Should I Buy A House and Take Advantage of Low Interest Rates

Every few months, someone wants to know if its a good time to buy real estate. A reader asked an interesting question:

Interest rates are artificially low and we won’t see rates this low for a long, long time. What are your thoughts on buying vs renting for a first timer? In my gut I know that housing is still overvalued, but should I jump on low rates and lock in a fixed payment knowing that future inflation will make this payment even smaller?

Most people do not pay cash for their homes, they get a mortgage. And the monthly payment they can afford, along with the current interest rate determines how large a mortgage they can qualify for.

Lets do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. If you can qualify for $2,000 a month (lets  ignore principle, taxes and insurance for now) and rates are 5%, you’ll qualify for approximately $480,000 worth of mortgage. If rates rise to 6%, you only qualify for $400,000 worth of mortgage.

Did you see how a 20% rise in interest rates caused a 17% decline in the amount of mortgage you would able to qualify for?

If your income isn’t going to increase 20% over the next 2 years, but rates might rise 20%, less people will be able to afford homes. So the pool of available buyers for our $480,000 house has become a lot smaller and demand drops off. According to economic principles, as the demand decreases, prices should decrease as well. Thus, the price should drop to $400,000 to match the purchasing power of buyers.

Additionally,  the banks have unsold inventory sitting on their books – in many cases they haven’t even foreclosed on people who stopped making their payments a year ago.

So we have a scenario where the number of homes on the market is likely to increase or stay flat, interest rates are going to increase, and incomes aren’t going anywhere.

The only reasons you should be buying a house right now are

  1. You’re starting a family, don’t want the hassle of moving and can afford a reasonably large house which you will live in for several years
  2. You can afford to pay cash and don’t care where the market is going
  3. You have specialized knowledge of the markets and can get a much better deal than your local home buyer. Real estate investors will be able to take advantage of the current environment to buy cheap homes that generate positive cashflow.
  4. You have a stable job, expect to be in the same place for several years and don’t want your landlord telling you that you can’t paint the living room bright pink

In short, don’t be mesmerized by the tales of real estate agents and Realtors telling you that interest rates will go up and price you out of the market. Only a booming economy with people falling over themselves to buy houses can do that. It may seem like people are out buying homes, but its a temporary phenomena created by all the government to stimulate the housing market. When this stimulus ends, homes prices will probably drift down by the same amount. On a similar note, ZeroHedge has a good article on how dropping homes prices are inversely correlated with rental rates, something I have not been able to verify with my properties!

Only buy a house if you have a good reason to buy one. Don’t get suckered in to it.

At some point we will see inflation, but it’s next to impossible to figure out when.

How To Avoid Foreclose: Humor

Just read this news article from the Associated Press:

Tue Feb 23, 8:17 am ET

MOSCOW, Ohio – An Ohio man says he bulldozed his $350,000 home to keep a bank from foreclosing on it.

Terry Hoskins says he has struggled with the RiverHills Bank over his home in Moscow for years and had problems with the Internal Revenue Service. He says the IRS placed liens on his carpet store and commercial property and the bank claimed his house as collateral.

Hoskins says he owes $160,000 on the house. He says he spent a lot of money on attorneys and finally had enough. About two weeks ago he bulldozed the home 25 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

Ok, there’s nothing really humorous about this. But I thought it was a great story about getting back at the bank. Banks are notoriously difficult to deal with and after accepting billions in bailout money from the taxpayers aren’t really modifying very many loans. If you think that people who default on their mortgages are scumbags and deserve to lose their homes and that banks are just faultless victims, check this link about a foreclosure attorney who tried to help a couple modify their loan. Actually, regardless of what you think about banks or borrowers  you should still read the article. It’s very interesting.

Obama Says “We Buy Ugly Houses”!

cheap home for saleSource: Miz Duke

As everyone knows the only thing wrong with America right now, is the lagging economy. If we could only boost our economy and increase our GDP we’d be able to unleash prosperity on everyone.  So building on the resounding success of its “cash for clunkers” program, the Obama administration just announced a cash for junkers or “we buy ugly houses” program. Since the median home price is about 10 times that of a median priced car, the government will offer 10 times the rebate for the purchase of a new home.  Other than that, the “cash for junkers” program is identical to the preceding program:

  • If you “trade-in” your old home, you’ll get $35,000 towards the purchase of a brand new one
  • If you had a jumbo-mortgage or your house was over 5,000 square feet, you qualify for $45,000
  • You must have owned the home for at least 1 year to prevent misuse of these funds
  • The “trade-in” house must be bulldozed and the debris shipped off to China
  • If your house is worth more than the rebate amount, you’re out of luck!

The government has earmarked $20 billion for this program and it estimates that the sales of 500,000 homes will cannibalized this year from future sales numbers. Wait, did I say cannibalize? My apologies, I meant to say that the demand for 500,000 new homes would be created.  The total effect will be to boost the economy by $100 billion dollars or nearly 0.7%! Since the destruction of the existing houses doesn’t count in GDP numbers it’s a net positive result!

The GDP is a number that calculates the amount of services and goods produces without the effects of taxation, so the negative effect of an extra $20 Billion burden on the taxpayers (or their unborn grandchildren) isn’t a part of the calculation either. So you see, it’s a win-win situation for everyone!

What’s that? Who do I mean by everyone? I mean the administration and the small sub-section of the population who own sub-$35,000 homes who are able to go out and get $125,000 mortgages. Now I’m not sure whether these are low-income families or rich slumlords, but that discussion is merely an academic argument.

Not only that, but demolishing the existing homes would help reduce the old inventory thats casting a dark shadow over the entire real estate industry.  So this we buy ugly houses program would really help the economy’s green shoots sprout in to a young sapling.  What’s that you say? We need job and income growth to actually boost the economy. No, that was the old economy.  This time it’s different!

10 Worst Real Estate Markets In 2009

As I mentioned in a previous post, the real estate market hasn’t hit bottom yet.

According to an Article in Fortune Magazine, 8 of the top 10 worst real estate markets in 2009 are in California. The range of the predicted price decline is between 20 to 25%.

1. Los Angeles

2008 median house price: $375,340

2009 projected change: -24.9%

2010 projected change: -5.1%

The median home price in the L.A.-Long Beach-Glendale metro area is projected to fall nearly 25% in 2009 – the biggest drop in the country.

Courtesy: Stockton CVE

2. Stockton, Calif.

2008 median house price: $248,050

2009 projected change: -24.7%

2010 projected change: -4.0%

3. Riverside, Calif.

2008 median house price: $256,540

2009 projected change: -23.3%

2010 projected change: -4.8%

AP Photo

4. Miami-Miami Beach

2008 median house price: $293,590

2009 projected change: -22.8%

2010 projected change: -6.4%

Miami will be nursing the hangover from its epic building boom for years to come. After falling 22% in 2008, prices are predicted to plunge another 23% next year.

5. Sacramento

2008 median house price: $225,140

2009 projected change: -22.2%

2010 projected change: 2.3%

AP Photo/Joan C. Fahrenthold

6. Santa Ana-Anaheim

2008 median house price: $532,810

2009 projected change: -22.0%

2010 projected change: -3.5%

7. Fresno

2008 median house price: $257,170

2009 projected change: -21.6%

2010 projected change: -3.3%


8. San Diego

2008 median house price: $412,490

2009 projected change: -21.1%

2010 projected change: -2.9%

9. Bakersfield, Calif.

2008 median house price: $227,270

2009 projected change: -20.9%

2010 projected change: -2.5%

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

10. Washington, D.C.

2008 median house price: $343,160

2009 projected change: -19.9%

2010 projected change: -5.7%

They haven’t really given any reasoning behind the numbers, but if you listen to the video in the previous post you can at least see that there’s some validity to their logic.

Mortgage Meltdown: The Worst Is Yet To Come!

Check out this 12 minute video from 60 Minutes. There’s another wave of mortgage defaults on the way, this time from Alt-A & Option-Arm (also called Negative-Amortization or Neg-Am) loans. As opposed to the subprime loans which were worth almost $1 Trillion, these two groups make up nearly $1.5 Trillion.  According to Amhurst Capital, they expect a 70% default rate on the Option-Arms based on the current default rate which is occurring at 3% interest rates!

Right now there’s a 3-5 year overhead supply of housing inventory on the market. Along with these coming defaults and the fact that 10% of Americans are behind on their mortgage, you should expect house prices to be depressed for a very long time. I’ll think we’ll have more clarity when home prices actually hit bottom, which might be another 12-24 months from today.

I’m sure glad I sold my condo in summer 2005! The bank now owns and I’m thinking of putting in a very low-ball offer. An offer so low, it’ll cashflow well and at least break-even if rents drop 50%!
(Check out these cheap real estate deals).

If you’ve been reading the news, you know that at yesterday’s FOMC meeting, Bernanke dropped the interest rates to an unbelivable 0.25% (a cut of 75 basis points). Apparently he thinks that cheap credit will solve the problems facing the US economy right now. Unfortunately, its not the cost of credit but the availability of credit that is the issue. Credit is drying up and making it cheaper isn’t going to make any difference.

Last Monday, the Treasury was able to auction $35 Billion worth of 3 month T-bills at 0%, which means there’s a demand for liquidity and safety. Return of principle is more important than return on principle!

However, the government is using this money (and another few hundred billions) to bail out bankrupt financial firms, insurance companies, and auto manufacturers. It is running printing presses around the clock creating pictures of dead presidents and is inflating the money supply at a 17% annual rate. This is inflationary in the long run and will cause the devaluation of the dollar.

In the long term, Bernanke (or Bernie for short) is more worried about saving the economy than fighting inflation. (He’s not really concerned about the devaluing dollar either). And while the price of everything may increase, he’s hoping that real estate prices will stay flat instead of tanking, and that’s how he’s going to engender “a soft landing for the real estate market”.

Looking at the dollar index over the past few days, the dollar has started showing signs of weakness. Now that the interest rates in the US are even lower than in Japan, maybe people will start using the US Dollar as the new currency of choice for the carry-trade!

You could sell the US Dollar and buy the Australian Dollar or the New Zealand Dollar, both of which have a much higher yield than the US Dollar. (Note: this is not a recommendation, just an example of how to execute the new carry-trade). I bought some Australian Dollar ETF (FXA) yesterday morning in anticipation of a rate cut for my retirement account. The yield on FXA is currently 8%! It’s up nearly 5% since then and I’m happy to say my retirement account is down only 4% for the year – if only all my investments had fared so well this year!

Anyway, with interest rates close to zero I’m reminded of an 80’s song called “Turning Japanese“! Enjoy.

Help! I’m Losing My Home To Foreclosure

The lender has filed a Notice of Default on my condo. I knew this was coming. Ever since I sold the condo in summer 2005 at the peak to an investor who rented it back to me, I suspected I’d be able to buy it back for less than what I paid for it. I found out when the mortgage company sent a letter that said “You Will Lose This House If You Do Not Take Part In the Mortgage Reinstatment Program” which was delivered to me instead of the new owner.

The investor paid $352,000 for the 920 sq ft condo or $382/sqft, (and I paid 3.25% buyers agent commission to her niece – I sold it FSBO or For-Sale-By-Owner, so there was no sellers agent commission). The first lender filed an NOD for $283,000. The seller has been pocking my rent and not paying the mortgage since March 2008. Not applying the rents to the mortgages is called rent skimming, and is only illegal in California during the first year of acquiring a property. Unless the sellers cures the default, the house will be foreclosed upon and the second mortgage of about $35,000 will be wiped out.

Current comparable sales are about $225,000, which represent a 36% drop in prices. I wouldn’t mind buying it myself, but for a few issues.

1. I’m moving to Los Angeles and will be busy with my MBA. Do I want to get involved with yet another investment property.

2. I wouldn’t feel comfortable paying more than $150,000 for it. I think prices may drop another 30% from here, maybe more – who knows.

3. Its taking lenders up to a year to list REO properties that didn’t sell at the auctions. So working with the lender can be painful while I’m in LA.

I called up the mortgage servicing company that sent the letter and the guy on the line said I should stop paying my rent and save my money instead. This is blatantly wrong information. A rental contract is completely separate from a mortgage and there is no correlation between the two. I really doubt my landlord would take me the court, but he has the legal right to do so and an eviction/judgment on my credit history would make it a lot more difficult to find a rental in the future.

So what would you do?

1. Stop paying the rent and continue to live there.

2. Stop paying the rent and move out.

3. Continue to keep paying the rent as if nothing happened.

Renting Vs Buying: How To Live Beyond Your Means!

The debate over renting versus owning isn’t dead. According to the WSJ, you can buy a 2 bedroom condo in Miami with a  wrap-around  balcony and stunning, jaw-dropping views for $400,000 (and this is after the market has already correctedly significantly). Apparently they come fully loaded too!

“You’ll have at least one private pool in the building, along with saunas and fitness centers and all sorts of other conveniences. Of course, you have a 24-hour concierge and valet parking. Many have private cinemas, bars, restaurants, spas and the like. They’re like cruise liners on dry land.”

But these facilities cost money. About $1,100 every month or $13,200 a year!

Assuming you put down 20%, and finance the remaining 80% at 6% interest rate, that’s going to cost you $19,000 per year. Then you still have 2.25% property tax which is another $9,000. Add everything up and your annual costs are $41,200.

And how much can you rent it out for?

Only $2000/month (that’s only $24,000/year). And the rents are dropping too! Even if you pay cash for the condo, your annual profit is $1,800 on a $400,000 investment! Even a bank CD pays more than that!

For speculators who bought at the top of the boom, real estate is turning out to be a lousy investment. But atleast renters can live well on only $2,000 a month!

CountryWide Introduces Mortgage Modification Programs

A few days ago, Ben Bernanke said that mortgage lenders should reduce the principle amount on loans to home owners to prevent major defaults. While this is quite a bizzare thing to say, at some level it makes sense. Rather than foreclosure on a house and sell it for 50 cents on the dollar, the lender might as well knock off 30% of the principle and keep collecting interest on the remaining 70%.

However, in principle I feel its the worst thing to do. Speculators who buy “investments” they can’t afford do not deserve to be saved and neither do the banks that lent them money – they both deserve to be punished. That is actually what recessions accomplish. They shake out the excesses of past booms and clear the way for fresh blood to have their chance at creating wealth. Remember what happened in Japan, where it is common for loss-making companies to be propped up by banks and the government? Their recession last for 15 years and it’s still not clear whether there are fully out of it or not.

Before I get flamed for being un-American by actively supporting a recession, let me clarify my position. There has been a world-wide asset bubble. The natural order of things is to let the bubble burst quickly so the next boom can start again. I resent a slow deflating of this bubble that Bernanke is engineering through his “soft landing”, which is nothing more than inflating the pricing of everything else (except wages). It will only serve to extend this down-cycle and will eventually result in the Federal Reserve losing its credibility and ability to manipulate the economy.

As if in deference to Ben Bernanke’s wishes, a CountryWide (CFC) rep called me today asking if I wanted to refinance my property since I had a 5 year ARM. I was surprized to hear that I had a 5 year ARM, since it was supposed to be a 10 year ARM! The rep explained that it was in fact a 10 year loan with a 5 year ARM, which I think was completely false since the rep sounded like a telemarketer rather than a loan officer. Anyway, he said I should refinance and suggested that I go for a 30 year fixed at the same rate as my 5 year ARM. When I said I wasn’t interested, he suggested that I find out whether I qualify for the Loan Modification Program.

A Loan Modification Program is where the bank extends the length of the term on the loan. So instead of the rate adjusting in 5 years, they can extend it out for another 5 or 10 years. So basically its like a no-doc refinance, only you don’t have to pay for it! This is a much better option than a no-cost refinance, which has a cost, but it’s actually rolled into the mortgage so you don’t pay for it upfront. Instead you pay for it over 30 years, which is usually a terrible financial decision. Even worse, you accept a higher interest rate and in exchange the bank picks up the cost of the refinance. That means you end up paying thousands of dollars more on your principle to save a few thousand dollars. Unless you’re planning to move in 2 years, that’s a really big, but common, blunder.

Considering that I don’t currently have any W-2 income, it should be easy to qualify for the Mortgage Modification Program. Since all my income flows through my corporation, and I don’t need to draw a salary, I’m technically unemployed. (I know what you’re all thinking but no, I don’t qualify for unemployment assistance). Even though I am gainfully unemployed, I still qualify for the modification program!

Don’t know if I’ll take them up on their offer though. I think things could get a lot more interesting over the next few years.