Mortgage Giant Sells HQ at Big Loss

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On the short list of mortgage holders able to sell their property for the maximum amount, you’d likely pop the U.S. Mortgage Bankers Association up to the top of the list. But hold the phone — the Association just sold its Washington headquarters for a $38 million loss and potentially left a lot of its D.C. neighbors bitter in the process. The lessons the MBA learned — and there are many — can apply to home sellers across the country.

First things first. Discussing national mortgage industry powerhouses without mentioning the MBA is like discussing great gorilla movies without mentioning King Kong.

The Mortgage Bankers Association is the de facto face of the U.S. real estate finance industry. It includes 2,400 member companies, including mortgage firms, mortgage brokers, commercial banks, thrifts, life insurance companies and credit unions. The MBA’s board of directors is chock full of brand name banking executives, including higher-ups from big banks like JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) and KeyCorp (Stock Quote: KEY).

So you’d think such a seasoned group would cut a better real estate deal.

That’s where lesson number one comes in. What do you do when your property is underwater — meaning the loan value was greater than the property value? For the MBA, going underwater on the $79 million loan on its building just minutes from the White House led it to trigger a "short sale" for $41 million.

In other words, the MBA’s best move was selling the property for 55 cents on the dollar, according to estimates from the “Breaking Ground” blog at The Washington Business Journal.

The blog, penned by Journal reporter Jonathan O’Connell (no, we’re not related) points out the hypocrisy of the MBA, which has a track record of lecturing U.S. homeowners for running from troubled mortgages.

In the Dec. 17 The Wall Street Journal, John Courson, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association, has this to say on the subject of "strategic defaults" — i.e. owners walking away from mortgages because they owed more than their properties are worth.

“It’s not for me to judge morality,” he says. “You probably have a legal obligation.” But, Mr. Courson tells The Journal’s James R. Hagerty, defaults hurt neighborhoods by lowering property values and leaving homes abandoned and derelict. He says those considering a strategic default also should ask themselves this: “What about the message they will send to their family and their kids and their friends?”

OK, technically the MBA didn’t walk away from its mortgage — it just sold it at about half of its value, thus opening the association to charges from its neighboring property owners that it lowered property values. Plus, it still owes PNC Bank (Stock Quote: PNC) about $34 million from its original loan in 1979 (an MBA spokesperson is on record saying the association has worked out a deal with PNC).

The MBA also indicates that, in the future, it will be renting office space, and not buying it.

We don’t want to pile it on, but when a major U.S. mortgage institution touts its “investments ... that ensure the continued strength of the nation’s residential and commercial real estate market” and its efforts in "supporting financial literacy efforts” (both quotes from the MBA’s Web site), it’s tough not to call them on it.

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