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U.S. auctions help reduce backlog of foreclosures

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For $6,000 US, Wanda Smith bought her dream home in the country.

It might not have been much to look at - the mobile home on a quarter acre of Georgia brush had been vacant for some time and exposed to the elements through broken windows and a leaky roof.

The last owner was foreclosed on, and left in a hurry. The trailer was littered with forgotten items - a child's doll was on the kitchen counter beside a Mars Attacks DVD. A pair of dirty jeans lay in a heap at the back door.

But none of that mattered to Smith as she raised her hand to bid on the property at a recent real estate auction in Macon, Ga., about 135 kilometres south of Atlanta. Less than 10 years ago it was worth close to $25,000, and she has rented around the corner for years. The persistent crowing of roosters won't catch her by surprise, nor will the hole in the middle of the bedroom floor.

"I'm going to make it a home," she said after the auction, her eyes wide with surprise that she had managed to place the winning bid. "It will be my own."

The small auction is one of thousands taking place each month across the United States as foreclosures continue to happen at a record pace and banks scramble to sell properties at any price to help rebuild their balance sheets.

The sales are helping to clear a backlog of inventory, albeit at a glacial pace, and are also making it possible for those who couldn't afford a property through the boom years to settle comfortably into a new home while interest rates are low and houses are relatively inexpensive.

It's just one way the U.S. housing market is struggling to rebuild after a momentous crash that has many properties selling for as little as 50 percent of the lofty prices they fetched only three years ago. And some for even less.

"These banks aren't asking me to sell these properties for a lot of money," said John Dixon of John Dixon and Associates. "They are asking us to sell them so they can get on with other lending."

Although he has sold thousands of houses for the banks over the years, there's no risk of running out of work to do. A report from the Centre for Responsible Lending said that at least 2.7 million mortgages issued between 2004 and 2008, or 6 percent of all mortgages issued in that time, have ended in foreclosure. Another four million are heading that way in the next two years.

"The nation is not even halfway through the foreclosure crisis," says the report, which analyzed 27 million mortgages made over the five years.

The auction that made a homeowner of Smith featured six houses, all of them within a one-hour drive of Macon. About 50 people gathered in a small room at the back of a convention centre, with a few more on the line to place bids over the phone.

The auction itself is as much about theatre as it is about commerce. Over two hours, auctioneer (and Dixon's son) Drew Dixon worked as hard at entertaining the bidders as he did at driving up the bids. A dozen staff members circulated through the stuffy room, making eye contact with bidders and locking in on anyone who wanted in on the action.

Once a bidder is identified, a staffer will stand beside them and maintain constant eye contact. The employee's role is to theatrically shout when the bidder decides to keep going, and each has their own signature move. If you take your eye off them for a moment, you could lose your property.

"What? It's over?" one man complained as the auction ended on a piece of commercial property outside the city that he wanted to develop. "I had at least another $50,000 left to go."

The houses sold for as little as 20 percent of the prerecession highs. Commercial buildings retained about half their value, while the valuation on building lots varied wildly depending on neighbourhood.

"For those prices, you may as well buy something to give away as a Christmas present," Drew Dixon said.

T.D. Brantley has something like that in mind. The retired plumber trolls regional auctions looking for deals, and at the Macon auction picked up two fixer-uppers for a combined total less than $30,000.

The houses are in rough shape, any copper has been stripped out long ago and the previous owners had no incentive to leave the properties in decent shape. But he will fix them and then step in where the banks won't - it's a formula he's repeated dozens of times.

"I'll sell them to people," Brantley said. "I'm the bank, I provide the financing. They give me a down payment, they pay me monthly payments. The house is paid back in a few months, and if they miss a payment then they are out. Either way, I'll end up ahead."

So will John Dixon And Associates. The auctioneers have been selling houses for more than 30 years, said long-time staffer Jack Napier. The process works in any economy - in good times the buyers line up to get the best prices. Lately, buyers are harder to find and sellers are lining up to get their properties listed.

"The sellers will take what they can get. It has to be worse than the Depression, how could it not be," he said, minutes before the no-reserve auction began. "I've never seen anything this bad, though. But still, every one of our properties will go."

Facing foreclosure

The number of homes facing foreclosure and eventual auction in the United States hit a nine-month high in November, according to tracking firm RealtyTrac Inc.

• Banks planned to offer 96,540 U.S. homes last month, up 13 percent from October, RealtyTrac said. That's 17 percent fewer than last year at the same time.

• There were large monthly increases in California and Washington, up 63 and 56 percent respectively.

• Banks are likely to repossess 810,000 homes this year, down from more than one million last year.

At the end of September, 10.7 million, or 22.1 percent of all U.S. homes with a mortgage, were underwater, according to CoreLogic, meaning the owner has more debt on the property than the current market value. An additional 2.4 million borrowers had less than 5 percent equity in their homes, the firm said.

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