If you go through a foreclosure in New Jersey, the foreclosure auction could result in a deficiency. (When the foreclosure sale price doesn't cover the balance of the borrower's mortgage debt, the difference between the total debt and the sale price is called a "deficiency.")
In most states, including New Jersey, if a foreclosure sale results in a deficiency, the lender may get a "deficiency judgment" (a personal judgment) against the borrower for the deficiency amount. But in New Jersey, the lender must seek a deficiency judgment in a separate action within a limited amount of time after the foreclosure and, if the lender does seek one, the court can limit the judgment amount if you dispute it.
If you default on your mortgage loan, the lender can go through a specific legal process called "foreclosure" to sell your home to repay the outstanding debt. After the lender fulfills all of the legal requirements for foreclosure, the final step in a judicial or nonjudicial foreclosure is the foreclosure sale, where the home is sold to a new owner at a public auction.
The foreclosing lender submits the first bid at the sale, which is a "credit bid." With a credit bid, the lender gets a credit in the amount of the borrower's debt. The lender can bid up to the total amount of the debt, including foreclosure fees and costs, or it might bid less. Most of the time, the lender makes the highest bid at the sale and becomes the new owner of the property because no one else bids. If the lender buys the property at the sale and gets title to the home, the property is considered "real estate owned" (REO).
Lenders regularly bid less than the total amount of a borrower's mortgage debt at foreclosure sales.
When the lender gains ownership of a property through the foreclosure process, and if state law allows it, the lender can seek a personal judgment against the borrower to recover the deficiency, if one exists. This kind of money judgment is called a "deficiency judgment." In some states, the lender may ask for a deficiency judgment as part of a judicial foreclosure process. In other states, the lender has to file a separate lawsuit against the borrower after the foreclosure to get a deficiency judgment.
But if the sale price is equal to, or more than, the mortgage debt amount, you're off the hook because no deficiency exists—even if the lender can't resell the property for the same amount after the foreclosure sale. In fact, if the sale results in excess proceeds, you might be entitled to that extra money following the foreclosure auction. But, if any junior liens were on the home, like a second mortgage or HELOC, or if a creditor recorded a judgment lien against the property, those parties get the funds to satisfy the amount they're owed. Then, any proceeds left over after paying off these liens belong to the foreclosed homeowner.
State law sometimes imposes limits on deficiency judgments. Some states restrict deficiency judgment amounts, such as by requiring that the borrower get credit for the home's fair market value if the foreclosure sale price is less. That is, the property's fair market value is substituted for the foreclosure sale price when calculating the deficiency amount.
Other states limit set time limits for how long lenders get to seek a deficiency judgment against a borrower, typically ranging from three months to one year after the foreclosure sale. And various states require specific procedural requirements to get a deficiency judgment, while specific some don't allow deficiency judgments in certain circumstances, like after nonjudicial foreclosures.
Generally, once a lender gets a deficiency judgment, it may collect this amount (in the example above, $50,000) from the borrower using regular collection methods, like garnishing wages or levying a bank account.
Even if your lender gets a deficiency judgment, you can probably eliminate your liability for a deficiency judgment, like many other dischargeable debts, in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Even if your lender has the right under state law to go after you for a deficiency judgment, it might decide not to do so—especially if you don't have many assets to satisfy the judgment. The lender might decide it isn't worth the expense and effort of getting a deficiency judgment.
Still, you should know whether your lender can potentially pursue you for a deficiency after a foreclosure. Also, even if the lender decides not to sue you for a deficiency judgment, it could later sell the debt to a debt buyer who might file a lawsuit against you for the deficiency later on.
To get a deficiency judgment against you, the lender must first foreclose. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:50-2). Foreclosures in New Jersey are judicial, which means the lender must foreclose through the state court system.
To begin the foreclosure, the lender files a lawsuit (a "complaint") against you. If you don't answer the suit, the lender will ask the court for, and probably receive, a default judgment, which will allow it to hold a foreclosure sale. But if you choose to respond to the foreclosure lawsuit, the case will go through the litigation process. The lender might then ask the court to grant summary judgment. A summary judgment motion asks that the court grant judgment in favor of the lender because there's no dispute about the critical aspects of the case. If the court grants summary judgment for the lender—or you lose at trial—the judge will enter a judgment and order your home sold at auction. After the foreclosure, if the sale fails to bring in enough money to pay off the debt, the lender may file a separate lawsuit against you to get a deficiency judgment.
To get a deficiency judgment after a New Jersey foreclosure, the lender must file its separate lawsuit within three months from the foreclosure sale date or, if confirmation of the sale is required, from the date of the confirmation of the sale. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:50-1 through 2A:50-2.1). This three-month period basically acts as a statute of limitations. If the lender doesn't file a suit for a deficiency judgment by the deadline, you have a defense.
If you think the home sold at the foreclosure sale for less than its fair market value, you may dispute the amount of the deficiency by answering the lender's suit and introducing evidence regarding the property's fair market value. The court will then determine the home's value and limit the deficiency judgment to the difference between the debt and the fair market value as of the foreclosure sale date. (Or, the parties to the suit may agree to hire three appraisers, and the court will accept their determination about the home's fair market value.) (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:50-3).
But filing an answer to dispute the amount of the deficiency has a downside: Generally, if the lender gets a deficiency judgment, you get six months after the judgment to bring an action to redeem the property. But if you dispute the amount of the deficiency, you lose this right of redemption. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:50-4, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:50-5).
Generally, when a senior lienholder forecloses, any junior liens—like second mortgages and HELOCs, among others—are also foreclosed, and those junior lienholders lose their security interest in the real estate. In this situation, junior lienholders are sometimes called "sold-out junior lienholders." But that doesn't mean that you don't still owe money to junior lienholders.
Suppose a junior lienholder, like a second mortgage lender, is sold out in this manner, and the foreclosure sale proceeds weren't sufficient to pay what you owe to that junior lienholder. In that case, the junior lienholder could sue you personally on the loan's promissory note. So, if the equity in your home doesn't cover second and third mortgages, for example, you might face lawsuits from those lenders to collect the balance of those loans.
If you have questions about New Jersey's foreclosure process or want to learn about potential defenses to a foreclosure and possibly fight the foreclosure in court, consider talking to a foreclosure attorney.
It's also a good idea to talk to a HUD-approved housing counselor if you want to learn about different loss mitigation options. You can use the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Find a Counselor tool to get a list of HUD-approved housing counseling agencies in your area. You can also call the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HOPE) Hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 888-995-HOPE (4673).