In the dreary real estate market, short sales are quickly becoming the new foreclosures— and that’s actually a good thing. A short sale is not an ideal way to get out of a mortgage you can’t afford, but it’s better than foreclosure, which causes severe damage to your credit score, limits your ability to buy a home in the future, and is typically a tougher emotional burden.

A short sale usually offers a better alternative to foreclosure for both the lender and the homeowner, but it can also be difficult and unpredictable. Rely on professionals when you can, be thorough with paperwork, and stay in touch with your lender.

If you’re considering a short sale, you may want to consult a housing counselor first. There are plenty of free resources available to struggling homeowners from agencies such as HUD and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A housing counselor may be able to find programs and resources you didn’t know existed.

Starting the short sale process

To start the short sale process, contact a real estate broker and list your home. This is where you’ll want to make sure you call in a reputable pro that specializes in short sales. When I say reputable, I mean it. A good real estate broker will know your market very well, have a good idea on how much you can get for your home, and be familiar with the short sale process. A real estate broker may also represent you during the short sale process, taking much of the pressure off you to deal with your lender.

While you can initiate the short sale process without a buyer, it is more difficult. Ask your bank if it has a pre-approval process for which you might qualify. Here, the lender will tell you approximately how much money it would accept from a short sale, leaving you to find a qualified buyer that is willing to pay that much. This can ease the process, but remember that the lender is not required to honor this pre-approved amount.

If you’re a member of a credit union or small, local bank, you may be able to speak directly with a person who is familiar with your account to explain your situation, including why you are seeking a short sale. Larger lenders typically use an online system to handle short sales, but you can still contact an agent so you understand exactly what your lender wants and how its procedures work.

Documentation for a short sale

It’s vital to provide the lender with exactly what it is needs during a short sale. You will have to gather a number of documents that your lender will request, including financial statements, payroll stubs, tax returns, and bank statements.
The most important document is your hardship letter, which spells out why you are seeking the short sale. Explain clearly and honestly what has led you to this point, the reasons why a foreclosure may be imminent, and the steps you’ve taken to try to honor your debt.

At some point, the lender will do its own appraisal of your property. The value the lender comes up with may differ from the price you agreed upon with a buyer or the price your real estate broker gave you, but that doesn’t mean your short sale will be rejected.

During this time, the lender may call you or the person representing you for more information. Make yourself available to the lender and answer questions honestly. The lender will also be checking out buyers to make sure they can afford the property.

If you have questions during the process, call up the negotiator or agent assigned to your case and get answers. Communication may be difficult, but it’s important that you stay educated and up to date on the progress of your application. If you have an online system, the lending agent should update it with progress.

The length of a short sale can vary, but it typically takes around three months to process. Most homeowners should be prepared for the long haul though—sometimes banks want more money, some sales get rejected, and sometimes buyers drop out. The good news is that new rules about short sales are starting to help expedite the process.

Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com and at the Home Equity blog for CBS MoneyWatch.