Real Estate

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Foreclosure is not a fun process.

Losing your house for any reason is a stressful, disheartening experience. And banks are notoriously difficult to deal with. Mainly because they’re not really interested in working out a deal with you. Especially if you have equity in your house.

That being said, I’m greatly amused by people who get the better end of the foreclosure process, especially when it comes to Bank of America. (I’m not a big fan of Bank of America – I have my reasons…)

Bank of America filed for foreclosure on a house in Florida, about six months ago. The strange thing was that the homeowners, Mr & Mrs. Nyergers, owned their home free and clear. They had bought their house with cash. They had never had a mortgage on it.

In court the judge found the bank wrongfully tried to foreclose on them. Basically he said BofA was trying to scam them out of their home, and ordered the bank to pay their legal fees.

So how did the couple end up foreclosing on the bank?

After more than 5 months of the judge’s ruling, the bank still hadn’t paid the legal fees, and the homeowner’s attorney did exactly what the bank tried to do to the homeowners. He seized the bank’s assets.

According to CBS, the attorney said, “They’ve ignored our calls, ignored our letters, legally this is the next step to get my clients compensated.”

Sheriff’s deputies, movers, and the Nyergers’ attorney went to the bank and foreclosed on it. The attorney gave instructions to to remove desks, computers, copiers, filing cabinets and any cash in the teller’s drawers.

After about an hour of being locked out of the bank, the bank manager handed the attorney a check for the legal fees.

“As a foreclosure defense attorney this is sweet justice” said Allen.

The unfortunate sad part is that bank errors like this are quite common.

The couple’s foreclosure attorney said he sees happen a lot in court, because banks didn’t investigate the foreclosure and it becomes a lengthy and expensive battle for the homeowner.

At least this story had a happy ending.

Time Cover: Rethinking Home Ownership

Time Cover: Rethinking Home Ownership

Time magazine recently had an interesting article, The Case Against Home Ownership which explained why the American dream wasn’t all it was cranked up to be. Mainly, because it just doesn’t make economic sense. It prevented people from being able to migrate to where jobs where, resulted in a 49% higher consumption of energy amongst detached-home owners, and cost the government hundreds of billions in lost tax revenue every year. And the often quoted inverse correlation between teenage pregnancy and home ownership is sketchy and inconclusive (apparently the correlation between car ownership is higher than home ownership!).

The article heavily criticizes the role of the government in its efforts to  keep housing affordable by offering tax incentives and artificially lowering the interest rates on mortgages. The result of these policies is that people over-extend themselves in an effort to get a bigger tax break and the average homeowner saves less than $600 a year on their taxes. The major benefit goes to families making over $250,000 a year and who probably wouldn’t have any problems being able to afford a home anyway. The UK removed the tax deductions on homeownership a decade ago and actually has a higher rate of homeownership than the US (which has hovered around 65% over the past two decades).

Interestingly enough, Switzerland, which is one of the wealthiest nations, has a  low ~35% level of homeownership.

I just had a discussion with a young couple that bought a condo during the peak. They felt somewhat trapped as the husband was unable to move to better opportunities elsewhere because they were underwater on their mortgage. He hadn’t considered doing a short sale on the property, mainly since they both had jobs and didn’t really need to, but they were renting out their spare bedroom to help pay their mortgage (they had obviously over-extended themselves).

As I’ve repeated many times before, your own house is not an investment, it’s where you live. You buy a decent place in a decent neighborhood that you can easily afford. You do not buy a house because you need the tax break or because the bank will lend you more money than you can afford (of course, those days are behind us).  We’re still a couple of years away from a bottom in the real estate market. Until then, renting isn’t a bad option.

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.

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.

bulldozed_foreclosed_house_moscow-ohio
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.

Over the past few weeks, several of friends have asked me if its a good time to buy a house now that real estate prices have bottomed. Encouraged by the media, everyone seems to think that home prices have bottomed out and the recovery is about to begin.

Even Jim Cramer jumped on the housing recovery bandwagon and declared that June 30th would be the bottom! As I mentioned before in Are Jim Cramer’s picks worthless?, you shouldn’t be taking your investment advice from him. I don’t know what sort of crystal ball he has, but his track record isn’t very good. Besides, people who can predict the future (like David Einhorn) tend to invest for themselves and not make broad public statements.

Home prices may be fairly valued, but whenever you have a bubble of huge proportions, valuations do not simply revert to the mean, they overshoot it and become grossly undervalued.

A lot of people have been reporting that housing is rebounding. Here’s an excerpt from Reality Times dated June 9th.

The big economic news for housing this week is all about sales.

Housing sales and pending sales contracts are up, dramatically in some markets, and a rebounding real estate sector could soon start stimulating the broader economy.

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress last week that essentially the worst is over, the housing market is stabilizing, and we’re heading out of recession in the second half of the year.

In a handful of major markets, closed sales also are moving up sharply. In Las Vegas, sales jumped by 36 percent during April – the highest in two years, according to MDA DataQuick researchers.

Meanwhile, low prices nationwide, combined with mortgage rates at near-record lows, have pushed the National Association of Realtors’ Affordability Index into record territory.

But here’s a little sobering news: It’s becoming increasingly clear that low mortgage rates are not going to be around forever. Average thirty year fixed rates took their biggest jump in half a year last week on bond market jitters.

With everyone and their real estate agent being confident about the housing rebound, I can see how its easy to get sucked into the belief. Let’s go through the points step by step.

The Fed Chairman didn’t know that we were in recession until almost a year into it. On the other hand, some people did get it right. He also didn’t know that lowering the interest rates below the real rate of inflation would cause a spike in asset prices creating the largest bubble in history (to be fair, it was a different Fed Chairman).  Given the poor track record, why should we believe him now? Part of his job is to maintain the world’s faith in the US dollar (and by extension the US economy) and another part is maintaining consumer confidence in the US economy. By being bullish on the economy, he’s only doing his job! Since he always needs to project a bullish facade, he isn’t a reliable source of bullish information.

Home sales have jumped in many markets. However, by itself the number of sales is not an indication of a housing bottom. Basic economic principle dictates that when prices fall, demand increases. At a certain price, there will be a strong demand for housing. The question to ask is whether houses can be built (or rented out) profitably at this price.

There is also some evidence that the median home prices are increasing in some areas as well. However, there is no median home size information included with this data.  If more large homes are being sold, the average home price will increase. You can read a more detailed explanation at Minyanville, but here’s the gist of it:

And as price discovery works its way through well-to-do areas, the mix of homes sold will continue to revert to more expensive sales, pushing up median- and average-sales-price data. This dynamic will present the misleading conclusion that the country’s housing market is recovering, even as actual prices continue to fall.

On top of that, the unemployment rate keeps increasing every month. Yes, the second derivative is positive which means the rate of job loss is slowing, but it’s still a negative number! Read this article at FiveThirtyEight about why a decrease in the rate of job loss is nothing to celebrate.  Additionally, its becoming more difficult to obtain a home mortgage. This two reasons alone are causing the pool of potential home buyers to shrink, which results in a lack of demand.

The few people I know who are buying foreclosures or REOs at 40% discounts to current market price are paying CASH for investment homes. But how many people have $150,000 lying around? The savings rate in the US was ZERO for many years. In the past year it’s increased to about 8%, but that only leads to lower consumption, a lower GDP and in turn more layoffs. And as investors pay $150,000 for homes listed at $250,000, this exerts a further downward pressure on prices.

So when is a good time to buy?

When the media stops reporting about the recovery and starts telling you that real estate is a lousy investment, that’s probably a good time to start buying.

Right now, I think people are still too bullish.  However, that being said, if you can afford to pay cash or can find a really cheap house or even a manufactured house that rents for twice the mortgage payment, it would probably make a good investment. But on the whole, I would wait.

You must have read the recent post about the New York Times economics reporter who is facing foreclosure himself. Edmund Andrews covered the US economy and Alan Greenspan for over six years, but despite his financial accumen still got suckered into a loan he couldn’t really afford. He hasn’t made a mortgage payment in 8 months and is wondering when the bank is going to throw him out of his house. Instead of making his payments, he has been busy spending money on a beach rental, clothes, gifts and other necessary expenses. At some point, I think foreclosure is inevitable.

But could he have avoided foreclosure?

I think so. Let’s review some of the financial mistakes he made. The real ones, not the excessive spending that set in once he stopped making house payments!

1. He divorced his wife of 21 years

This is always grounds for economic disaster. No matter who you are, the longer you stay married, the more it’s going to hurt you financially.  If you are going to divorce, do it like Tom Cruise and get out before the magic 10 year mark or before you have kids.

2. He paid almost 2/3rds his net income in child support

Ouch! Paying $4,000 in alimony and child support when your net income is $6,777 is a lot. Effectively, his take home income is $33,000 per year or about $16/hour. I think most people on that wage move back home to their parents basements.

3. He bought a house he couldn’t afford

If there’s one major recipe for disaster, it’s buying a $500,000 house when you’re only taking home $16/hour.  He really should have known better. But then again, he outsourced the analysis of his finances to his mortgage broker instead of doing it himself.  He was set up to fail from the beginning. I’m sure his broker knew in the back of his mind there was a chance Ed would face foreclosure at some point. But Ed really should have bought a cheap house instead.

4. Not spending enough time understanding the most expensive purchase of your life

A home mortgage is the most complex financial transaction you’ll probably ever undertake. So it’s easy to blow it off or let some one else do the heavy lifting for you. However, the mortgage broker doesn’t necessarily have your best interest at heart. They get paid on commission for every loan they close and are directly incentivized to get you into the largest, most outrageously expensive home loan possible. There is a tremendous conflict of interest and you should not let them dictate what you should do. Many people claim that a home loan is just too difficult too understand. True, but only if you don’t take the time to understand it.

I strongly recommend Randy Johnson’s stellar book How to Save Thousands of Dollars on Your Home Mortgage. If you don’t know what Yield Spread Premium (YSP) or Paid Out of Closing (POC) means on a HUD-1 you definitely should read this book. If you own a home and don’t know a HUD-1 is then get your spouse to smack you and then go buy the book! I promise you’ll save thousands of dollars on your mortgage.

Just in case, you missed that last paragraph, BUY THAT $12 BOOK ABOUT SAVING THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON YOUR HOME MORTGAGE. You should buy it before you buy a house, before you even think of buying house, maybe before you even graduate from college. If you’ve already read it, you should buy a dozen copies of the book and gift it all your friends, co-workers, in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews for Christmas. Unless you hate them.

The best way to prevent foreclosure from happening to you is to buy a house you can afford with a mortgage that is the cheapest over the life of the loan. That may mean paying extra points to buy down your interest rate, which means the cheapest loan is not necessarily the loan with the lowest closing costs. Learning about your finances, and how mortgages actually work is probably the best way to save money in the long run.

With mortgage rates at historic lows, you might think first time buyers will be falling over themselves to buy entry level homes. In California, condos count as entry level homes.  But starting April 1st, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have just changed their guidelines for mortgages when it comes to condos.

It may now cost borrowers between 3 and 5% more to finance a condo versus a single family home!

Fannie Mae now has a mandatory fee of 3/4th of a percentage point on all condominium loans, no matter how high the applicant’s credit score. For a once-popular interest-only condo loan with a 20% down payment and a borrower credit score of 690, Fannie imposes the following ratcheted sequence of add-ons:

  • 0.25% as an “adverse market” fee
  • 1.5% for the below-optimal credit score
  • 0.75% for the interest-only payment feature
  • 0.75% fee since the property is a condo

The total comes to 3.25% extra, which can be paid upfront or rolled into the loan. Additionally, condo units with a high percentage of investors or commercial tenants may now be impossible to finance.

Companies like Wells Fargo have also lowered the threshold for total debt-to-income ratios from 45% to 41%.  Their minimum FICO for a conventional loan without 20% is now 720, up from 620!

On top of this, getting an appraisal is now more expensive.  It used to cost about $275-$325. Nowadays, its in the range of $400-$450, with no guarantee that it will come close to where you think it will.

Another issue to be aware of when purchasing a condominium or a townhome is the reserves held by the Home Owners Association. If they don’t have enough reserves, you may be assessed for repairs.  One of my friends was assessed $15,000 for renovating the exterior of the unit. Not a small sum of money!

This is sure to negatively impact the prices of condos, which will put further downward pressure on certain housing markets. There’s nothing like more affordable housing!

John Mauldin is an investment adviser and president of Millennium Wave Investments. He sends out an interesting weekly newsletter, which most recently focusedon the current real estate market.  It seems like the bottom isn’t in sight yet:

Analyst contend that much of the bad news in the subprime-loan and housing market has been written off. And one would have to admit that a lot has been; and with the relaxation of mark-to-market, there may indeed be some truth to that suggestion. But there are still some issues that remain for housing. Take a look at the graph below. (Not sure where it is from, as it was sent to me, but I have seen the same data elsewhere.) Notice that monthly mortgage-rate resets declined markedly in 2009 from 2008, but are expected to rise again in 2010 and 2011. There is still some heartburn in the mortgage market.

Monthly Mortgage Rate Resets

The Shadow Inventory of Homes

And foreclosures keep climbing, though some point to that fact that they seem to be leveling off. However, a strange thing is happening. We are seeing what is being called a “shadow inventory” of foreclosed homes.

“We believe there are in the neighborhood of 600,000 properties nationwide that banks have repossessed but not put on the market,” said Rick Sharga, vice president of RealtyTrac, which compiles nationwide statistics on foreclosures. “California probably represents 80,000 of those homes. It could be disastrous if the banks suddenly flooded the market with those distressed properties. You’d have further depreciation and carnage.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

A Realty Trac survey found that only 30% of foreclosures were listed for sale in real estate listings like the MLS (Multiple Listing Service). Add in homes that people would like to sell but simply can’t find buyers for, and must either hold or rent, and the unsold inventory numbers that are public are likely far below actual available homes.

Might some homes in foreclosure be held off the market because banks eventually want to negotiate with the homeowner? Possibly, but other surveys show that anywhere from 30-40% of homes in the foreclosure process in many areas are actually already vacant. There is no one with whom to negotiate.

Typically a foreclosed home sells within a few weeks, as banks take the first “reasonable” offer. But it normally takes about three months from foreclosure to when the home is put on the market — it takes a few months to get a home ready. But surveys show it is taking a lot longer now, and many homes have not made it onto the market, even as more homes are being foreclosed each month.

The Chronicle suggests several factors may be at work. First, there is the “pig-in-the-python” problem. There are just so many homes that it is hard to get them onto the market and sold. Normally there are about 160,000 homes a year in foreclosure sales. We are now seeing 80,000 a month, or six times normal levels, and rising.

Second, lenders could be deferring sales to put off having to acknowledge the actual extent of their losses. “With banks in the stress they’re in, I don’t think they’re anxious to show losses in assets on their balance sheets,” one observer said.

Finally, banks may not want to flood the market with foreclosures, driving prices down even more. They are simply managing their assets so as to recover the most capital they can.

Given that the graph above says there will be more mortgage misery as large numbers of mortgages reset in the next two years, and given the unknowable nature of the losses, it is somewhat optimistic to think financial profits will rise by 74% in the fourth quarter. But it gets worse.

Commercial Real Estate Starts a Long, Slow Slide

We are now starting to see some real deterioration in traditional bank lending. Delinquencies on home equity loans are rising rapidly. The American Banking Association released a composite index of eight different types of consumer loans, and the delinquency rate on this 35-year-old composite jumped to a record high of 3.22%.

The above reflects 4th-quarter data. As unemployment is up 2% since then and is rising, it is more than reasonable to assume that we will see another record rise in delinquencies this quarter. With unemployment headed to over 10% and maybe 11% from today’s 8.5%, delinquencies are likely to continue to rise for the entire year.

David Rosenberg reports that “The National Federation of Independent Business found in a poll that 28% of small firms said they had a line of credit or credit card limit cut back in the second half of last year; 69% stated they are facing worse terms. A new FICO study found that 11% of US consumers — 22 million people — have had their credit lines cut or accounts closed even though they have been paying their bills on time and retain a solid rating.” This is certainly not good news for those who expect a positive 4th quarter. Cutting credit to small business, the engine of job growth in the US, is hardly a prescription for a growing economy.

Commercial mortgages are in trouble. S&P has warned they may cut ratings on $97 billion in commercial-mortgage asset-backed debt. The country’s 10 biggest banks have $327.6 billion in commercial mortgages, according to regulatory filings. A projected tripling in the default rate would result in losses of about 7% of total unpaid balances, according to estimates from analysts at research firm Reis Inc.

Here’s a very interesting video from TheStreet.com.  James Altucher asserts that owning a home isn’t the American Dream. It’s just a marketing scam perpetrated by Home Builders!

Check out this interesting 2 minute video. He makes some valid points.

It’s true, if you’re not paying cash, then you’re renting the money to buy a house, so you’re still technically a renter. However, home ownership has some advantages:

  • You can decorate your place any way you see fit.
  • You get tax breaks which in some situations might make the cost of owning lower than renting.
  • But most importantly, owning real assets (like real estate and gold) protects you against inflation. Of course, if you believe that inflation is and always will be 2% then you should just rent.
  • Even if there were no financial benefits, you still want to own your own home so you don’t have to worry in your old age. If you buy a house when you’re 35 and pay it off by the time you’re 65 and retired, you have one less thing to worry about paying.

Mortgage rates have hit record lows. You can get a 30 year fixed-rate mortgage for 4.85%. The 15 year is at 4.58%. I don’t think mortgages have ever been this cheap. According to Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac chief economist, “The Federal Reserve’s announcement that it intends to purchase Treasury securities over the next six months caused bond yields to drop and mortgage rates followed.”

Meanwhile, home sales are up for the 2nd month in a row. Some people think this is a sign of a stabilizing of the housing market and higher prices are likely to follow.

So are home prices really bottoming out? Some of the things to consider are

  • Foreclosures made up a significant portion of all home sales.
  • Prices are still dropping.
  • There is significant inventory overhang in many markets
  • Banks haven’t listed a lot of foreclosed properties for sale yet, mainly to prevent this supply from further depressing prices
  • A large number of ARMs are adjusting next year. This might cause the whole cycle to repeat and prices to fall further.
  • It’s becoming more difficult to qualify for a home loan and the days of 100% or 105% financing are gone.

And if you think higher home prices are on the horizon, check out these real estate prices.