Deficiency Judgments After Foreclosure in Washington

Can your lender get a deficiency judgment against you after a foreclosure in Washington?

By , Attorney

If you go through a foreclosure in Washington, the foreclosure sale 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 some states, if a foreclosure sale results in a deficiency, the lender may get a "deficiency judgment" against the borrower for the deficiency amount. But Washington law usually prevents the lender from pursuing a deficiency judgment against a foreclosed homeowner, so most people in the state won't face one. Still, in rare circumstances, the lender could potentially get a deficiency judgment against a foreclosed homeowner in Washington.

How Foreclosure Sales Work

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.

What Is a "Deficiency Judgment" After a Foreclosure Sale?

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 there is one. 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 Limits Deficiency Judgments

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. (To find out the time limit in your state, talk to a foreclosure lawyer.) Also, various states require specific procedural requirements to get a deficiency judgment, while some states don't allow deficiency judgments in certain circumstances, like after nonjudicial foreclosures.

How Lenders Collect Deficiency Judgments

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.

Will My Lender Sue Me for a Deficiency Judgment?

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.

How Washington Foreclosures Work

Most foreclosures in Washington are nonjudicial, which means the lender doesn't have to go through state court to foreclose. The lender could alternatively choose to foreclose through the state court system, called a "judicial foreclosure." However, in states where a nonjudicial process is available, lenders almost always choose this route rather than pursuing a judicial foreclosure because an out-of-court foreclosure is relatively quick and inexpensive.

Deficiency Judgments Aren't Allowed After Nonjudicial Foreclosures in Washington

In Washington, the lender can't get a deficiency judgment if it chooses to foreclose nonjudicially. (Wash. Rev. Code § 61.24.100). But judicial foreclosures are another story.

Deficiency Judgments Are Allowed In Judicial Foreclosures

If the lender pursues a judicial foreclosure, a deficiency judgment is permitted. (Wash. Rev. Code § 61.12.070). But the court may set a minimum bid price or conduct a hearing to establish the fair market value of the foreclosed property. The deficiency judgment is then limited to the lesser of the difference between:

  • the outstanding debt and the foreclosure sale price, or
  • the outstanding debt and the home's fair market value. (Wash. Rev. Code § 61.12.060).

Though, even if a deficiency judgment is allowed, the lender might decide to waive the deficiency to reduce the redemption period. (Wash. Rev. Code § 61.23.020).

Deficiency Judgments After Short Sales in Washington

A "short sale" is when you sell your home for less than the total debt balance remaining on your mortgage, and the proceeds of the sale pay off a portion of the loan balance. In Washington, a lender can get a deficiency judgment following a short sale.

To avoid a deficiency judgment, the short sale agreement must expressly state that the lender waives its right to the deficiency. If the short sale agreement doesn't have this waiver, the lender may file a lawsuit to get a deficiency judgment.

Deficiency Judgments After Deeds in Lieu of Foreclosure in Washington

A "deed in lieu of foreclosure" occurs when a lender agrees to accept a deed (title) to the property instead of foreclosing. With a deed in lieu of foreclosure, the deficiency amount is the difference between the total mortgage debt and the property's fair market value.

At least one Washington court case says that a lender may not obtain a deficiency judgment after a deed in lieu of foreclosure. In Thompson v. Smith, 58 Wash. App. 361 (1990), the court ruled that because the deed in lieu of foreclosure was essentially a nonjudicial foreclosure, the borrower was entitled to protection under Washington's anti-deficiency laws.

What Happens to Second Mortgages, HELOCs, and Other Junior Liens?

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 you're off the hook for the money you still owe to junior lienholders.

Suppose a junior lienholder 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 can 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.

Getting Foreclosure Help in Washington

If you have questions about Washington'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).

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