On the House: Anyone can have a hard time getting a mortgage these days

I'm never more than a couple of e-mails away from figuring out the current state of the real estate market.

Case in point: It must have been a year or so ago that the Treasury Department announced a plan to expedite short-sale transactions.

A short sale is one in which the lender is willing to accept less than the balance of the mortgage. For troubled borrowers, it seems like a better way than foreclosure to get out of a jam. For lenders, it's a way not to get stuck with yet another house they will have trouble selling.

Yet about six months ago, the California Association of Realtors - the largest state Realtor group, I believe - said that a poll of its members found that more than 70 percent were still having difficulty pulling off short sales.

A few days ago, Art Herling, regional vice president of Long & Foster Real Estate, confirmed that little had changed around here, as well.

"Here is why banks are in trouble," he said, and gave this example:

Five years ago, the lender on a house in Fort Washington talked the borrower into a cash-out refinance that raised his loan balance from $270,000 to $325,000. Three years ago, after the owner realized he couldn't afford it, the house was listed as a short sale for $289,900.

An agreement of sale came in at $250,000, but the bank never responded, so the sale fell through. The seller has not paid the mortgage or taxes for three years now.

Currently, there is an offer for the house for $192,000, but recent flooding knocked out the HVAC system, which will cost $10,000 to replace, and the buyer doesn't want the house without it. In the meantime, the mortgage payoff amount exceeds $400,000.

Lenders, it seems, don't discriminate in their treatment of the troubled and those who don't have financial woes.

Floyd Johnson, of Ambler, said he had been insulated for the most part from the effects of this economic "mess," so he did not anticipate his recent experience with the financial system.

He had some money to buy a house, and, given the lower prices and very low interest rates, it definitely seemed to be a time to do so.

"Finding a place to buy was no problem, getting a loan was another thing," he said.

When he first talked with his lender, he was told there would be no trouble getting the loan he wanted.

His credit score and list of assets "laid down a firm foundation for what I was told would be a routine approval process."

Johnson also told the lender that he could pay cash but preferred to take advantage of the low mortgage rates.

"To make a long and frustrating story short, I ended up paying cash," he said. "After jumping through all sorts of hoops and giving the lender everything they asked for, at the last minute and seven weeks after the process started they wanted a letter from my pension plan saying my guaranteed pension was good for at least three more years."

That's when, as Johnson put it, he told the lender, "You're fired!"

"I could have gotten the letter, but at that point I felt they would ask for even more and further jeopardize the purchase," he said.

In all his years of doing business and dealing with public and private organizations, he had never experienced "such a ridiculous, even absurd, undertaking," Johnson said. What should have been "a slam dunk was turned into a strikeout," and this from a bank where he had been a customer for 27 years.

The only good thing he can say was that the bank did reimburse the cost of the home appraisal - something he wouldn't have needed for a cash purchase.

Two e-mails away from the current state of the market?

"I now know firsthand how bad things are," Johnson said. "If someone like me can't get a loan, who can?"

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

"On the House" appears Sundays. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.