the next year and just 12 percent predicting a decline. Over the next five years, 79 percent of those surveyed believe prices will increase, with 20 percent anticipating prices to increase substantially.

“The survey underscores the key role the federal homebuyer tax credits played in stimulating residential real estate market activity and the U.S. economy,” said

James Mallozzi, chairman and CEO of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services. “It also shows that most consumers believe the market has hit bottom and are more optimistic about the future.”

When identifying the most important factors affecting their decision to purchase a home, respondents cited concerns about rising mortgage interest rates and unemployment, along with more stringent lending criteria and fewer mortgage-backed securities purchased by the Federal Reserve. In fact, the expiration of the tax credits placed lowest on their list of concerns.

Among those who had recently purchased a home, 61 percent cited low mortgage interest rates as “very important” to their decisions – an amount greater than either the tax credit or low prices.

“The tax credits clearly helped stimulate the market when consumer confidence was low and housing inventory was high,” said Earl Lee, president of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services. “While the tax credit expiration is a concern for many, the bigger issues now are the availability and cost of financing as well as if they will have a job.”

The survey also found that the dream of homeownership and the perception that owning a home is a good investment remain intact. Among current renters, 75 percent still believe owning their home is a better long-term choice for their needs the renting. And the majority of consumers surveyed said that homeownership is a better investment than individual stocks or bonds, mutual funds, or savings accounts.

“While the market is picking up in terms of sales and confidence, and the majority still believe that owning a home is a good investment, the outlook for the market remains highly dependent upon the direction of the economy overall,” Lee said.

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Short Sales…A Breeding Ground for Fraud?


Original Post Date: April 23, 2010


With defaults continuing to mount and declining property values still widespread, the industry is seeing an increase in short sales. Such transactions are expected to burgeon even further now that the federal government has implemented its Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) program.

Under HAFA, servicers participating in the administration’s foreclosure prevention effort are required to consider a short sale for all homeowners that don’t qualify for a modification, and incentives are paid out to borrowers, servicers, and lien holders for successful short sales.

With the new policies and still-precarious market conditions, short sales are gaining in popularity among lenders and distressed homeowners alike, but as with any modus operandi that rapidly picks up steam, this proliferation can open the gate for fraudulent activity.

Experts say one area of the short sale process particularly vulnerable to fraud is property valuation. Bank-owned fraud attributed directly to schemes involving short sales and REO inventories has increased by 40 percent over the past year and has more than doubled from two years ago, according to market data from the California-based risk mitigation firm Interthinx.

The administration’s HAFA program allows broker price opinions (BPOs) to be used to determine the value of properties to establish a minimum offer for a short sale. Some industry groups claim the allowance of BPOs is likely to exacerbate the potential for fraud. They say that the real estate agents and brokers who perform BPOs have an inherent bias toward producing a fee for themselves, irrespective of ensuring a fair return for the lien holder or homeowner.

In response to these allegations, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) stressed that BPOs are completed by licensed real estate agents who have a detailed knowledge and understanding of real estate pricing and local market trends. The organization argues that BPOs are widely accepted in the industry because of their established

reliability and accuracy, and practitioners providing BPOs must adhere to a rigorous code of ethics and recognize their fiduciary responsibility to their clients.

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has described short-sale fraud schemes as “difficult to detect since the lender agrees to the transaction,” they are moving higher on the agency’s list of types of mortgage fraud to watch, with the number of cases mounting rapidly.

The FBI defines such fraud as: “Any material misstatement, misrepresentation, or omission relied upon by an underwriter or lender to fund, purchase, or insure a loan.”

Freddie Mac recently issued a notice to its servicers and real estate practitioners on what the GSE called an emerging fraud trend – short payoff, or short sale, fraud.

Short sale volume at Freddie Mac grew more than 1,000 percent from 2007 to 2009, and the GSE says this upward trend in volume leaves the market ripe for incidences of short payoff fraud.

According to a member of Freddie Mac’s Fraud Investigation Unit, any misrepresentation related to the buyer, a subsequent transaction at a higher price, or the seller’s hardship reason to qualify for a short sale constitutes fraud.

The GSE outlined several red flags that might suggest short sale fraud:

  • Sudden borrower default, with no prior delinquency history, and the borrower cannot adequately explain the sudden default.
  • The borrower is current on all other obligations.
  • The borrower’s financial information indicates conflicting spending, saving, and credit patterns that do not fit a delinquency profile.
  • The buyer of the property is an entity.
  • The purchase contract has an option clause to resell the property.

Treasury officials say they have already incorporated safeguards against fraud into HAFA. To participate in the program, borrowers and the licensed real estate agent who lists the property are required to sign a Short Sale Agreement (SSA) and sales contract attesting that the transaction is being conducted at arm’s length, meaning the property is not being sold to a relative.

In addition, buyers must agree not to resell, or “flip,” the home within 90 days of the closing date, and the lender/servicer must have an independent property valuation in hand that meets their pre-set net return requirement before agreeing to the short sale. Treasury officials say servicers should terminate the short sale agreement if any evidence of falsification or misrepresentation is discovered.

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U.S. Sales of previously owned homes rise 6.8% in March


By Alenjandro Lazo

Original Post Date: April 22, 2010 

Sales of previously owned U.S. homes jumped 6.8% in March, a national group said Thursday.

Real estate agents have been counting on a spring surge brought on by an expanded and extended federal tax credit for buyers. The March sales pace reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.35-million units, up from 5.01 million in February and 16.1% above the 4.61-million-unit pace in March 2009, according to the National Assn. of Realtors in Washington.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the group, said the federal tax credit that was to expire at the end of this month had been a “resounding success.”

Whether home sales will hold up after the expiration remains a question in debate.

“I’m fairly sanguine, frankly,” said Michael D. Larson, a housing and interest-rate analyst with Weiss Research. “While the credit expires April 30, more forces are at work here. Home prices are now reasonable in many parts of the country, and financing costs remain low.”

The national median home price was $170,700 last month, up 0.4% from the same month the prior year, the Realtors group said.

Regionally, sales of previously owned homes rose 6.6% in the West, 7.1% in the South, 7.2% in the Midwest and 6% in the East.

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2 O.C. cities enjoy Top 10 price gains


Original Post Date: April 26th, 2010, 12:01 am

By Marilyn Kalfus

Two Orange County cities — Newport Beach and Placentia — made it into the state’s Top 10 for median home price gains in March, the California Association of Realtors reports.

In Orange County:

  • The overall median price in March was $493,120, an increase of 10.9% from March 2009 and up 2.2% from  February.
  • Sales rose 14.9% from 2009, and were up 39.3% from February.
  • The county’s unsold inventory was at 6.5 months in March, compared with 8.5 months in February and 7.2 months in 2009.
  • Time that O.C. homes spent on the market: 55.6 days in March, compared with 58.3 days in February and 37.4 days in a year ago.

Also …

  • Newport Beach was also among the Top 10 cities in the state for median home prices in January, at $1,102,250.
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Fannie Offers Spur to Avoid Foreclosure



Original Post Date: April 26, 2010

Fannie Mae will make it easier for some struggling homeowners to buy houses in the future if they avoid foreclosure in the present.

Under rules released this month that will take effect in July, some troubled borrowers who give up their homes by voluntarily transferring ownership through a “deed in lieu of foreclosure” or by completing a short sale, where a home is sold for less than the amount owed, will be eligible in two years to apply for a new mortgage backed by Fannie.

Currently, borrowers who complete a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure must wait four years before they can take out a loan that Fannie is willing to purchase.

Foreclosed home in Las Vegas.

The new policies from Fannie, a government-backed mortgage-finance company that together with Freddie Mac backs about half of the U.S. mortgage market, don’t relax waiting periods for borrowers who go through foreclosure.

In 2008, Fannie lengthened that waiting period to five years from four.

To quality for the reduced waiting period, most borrowers will need to make a down payment of at least 20%, although borrowers with extenuating circumstances, such as a job loss, will be required to put down just 10%.

Even if waiting periods are shortened, many borrowers may be unlikely to repair their credit that quickly in order to get a loan in the first place. Foreclosures and short sales generally have the same effect on a borrower’s credit score and can stay on a credit report for up to seven years.

The new rules are designed to make foreclosure alternatives more attractive to borrowers at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up its effort to encourage banks to consider alternatives such as short sales. That program sets pre-approved terms for short sales and offers financial incentives to borrowers and lenders to complete such sales.

Freddie Mac requires borrowers to wait five years after a foreclosure and four years after a short sale or deed-in-lieu.

Those periods can fall to three years for a foreclosure or two years for a short sale when borrowers show extenuating circumstances.

Officials at the Federal Housing Administration, the government mortgage insurer, say they are considering changes to their rules, which require borrowers with a foreclosure to wait at least three years before becoming eligible for an FHA-backed loan.

“We are beginning to think about post-recession, how you address borrowers who became unemployed through no fault of their own … and now deserve the right to re-enter the housing-finance system,” said FHA Commissioner David Stevens.

But some worry that policies enabling defaulted borrowers to more quickly resume homeownership could encourage more people to default.

“We don’t want to say that there’s a ‘get out of jail’ card during recessions to walk away from your house,” Mr. Stevens said.

In December, the FHA unveiled rules for borrowers who completed a short sale.

Those who have missed payments prior to completing a short sale or who didn’t face a hardship and simply took advantage of declining market conditions to buy a new home must wait three years.

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How to Buy a Home at Auction



Original Post Date: April 26, 2010

Q. I am curious about buying a foreclosure home at auction. I don’t want to spend more than $500,000. What’s involved? Can you find a good deal at one?

–Columbia, Md.

A. You can pick up a deal at an auction—if you do a lot of sleuthing in advance, and can keep your emotions in check. But realize that seasoned investors often cherry-pick most of the best properties and try to make a deal with the owner before the property hits the courthouse steps. You should find a good buyer broker who’s experienced with foreclosures and do the same.

Still, some bargains do make it to the block. But before you bid on any, I suggest visiting a few sheriff’s sales to familiarize yourself with the process and players. You can find such sales listed in the classified section of your local newspaper. In Maryland, sale notices must be published in a newspaper for three successive weeks, with the last ad occurring no more than seven days prior to the sale. Or, you can subscribe for a fee to one of the numerous foreclosure Web sites like RealtyTrac, which currently lists 105 homes priced at less than $500,000 headed for sheriff sales in your area.

When you’ve targeted a few prospects, look up their addresses on Web sites like Zillow to see what home values are in the neighborhood; since you’ll have to pay more in costs and repairs than you would in a regular sale, you don’t want to pay more than 70% of market value. Although you probably won’t be able to get inside any of the properties, at least drive by to assess their conditions.

Check courthouse records to see what liens have been filed against these properties, and who has initiated the foreclosures. Usually, it’s the first lien holder, but not always, since in your state junior lien holders—with the exception of the tax lien holders—are wiped out in the sale. If a second lien holder is initiating the sale, you may have to pay off a whopping first lien, in addition to the auction price.

Understand that after all this research, the properties you want may never make it to the block. In Maryland, as in many other states, homeowners have up until one business day before the auction to stop the sale by paying all missed fees and mortgage payments.

If any of your target properties do get auctioned, set a firm limit to what you’ll bid on each home, and don’t let other bidders (who might even be straw men working for the sellers) push you beyond it. And if you’re successful, understand that you are buying the property “as is,” that you will be paying all closing costs, and that you won’t get the keys immediately. In Maryland, courts must ratify all sales, a process that takes at least a month. You’ll then be given an additional 30 days to settle and to start proceedings to evict the old owner, if necessary. Backing out of the deal at any point after the hammer comes down is possible but expensive: You’ll have to forfeit your deposit, and the property will be resold at your expense.

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On the Market: Short sales


By Michelle Hofmann

Original Post Date: April 17, 2010

There’s good news for thousands of California taxpayers who sell homes at a loss, a practice known as a short sale. A measure (SB 401) signed last week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger waives state taxes on mortgage debt forgiven in a foreclosure or short sale.

The federal liability waiver for mortgage debt relief is still in place, but the state waiver was set to expire at the end of 2008. The new state provision applies to mortgage debt forgiven by lenders during tax years 2007 to 2012.

Without the tax shelter, the difference between the mortgage debt and sale price on a short sale becomes taxable income. So a state earner making $65,000 who sold a home at a $100,000 loss would be responsible for taxable income of $165,000.

On April 5, the Obama administration expanded the existing Home Affordable Modification Program to include new federal guidelines and incentives for lenders and qualified borrowers. The new Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program helps eligible homeowners avoid foreclosure by providing options for short sales or deeds-in-lieu of foreclosure.

Borrowers are required to be owner-occupants of the principal residence, show financial hardship and have a first lien mortgage originated on or before Jan. 1, 2009 with a principal balance that does not exceed $729,750. In addition, the borrower’s total monthly mortgage payment must be greater than 31% of his or her monthly gross income.

Under the new HAFA program, borrowers can get up to $3,000 in relocation assistance. Service providers can get $1,500 for administrative and processing costs. Forgiven debt that does not exceed the debt used for acquisition, construction or rehabilitation of a principal residence is not taxed as income. (Make sure that you check these guidelines with a tax advisor or the IRS.)

If the home remains unsold despite a good-faith effort by the owner, the lender may accept a title transfer and release the borrower from the debt and further claims through a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. For more information about HAMP programs, visit Making Home or call (888) 995-4673.


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Mortgage Delinquencies Decline Again


By Ruth Simon 

Original Post Date: April 19, 2010

In another encouraging sign for the U.S. housing market, mortgage delinquencies fell in March for the second month in a row, according to new data.

The number of mortgage loans that were at least 30 days past due or in foreclosure declined 8.6% in March, according to LPS Applied Analytics, which tracks loan performance. The biggest slide came in loans that were 30 days past due. Such loans fell by a record 342,000 to roughly 1.45 million, a level not seen since spring 2008.

While the number of bank-owned homes rose, the total number of loans that are delinquent or in foreclosure has fallen by more than 647,000 since January, according to LPS. The estimates include loans that carry government backing, those packaged into securities or held by banks.

“We’re not out of the woods, but this appears to be a turning point,” said LPS Applied Analytics President Ted Jadlos. “This is the first time we’ve seen improvement across all stages of mortgage delinquency.” Still, he said, “we still have a long way to go.”

The drop in troubled loans comes amid other signs of improving consumer credit. The portion of credit cards that were at least 60 days past due fell to 2.67% on a seasonally adjusted basis at the end of March from 2.86% at the end of December, according to Equifax Inc. and Moody’s Delinquencies also fell for auto and other consumer loans.

There is still plenty of pain left in the mortgage sector. More than 320,000 loans that started the year current were at least 60 days past due at the end of March, according to LPS. More than 3.6 million homes will be lost from 2010 to 2012 because borrowers can’t make their loan payments, Moody’s estimates.

Among other reasons for caution, mortgage delinquencies typically fall in February and March as borrowers get their tax refunds, said Lou Tisler, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, which works with financially troubled homeowners. In the Cleveland area, foreclosure filings are on pace to equal the highs of 2008.

The number of borrowers seeking aid also continues to rise. At Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, foreclosure-prevention counseling sessions were up 4.7% through March compared with a year earlier. “We’re probably seeing, at mortgage-counseling programs across the country, 5,000 to 7,000 new people a week,” says Douglas Robinson, a spokesman for NeighborWorks America, which administers the government’s national foreclosure-mitigation-counseling program.

Some borrowers are being helped by the Obama administration’s foreclosure-prevention program and other modification efforts. Irma Bravo, the owner of a cleaning service in San Diego, recently received a loan workout that lowers the monthly payment on her $522,000 mortgage to $1,736 from nearly $5,000.

“It’s a big, big relief,” Ms. Bravo says.

Through March, more than 230,000 borrowers have received permanent modifications through the government program, according to the Treasury Department. It isn’t clear how many borrowers will remain current once their loan is modified.

But getting a loan workout remains difficult. “There are still a huge number of cases in the pipeline or on hold,” said Gabe del Rio, a senior vice president with Community HousingWorks in San Diego, which counsels borrowers facing foreclosure.


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Signs seen of a housing rebound in Southern California


By Alejandro Lazo

Original Post Date: April 14, 2010

Southern California’s housing market showed fresh signs of momentum in March with the median price and sales pace improving from the same month a year earlier as buyers hurried to take advantage of a soon-to-expire federal tax incentive, cheap prices and low interest rates.

The median price paid for new and previously occupied houses and condominiums in Southern California jumped 14% in March to $285,000 from the same month a year earlier, according to San Diego real estate research firm MDA DataQuick. The closely watched median — the price at which half the homes sold for more money and half for less — rose 3.6% from February.

In Orange County, the region’s priciest market, the median rose 12.2% to $432,000 as the number of foreclosure properties on the market sank and more homes in expensive neighborhoods were sold.

“There is no question that prices at the lower end of the market have stabilized and are showing some increases,” said Esmael Adibi, director of the Gary Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange. “While this is welcome news, the word of caution is people should not really see this as the values of homes changing. It is mostly the mix we are seeing change” as sales pick up in more expensive areas.

Defaults have increased in higher-priced neighborhoods, motivating some sellers to put their homes on the market in those areas, DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage said.

The overall jump in the region’s median reflects a rebound from the depths of the financial crisis a year ago, when fears of another Great Depression abounded and a glut of foreclosed homes hit battered markets such as the Southland. Those fears have receded, fewer foreclosures were in the region’s sales mix last month, and more homes in higher-priced coastal markets were sold, contributing to the price jump.

“It’s almost like a boom-year figure,” said Ed Leamer, director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast. “But the numbers over the last several years have been influenced by the number of bank-owned properties, and the banks were selling their homes at rock-bottom prices.”

Southern California’s sales pace also improved last month from March 2009, up 5%, but not as robustly as usual for a March, DataQuick said. A total of 20,476 houses were sold in March, up from 19,506 sold in the same month a year earlier, but that was about 18% off the historical average.

Expectations remain mixed about housing’s future as a series of government initiatives to bolster sales and stabilize values expire. Experts also remain concerned about a potential wave of foreclosures despite the Obama administration’s efforts to keep struggling borrowers in their homes.

Foreclosure sales accounted for 38.4% of the Southern California resale market in March, down from 42.3% in February and 54.8% in March 2009. Foreclosures as a percentage of Orange County’s resale market stood at 22.7% in March, the lowest of any Southland county and the lowest percentage since January 2008.

“Right now the question is not whether the housing market is in recovery. The real question is how sustainable that recovery is, and that is where the gray area resides,” said Christopher Thornberg, principal of Beacon Economics. “The market is being driven by government policy and not by fundamentals, and now the government is starting to back off.”

Last month the Federal Reserve ended its $1.25-trillion mortgage-bond-purchase program, and many economists expect interest rates to begin to rise as a result. The program, which has kept interest rates at rock-bottom levels, helped the Fed buy nearly all the mortgage bonds from housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, replacing most private investors.

Also, the Federal Housing Administration, which has stepped up its support of low-interest mortgages for first-time buyers, has tightened its lending standards.

At the end of this month, a federal tax-credit program for first-time buyers and for some current homeowners is scheduled to expire. The program provides as much as $8,000 to first-time buyers and as much as $6,500 to current homeowners.

Last month California lawmakers decided to add to the stimulus package and approved a credit of up to $10,000 for first-time home buyers and those buying newly built homes. The credit will take effect May 1.

Haydee Cuervo, 33, and her husband, Yuri, 34, are hoping to take advantage of those tax credits as they sell their home in Arleta and close on a property in Granada Hills. They bought their Arleta home in 2001 and have built equity despite the decline in home prices. With two daughters, ages 6 and 3, Haydee Cuervo said it was time to look for a house with a bigger backyard and on a quieter street.

“We want a big treehouse and a play area, and the place that we found has a really cool private backyard,” Cuervo said. “The new house was not only a better location for us, but it was kind of what we wanted for our girls.”


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California Legislature approves tax break for people in foreclosures, short sales


By Patrick McGreevy

Original Post Date: April 9, 2010

Reporting from Sacramento

Thousands of Californians whose homes were foreclosed on or sold at a loss would get tax relief under a measure approved Thursday by the state Legislature.

The bill would waive state taxes on mortgage debt that has been forgiven in a foreclosure or short sale. It is expected to affect about 34,000 taxpayers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would sign the measure, which would also provide about $60 million in tax credits to green-energy companies, when it reached his desk. Californians can already claim the tax breaks on federal returns. Lawmakers passed the measure in time for people to take advantage of it by the April 15 deadline for filing tax returns.

“The mortgage-debt tax relief provision in this bill will provide financial shelter for tens of thousands of Californians who have lost their hopes and dreams in the housing market crash, and it’s about time we gave these folks a helping hand,” said state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).

The short-sale provision would mean about $34 million less in tax revenue for the state over three years, according to the Franchise Tax Board.

The “green” credits are a response to the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides grants to firms for power plants that produce renewable energy. The federal government does not tax the grant money. Under the bill approved Thursday, California would provide similar relief.

Other parts of the measure, SB 401 by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), were called tax increases by Republicans. Even though they supported the tax-relief element, several GOP members of the Senate and Assembly voted against the bill, which was opposed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

The Republicans objected to a provision that would reduce deductions for charitable gifts, and to changes that would allow the state to tax more income earned by minor dependents.

The changes would also make it harder to qualify a home as a principal residence for purposes of escaping capital gains taxes when the property is sold, and some penalties and interest charges to corporations would be increased, according to Therese M. Twomey, a principal consultant for the Senate Republican Policy Office.

These changes would bring in more than $10 million in new revenue over five years, Twomey said.

“It’s an issue of fairness,” said Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster). “You are giving money to one group of people and taking it away from another group of people.”

With the plunge in the real estate market, many Californians have found themselves owing much more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Some have been foreclosed upon or asked their lender to approve a short sale, in which a home is sold for less than the debt, some of which is waived.

The amount waived has been considered taxable income under California law. The measure passed Thursday would eliminate that tax when a bank agrees to accept less than what is owed on a home.

The governor vetoed a similar bill last month because it included a provision, since removed, that would have increased penalties against businesses and wealthy individuals who abuse tax credits.

Business groups including the California Chamber of Commerce and Western States Petroleum Assn. complained that the provision would have made businesses reluctant to claim the tax breaks for fear of making a costly error. The businesses also said California’s tax penalties were already tougher than those in other states.

Wolk said the penalties would not have applied to honest mistakes.

The new measure would lift a great burden from the shoulders of Valarie Wood and her husband, who were facing a $10,000 state tax bill on debt that was forgiven in a short sale of their property in Ventura.

The 10-acre property, which included an avocado grove, had plummeted in value far below what they owed.

Health problems and a “mortgage gone awry” forced the couple to renegotiate their loan with their bank, which agreed to waive about $300,000 of debt on the house and property, Wood said.

“We’ve lost our dream home. We are in our 60s, and it was going to be our retirement,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “This bill is crucial for people like us. We are extremely relieved.”

Schwarzenegger said during a news conference Thursday that he wants to give homeowners and businesses “the relief they need.”

“We want to be helpful in every way we can, so we will sign it,” he said.

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