Horry County, S.C., soon will have help handling the heavy load of foreclosures that it has faced as a result of the real estate market collapse.
The S.C. Supreme Court issued an order last week appointing Ralph Stroman as a special referee for Horry County and granted him the ability to hear foreclosure cases.
"This will help, especially doing the default foreclosures," said Lisa Bourcier, a spokeswoman for Horry County. "This will speed up the process by several months. It will definitely be better than what the current turnaround time is."
The pace of foreclosures has slowed from the peak last year, but there were more foreclosures in Horry County in May than there were in April.
In Horry County, there were 348 foreclosures last month, which is up about 32 percent from April and down only half a percent from the same month last year. Roughly one out of every 500 properties in Horry County is in foreclosure, according to Realty Trac, a company that tracks foreclosures nationally.
The master-in-equity office is behind on more than 1,000 hearings, Bourcier said.
The county is negotiating a contract with Stroman, and he is expected to start work July 1, she said. The details of the job are still being worked out but he will likely work about two days a week and will handle all of the default foreclosures, which are cases where there is no defense, she said.
Once the new budget year starts in July the master-in-equity office also will have a paralegal, which is a new position for the department, to help handle the work load.
Banks will pay an additional $100 for each foreclosure for the speedier process and to help offset the cost to the county. Stroman, a local attorney, has worked in the office before. He filled in several times for the last equity court judge Stanton Cross, who retired last year.
The county asked a judge to approach the chief justice to request the appointment, which resulted in last week's order that will remain in effect through the rest of the year.
"I think it's wonderful," said Tom Maeser, a real estate analyst with the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors. "Once we see the foreclosures taken care of we'll start to see the quick recovery."
Maeser said he'd rather see a group of foreclosures make it through the process and into the real estate market at one time than see the string of foreclosures drag on.
The faster the foreclosures are sold, the faster real estate prices can start to make a recovery, he said. Foreclosures are typically sold below the market value of the property, which drives down house values surrounding it, and in the real estate market in general.
Maeser said that he has heard that it is taking up to three months to get a deed on a property purchased at a foreclosure auction, which is holding up potential sales and leading others to fall through.
The added staff, and faster process shouldn't hurt homeowners trying to stay in their houses, said Mary Regan, the foreclosure program manager for Family Services Inc., a nonprofit agency that works with homeowners throughout the state to prevent foreclosures.
"I know a lot of the judges are overwhelmed. They're having to increasingly put the court dates on their calendars and it's very taxing," she said.
Regan said that judges throughout the state are sympathetic. Homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes should always try to attend their foreclosure hearing, and not be afraid of the process, because most of the time the judge will try to grant them more time to find a solution with the lender, Regan said.
"I think the people who want to save their house will not be hurt by having a second judge hear the cases," she said.
Regan said the new system will likely continue to give people who want to save their house more time and it will get the people who don't care or are not concerned out of the system.
Homeowners who are struggling to make payments will likely have additional programs available to them soon as they try to stay in their houses, she said, which should also help ease the pressure on the county by reducing the number of foreclosures.
The S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority is waiting for federal approval of a plan to use the state's $138 million share of a federal program aimed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. South Carolina is one of five states receiving funding through the program targeted at states where residents have faced the most economic distress.