REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 3, 2017

Choosing a Real Estate Agent

By David Reiss

US News & World Report quoted me in 6 Tips for Choosing a Real Estate Agent. It opens,

Selling a home has become easier over the years with online services to help the seller set a price and advertise, but most homeowners still hire a real estate agent.

While many agents have deep experience and know their markets intimately, newcomers abound – people looking to cash in when the market is hot and may not even work at the job full time. So experts advise homeowners to look carefully for an agent with the right combination of experience, knowledge, work ethic and personality.

What is a Realtor? Typically an agent is someone licensed by the state to sell real estate, while a broker is a manager of a team of agents. A Realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, the industry’s main trade group, which requires members abide by certain ethical standards. Experts suggest sellers use agents who have received more than minimum training required in their state.

“In California, the requirements for a real estate salesperson’s license are very low, basically, three classes and a test,” says Bryan Zuetel, a real estate attorney and broker in Orange County, California.

“Almost any agent can get a listing, enter the property into the (multiple listing service), create some flyers, hold open houses and fill in blanks on the contract forms,” Zuetel says. “However, most agents do not understand, but should understand, the complex contract terms, implications of an unhappy party in the transaction, legal requirements for the numerous disclosures, appropriate negotiations during the escrow period, conflict resolution via mediation or arbitration, and the remedies under the contract.”

Do your homework. Law professor David Reiss, academic program director at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, says it’s important to check out a prospective agent with previous sellers.

“Some real estate agents are great at pitching themselves but not great at marketing homes once they have the listing,” Reiss says. “Getting recommendations from friends and relatives will give you information that the agent herself or himself would not provide. Do they return phone calls promptly? Are they creative problem solvers? Do they educate themselves about the pros and cons of the home and (comparable properties in the area)?”

March 3, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • Ben Carson officially holds the title of the 17th secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, immediately starting his reign at the helm of the housing agency. His first day comes a little more than a month after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, and the industry is ready to make up for lost time.
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report that examines the characteristics and roles of syndicators in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (Housing Credit) market. Syndicators award tax credits to investors of Housing Credit developments, acting as an intermediary between the developer and investor. According to the GAO report, the 32 surveyed syndicators have raised more than $100 billion in Housing Credit equity since 1986, helping to finance more than 20,000 properties and about 1.4 million units placed in service through 2014.
  • Last Friday, purchases of new U.S. homes in January were slower than forecast, signaling an increase in mortgage rates may be giving some potential buyers pause. Sales climbed 3.7 percent to a 555,000 annualized pace, Commerce Department data showed Friday.

March 3, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

March 2, 2017

Contract Selling Is Back, Big-Time

By David Reiss

The Chicago Reader quoted me in The Infamous Practice of Contract Selling Is Back in Chicago. It reads, in part,

When Carolyn Smith saw a for sale sign go up on her block one evening in the fall of 2011, it felt serendipitous. The now 68-year-old was anxiously looking for a new place to live. The landlord of her four-unit apartment building in the city’s Austin neighborhood was in foreclosure and had stopped paying the water bill. That month, she and the other tenants had finally scraped together the money themselves to prevent a shutoff and were planning to withhold rent until the landlord paid them back. Exhausted with this process and tired of dealing with “slumlords,” Smith wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to ensure that she, her mother, Gwendolyn, and their dog, Sugar Baby, would have a stable place to live. But due to a past bankruptcy, Smith thought she would never be able to get a mortgage. So when she saw a house on her street for sale with a sign that said “owner financing,” she was excited. The next morning, she called the number listed and learned that the down payment was just $900—a sum she could fathom paying. “I figured I was blessed,” she says.

Her good fortune continued. A man on the other end of the line told her she was the very first one to inquire. The seller, South Carolina-based National Asset Advisors, called her several more times and mailed her paperwork to sign. Smith says she never met in person with anyone from National Asset Advisors or Harbour Portfolio Advisors, the Texas-based company that owned the home. But she says the agents she spoke with assured her that her credit was good enough for the transaction, despite the past bankruptcy. Next, they gave her a key code that allowed her to go in and look at the house, explaining that she’d be purchasing it “as is.” Smith thought the two-flat looked like a fixer-upper—the door had been damaged in an apparent break-in, and there was no hot-water heater, furnace, or kitchen sink—but given her poor luck with apartments of late, she felt she couldn’t pass up the chance to own a home. Both she and her mother, now 84, had been renting their whole lives; after pulling together the down payment, they beamed with pride when, in December 2011, they received a letter from National Asset Advisors that read “Congratulations on your purchase of your new home!”

But within a year, Smith discovered that the house was in even worse shape than she’d realized. In her first months in her new home, Smith estimates that she spent more than $4,000 just to get the heat and running water working properly, drinking bottled water in the meantime. Then the chimney started to crumble. Smith would hear the periodic thud of stray bricks tumbling into the alleyway as she sat in her living room or lay in bed at night; she began to worry that a passerby would be hit in the head and soon spent another $2,000 to replace the chimney. Public records show that the house had sat vacant earlier that year, and the city had ordered its previous owners to make extensive repairs.

Had Smith approached a bank for a mortgage, she likely would’ve received a Federal Housing Administration-issued form advising her to get a home inspection before buying. But as far as she recalls, no one she spoke to ever suggested one, and in her rush to get out of her old apartment, she didn’t think to insist.

The documents Smith signed with Harbour and National Asset Advisors required her to bring the property into habitable condition within four months, and with all the unexpected expenses, she soon fell behind on her monthly payments of $545.

Smith’s retirement from her job as an adult educator at Malcolm X College, in the spring of 2013, compounded the financial strain. Living on a fixed income of what she estimates was around $1,100 a month in pension and social security payments, she fell further behind, and the stress mounted.

“When we got to be two months behind, they would call me every day,” she remembers.

National Asset Advisors also began sending her letters threatening to evict her. That’s when Smith had a heart-stopping realization: She hadn’t actually purchased her home at all. The document she had signed wasn’t a traditional mortgage, as she had believed, but a “contract for deed”—a type of seller-financed transaction under which buyers lack any equity in the property until they’ve paid for it in full. Since Smith didn’t actually have a deed to the house, or any of the rights typically afforded home owners, she and her mother could be thrown out without a foreclosure process, forfeiting the thousands of dollars they’d already spent to rehabilitate the home.

“I know people always say ‘buyer beware’ ” she acknowledges. “But I’d never had a mortgage before, and I feel like they took advantage of that.”

What felt like a private nightmare for Smith has been playing out nationwide in the wake of the housing market crash, as investment firms step in to fill a void left by banks, now focused on lending to wealthier borrowers with spotless credit histories. In a tight credit market, companies like Harbour, which has purchased roughly 7,000 homes nationwide since 2010, including at least 42 in Cook County, purport to offer another shot at home ownership for those who can’t get mortgages. Such practices are increasingly common in struggling cities hard hit by the housing crash. A February 2016 article in the New York Times titled “Market for Fixer-Uppers Traps Low-Income Buyers” examined Harbour’s contract-for-deed sales in Akron, Ohio, and Battle Creek, Michigan. The Detroit News has reported that in 2015 the number of homes sold through contract-for-deed agreements in the city exceeded those sold through traditional mortgages.

*     *     *

Contract-for-deed sales also offered an attractive loophole from the growing set of regulations on traditional mortgages following the financial crisis. “In the same way that you saw [subprime lenders like] Countrywide get really big in the late 1990s,” says David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “one of the real attractions for the businesses operating in this space is that they are underregulated.”

March 2, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • Looking Forward: Enterprise’s Policy Focus in 2017. Enterprise works with partners nationwide to build opportunity, to create and advocate for affordable homes in thriving communities linked to good schools, jobs, transit and health care and lend funds, finance development and manage and build affordable housing, while shaping new strategies, solutions and policy.
  • A new report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) finds a shortage of 7.4 million affordable and available homes for extremely low income (ELI) renter households, who are those with incomes at or below 30 percent of area median income.
  • Homeowner spending on remodeling is expected to see healthy growth through 2025, according to Demographic Change and the Remodeling Outlook, the latest biennial report in the Improving America’s Housing series released  by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

March 2, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

March 1, 2017

Grading Trump’s Economic Performance

By David Reiss

TheStreet.com quoted me in President Trump Grades Out Well in the Eyes of Financial Advisors. I was a contrarian voice in this story:

President Trump has been in the office for a little over a month, and love him or hate him, financial industry specialists seem fairly bullish on his performance from an economic point of view.

That’s the takeaway from a single question posted to a handful of highly-respected U.S. financial advisors – “how would you grade President Trump’s economic performance one month into his term?”

All the advisors contacted by TheStreet stated, in unison, that it’s very early in the Trump presidency, and that events can change on a dime when it comes to key consumer financial issues like jobs, the stock market, gross domestic product, the housing market, and consumer spending.

But the reaction from virtually all the money managers in touch with TheStreet.com was positive, with a healthy share of As graded out. Here are those grades, and why wealth managers are, for now at least, putting. Trump at the head of the class:

*     *     *

David Reiss, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn, N.Y. – “I give President Trump a first term grade of C- for the housing market. He has indicated that he wants to roll back Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that it created. That will have a negative impact on homeowners who are protected by Dodd-Frank’s Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules. Trump started the process of rolling back Dodd-Frank with a vague executive order directing Treasury to review financial regulations. If Trump decides to completely gut the homeowner protections contained in Dodd-Frank, his grade will plummet further as predatory lending rears its head once again in the housing market.”

With media mavens, political activists, and even Main Street Americans squaring off over one of the most controversial Presidents in history, the outlook from financial specialists — with the exception of Reiss — on the economy is a bullish one, even if it’s only a month or so into the Trump administration.

March 1, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • This paper, titled Blockchain for Commercial Real Estate, talks about how blockchain technology can be applied to real estate transactions to save costs on fees, speed up transactions, and provide additional security.
  • This paper, titled Non-Banks and Lending Standards in Mortgage Markets, The Spillovers from Liquidity Regulation, shows show that greater liquidity in Ginnie Mae (GNMA) backed secondary mortgage markets has led to a higher market share and more relaxed standards for nonbanks and lenders with less deposit funding.
  • The major cities of the world have attracted a flurry of interest from out-of-town (OOT) home buyers. Such capital inflows in local real estate have implications for affordability through their effects on prices and rents, but also for construction, local labor markets, the spatial distribution of residents, and ultimately economic welfare. This paper, Out-of-Town Buyers and City Welfare, We develop a spatial equilibrium model of a city that features heterogeneous households that make optimal decisions on consumption, savings, labor supply, tenure status, and location.

March 1, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

February 28, 2017

Is Trump a Negative for the Housing Market?

By David Reiss

TheStreet.com quoted me in Is Trump a Negative for the Housing Market? It opens,

At first blush, real estate industry professionals saw a lot to like with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump was and is pro-business, and he made his billions in the commercial real estate sector. This, real estate pro’s thought, is a guy who has the industry’s back.

But not every real estate specialist views the Trump presidency as a net positive.

Take Tommy Sowers, from GoldenKey, a real estate technology platform with locations in San Francisco and Durham, N.C.

Sowers holds a “strong belief” that President Donald Trump will actually be detrimental for the real estate industry, making it less affordable for Americans to buy homes.

“During the campaign, Donald Trump spoke about home ownership numbers being the lowest they have ever been since 1965 at 62.9%,” says Sowers. In a nation where homeownership is seen as synonymous with the American dream, it’s no surprise that he wanted to highlight this low rate and suggest ways to increase it, he says. “The reality is that his policies and actions indicate the opposite,” he says.

Sowers lists several reasons why Trump may not be the industry savior some real estate professionals might have counted on:

Rising interest rates – “While this responsibility sits with the Federal Reserve, which has kept interest rates low in recent years, Trump has blasted them for doing this stating that they are ‘creating a false economy,'” Sowers explains. “Most economists predict that interest rates will now rise in 2017.”

Dismantling Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) – “During the 2008 financial crisis, the taxpayer bought out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now under government control they play a greater role than before the crisis in sustaining real estate sales and providing liquidity to the housing market,” Sowers says. “Trump wants to privatize them – a shake up to this arrangement could mean that banks stop offering the lower cost 30-year fixed rate mortgages.”

Cutting FHA home insurance – This was one of Trump’s first acts in office, making it more expensive for borrowers to insure their homes, Sowers notes. “His pick for Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, wants to limit the mortgage interest deduction,” he adds. “This may not impact the average US homebuyer but in many areas across the country the average home is above the threshold of $500,000.”

Immigrant confidence – “We are a nation of immigrants and many are here legally with green cards,” Sowers states. “His latest immigration policy has sent shock waves to foreign investors and will likely stunt confidence in immigrants that are here legally from buying a home.” President Trump has said he hopes to encourage further building with the National Association of Home Builders, he adds. “However, with so many immigrants working in the construction industry, his policies are likely decrease the speed of development,” Sowers says. “With less new homes being built, people are likely to wait and not move or buy a new house.”

There are other areas of concern, experts say. For example, reducing government regulations may thrill real estate professionals, along with buyers and sellers, but industry experts say that will actually hurt the U.S. housing market.

“Trump’s commitment to weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the consumer protection provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act will have a harmful impact on the housing market in the long run,” predicts David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Reiss says Trump and his allies argue that Dodd-Frank has cut off credit, but the numbers don’t bear that out. “Mortgage rates are near their all-time lows,” he says. “Dodd-Frank, which created the CFPB and mandated the Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules, put a brake on most of the predatory behavior that characterized the mortgage market before the financial crisis. Getting rid of Dodd-Frank and the CFPB may loosen mortgage lending a bit in the short term, but in the long term it will allow predatory lenders to return to the mortgage market, big-time.”

“We will the see bigger booms followed by bigger busts,” he adds. “That kind of volatility is not good for the housing market in the long term.”

February 28, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments