January 6th, 2008 9:11 AM by
By MARTIN C. BRICKETTO and MICHAEL DEAK STAFF WRITERS
Business is brisk these days at the Somerset County Sheriff's Office.
Though increased business is almost always considered good news, the rise in activity at the sheriff's office is a result of bad news --- a rise in the number of property foreclosures.
On Tuesday, 20 properties will be auctioned in sheriff's sales of properties in foreclosure proceedings, and more are planned for later this month.
Though he could not give exact numbers, Somerset Court Sheriff Frank Provenzano said the number of foreclosures increased by close to 500 in Somerset County from 2006 to 2007. In fact, business is so brisk that Provenzano plans on requesting extra money from the county freeholders to possibly hire more people to handle the increased number of foreclosures.
According to Realtytrac, a national clearinghouse of the real-estate industry, the numbers tell a sobering story:
While things may be getting tougher in the state, the numbers show that New Jersey was not hit as badly as other states by the sub-prime mortgage crisis and tightening credit. New Jersey ranked 16th in the country in the rate of foreclosures, while the list was topped by Nevada, Florida and Ohio.
And though the number of foreclosures has increased, they are still relatively rare. In Somerset County, for example, less than one half of 1 percent of all properties are in foreclosure.
Lee Caprarola, a sales manager with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Somerville, said thespike in foreclosures was widely scattered across different economic strata.
"It is a natural occurrence. Whatever you're doing, some number of foreclosures are going to occur, good times and bad, but it's many, many more now than in the past several years," Caprarola said.
Much of the trend was caused by people taking mortgages that they could not afford after payment adjustments, he said.
A slower-than-expected appreciation of their homes left them unable to bail themselves out through refinancing, Caprarola said. He also cited a general tightening of credit availability.
"There are people with equity in their homes who we could have done a loan two years ago that we can't anymore, and I don't mean just Wells Fargo -- I mean any lender," Caprarola said.
The number of foreclosures may continue climbing, Caprarola said, because many adjustable rate mortgages currently at low rates will be climbing this year by two or three percentage points.
"I'm sure that there will be many people scrambling to figure out how to pay, and some will figure it out and some won't," Caprarola said.
Caprarola said now is a great time to buy a home, especially if the prospective buyer isn't trying to sell a home and has available money and a good credit rating.
"Those are the people that are really going to clean out this inventory of either foreclosures or just regular resale homes," Caprarola said.
Karl von Loewe of Prudential New Jersey in Hillsborough said he hasn't seen substantially more foreclosed properties going back on to the real-estate market.
Generally, Somerset County has avoided the worst of the bad housing market, said von Loewe, the incoming president of the Somerset Hunterdon Association of Realtors.
"We've seen increases in inventories, a lot more homes on the market and fewer homes selling, but prices stabilizing at least in the aggregate," von Loewe said.
In Somerset County, the sheriff sales are held at 2 p.m. Tuesdays in the freeholders meeting room on the third floor of the County Administration Building.
A small group of regulars attends the auctions, Provenzano said. Most of the buyers are representatives of banks and mortgage companies that hold the loans and can obtain the property for a minimum bid of $100.
For example, on Nov. 27 U.S. Bank Association, the parent company of U.S. Bank, the sixth largest commercial bank in the United States, bought a 0.56-acre property on Wingate Way in Green Brook at a sheriff's sale for the minimum bid of $100.
U.S. Bank Association had a $982,225.81 mortgage on the property, which was bought in 1998 for $396,889 and was assessed in 2006 at $716,200 according to Gannett NJ figures.
To get clear title to the property, U.S. Bank Association must satisfy any liens on the property, plus back property taxes of $7,753.
On Nov. 7, Commerce Bank bought a one-acre property on Old York Road in Branchburg for $100. The single-family home was bought in 1995 for $235,000 and had a 2006 assessment of $513,700.
The defaulted loan from Commerce Bank was for $1,564,165.56.
After a bank or lender acquires the property, then it's usually put back on the market to recoup the cost.
Occasionally a contractor will bid on a property "if can they get a good buy," Provenzano said.
Martin C. Bricketto can be reached at (908) 707-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Deak can be reached at (908) 707-3134 0r email@example.com.