Can I Refinance?

photo by GotCredit.com

LendingTree quoted me in Can I Refinance? Refinance Requirements for Your Mortgage. It opens,

While there are many reasons to refinance a mortgage, one of the biggest factors at play is whether or not you’ll be able to get a better interest rate. When interest rates drop, homeowners are incentivized to refinance into a new mortgage with a lower rate and better terms because it can potentially save them a boatload of money over the course of their loan.

Not only can refinancing save money on interest payments, but it can lead to lower monthly payments, or be a way to get rid of a pesky primary mortgage insurance requirement once you’ve earned enough equity in your home. Homeowners can also tinker with their repayment timeline when they refinance, choosing to lengthen their loan term or even shorten it to pay off their home faster.

The first question before you refinance your mortgage is simple: Does it make financial sense? Refinancing a mortgage comes with the same closing costs and fees as a regular mortgage, so you must stand to earn more by refinancing than you’ll pay to do it.

If you’ve had the same mortgage rate since the aughts or earlier, chances are you could have much to gain by refinancing in today’s lower rate environment.

The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage hit a low point of 3.31% on Nov. 21, 2012 and hasn’t budged all too much since then. Rates currently stand at 4.32% as of Feb. 8, 2018. By comparison, rates were routinely in the double digits in the 80s and early 90s.

Will rates continue on the upward trend? Unfortunately, nobody knows. But rate behavior will very likely play a key role in your decision.

Once you’ve decided refinancing makes financial sense, the next question should be this: What does it take to qualify? That’s what we’ll cover in this guide.

If you hope to refinance before rates climb any further, it’s smart to get your ducks in a row and find out the refinance requirements for your mortgage right away. Keep reading to learn the minimum requirements to refinance your mortgage, how your credit score may come into play and what steps to take next.

Can you refinance your home?

Lenders consider three main criteria when approving consumers for a home refinance – income, equity, and credit.

  • Debt and income.
  • Equity. Equity is important because lenders want to confirm possibly getting their money back out of your home if you default on your mortgage.
  • Credit. Any lending situation will involve a credit check. “They look at your credit score to see if you have the willingness to pay your mortgage back – to see if you’re creditworthy,” said David Reiss, Professor of Real Estate Law at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Do you have a low credit score or a high credit score? Do you pay your bills on time?” he asked. “These are all things your lender needs to know.”

While the above factors play a role in whether you’ll qualify to refinance your home, lenders do get fairly specific when it comes to how they gauge your income to determine affordability. Since the amount of income you need to qualify for a new mortgage depends on the amount you wish to borrow, lenders typically use something called “debt-to-income ratio” to measure your ability to repay, says Reiss.

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)

During the underwriting process for a conventional loan, lenders will look at all the factors that make them comfortable extending you a loan. This includes your income and your debt levels, says Reiss. “Debt-to-income ratio is an easy way for lenders to determine if you have too many debt payments that might interfere with your home mortgage payment in the future.”

To come up with a debt-to-income ratio, lenders look at your debts and compare them with your income.

But, how is your debt-to-income ratio determined? Your debt-to-income ratio is all of your monthly debt payments divided by your gross monthly income.

In the real world, someone’s debt-to-income ratio would work something like this:

Imagine one of your neighbors has a gross monthly income of $4,000, but they pay out $3,000 per month toward rent payments, car loans, child support, and student loans. Their debt income ratio would be 75% because $3,000 divided by $4,000 is .75.

Reiss says this factor is important because lenders shy away from consumers with debt-to-income ratios that are considered “too high.” Generally speaking, lenders prefer to loan money to borrowers with a debt-to-income ratio of less than 43% but 36% is ideal.

In the example above where your neighbor has a monthly gross income of $4,000, this means he or she may have to get all debt payments down to approximately $1,700 to qualify for a mortgage. ($1,700 divided by $4,000 = .425 or 42.5%).

There are exceptions to the 43% DTI rule, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Some lenders may offer you a mortgage if your debt-to-income ratio is higher than 43%. Situations, where such mortgages are offered, include when a borrower has a high credit score, a stellar record of repayment or both. Still, the 43% rule is a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to traditional mortgages.

Other financial thresholds

If you plan to refinance your home with an FHA mortgage, your housing costs typically need to be less than 29% of your income while your total debts should be no more than 41%.

However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees FHA loans, also notes that potential borrowers with lower credit scores and higher debt-to-income ratios may need to have their loans manually underwritten to ensure “adequate consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay while preserving access to credit for otherwise underserved borrowers.”

Mortgage broker Mark Lewin of Caliber Home Loans in Indiana even says that in his experience, individuals with good credit and “other compensating factors” have secured FHA loans with a total debt-to-income ratio of 55%.

Of course, those who already have an FHA loan may also be able to refinance to a lower rate with no credit check or income verification through a process called FHA Streamline Refinancing. Your debt-to-income ratio won’t even be considered.

A VA loan is another type of home loan that has its own set of debt-to-income requirements. Generally speaking, veterans who meet eligibility requirements for the program need to have a debt-to-income ratio at or below 41% to qualify. However, you may be able to refinance your home with an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan from the VA if you already have a VA loan. These loans don’t have any underwriting or appraisal requirements.

Equity requirements

Equity requirements to refinance your mortgage are typically at the sole discretion of your lender. Where some home mortgage companies may require 20% equity to refinance, others have much lighter requirements.

To find out what your home is worth and how much equity you have, you typically need to pay for a home appraisal, says Reiss. “Appraisals are typically required because you have to be able to prove the value of your home in order to refinance, just like you would with a traditional mortgage.”

There are a few exceptions, however. Mortgage refinancing options that may not require an appraisal include:

  • Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loans from the VA
  • FHA Streamline Refinance
  • HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) Mortgages

Explaining loan-to-value ratio, or LTV

Loan-to-value ratio is a figure determined by assessing how much you owe on your home in relation to its value. If you owe $80,000 on a home worth $100,000, for example, your LTV would be 80% and you would have 20% equity in your home.

This ratio is important because it can determine whether your lender will approve you for a refinance. It can also determine the interest rates you’ll pay and other terms of your loan. If you have less than 20% equity in your home, for example, you may face higher interest rates and fees when you go to refinance.

Having less than 20% equity when you refinance may also cause you to have to pay PMI or private mortgage insurance. This mortgage insurance usually costs between 0.15 to 1.95% of your loan amount each year. If you have less than 20% equity in your home already, you’re already likely to be paying for this coverage all along. However, it’s still worth noting that, if you refinance with less than 20% equity, this coverage will once again get tacked onto your mortgage amount.

Is 80% LTV mandatory?

Your LTV and equity aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to your loan refi application. In fact, Reiss says that lenders he has experience with don’t absolutely require borrowers to have 20% equity or a loan-to-value ratio of 80% — so long as they score high on other measures.

“If you meet the lender’s requirements in terms of income and credit, your loan-to-value ratio doesn’t matter as much — especially if you have excellent credit and a solid payment history,” he said. However, lenders do prefer lending to consumers who have at least 20% equity in their homes.

Reiss says he always refers to 20% equity as the “gold standard” because it’s a goal everyone should shoot for. Not only does having 20% equity in your home when you refinance help you avoid paying for the added expense of PMI, but it can help provide more stability in your life, says Reiss: “Divorce, disease, and death in the family can and do happen, but having equity in your home makes it easier to overcome anything life throws your way.”

For example, having more equity in your home makes it easier to refinance into the best rates possible. Having a lot of equity is also ideal when you have to sell your home suddenly because it means you’re more likely to turn a profit and less likely to take a loss. Last but not least, if you have plenty of equity in your home, you can access that cash for emergency expenses via a home equity loan or HELOC.

“Home equity is a big source of wealth for American families,” he said. “The more equity you have, the more resources you have.”

Fortunately, many households are enjoying greater home equity today, as home values have continued to increase since the housing crisis.

Your credit score

The third factor that can impact your ability to refinance your home is your credit score. When a lender decides whether to give you a mortgage or not, they typically offer the best rates to people with very good credit, or with FICO scores of 740 or higher, according to Reiss.

“The lower your credit score, the higher your interest rate may be,” he said. “If your credit score is bad enough, you may not be able to refinance or get a new mortgage at all.”

The FICO scoring model’s main website, myFICO.com, seems to echo Reiss’ comments. As it notes, a “very good” score is any FICO score in the 740-799 range. If you earn a 740+ FICO, you’re above the national average and have a greater likelihood of getting credit approval and being offered lower interest rates.

Don’t stress about getting a perfect 850 FICO score either. In reality, rates stop improving much once you pass 740.

Decay at Donald J. Trump State Park

photo by Alan Kroeger

Yahoo News quoted me in New York’s Donald J. Trump State Park: A Story of Abandonment and Decay. It opens,

Donald J. Trump State Park is dilapidated and forgotten. No running path, no picnic table, no basketball hoop, no hiking trail, no ball field. It’s 436 acres of neglected land, overrun by weeds and brush. Most of the buildings that once stood on it have been demolished, and the few that remain are in utter disrepair: broken windows, rusted metal, corroded walls, missing or boarded-up doors and caved-in roofs.

That’s what became of the “gift” Donald Trump once gave to New York State.

Yahoo News sent several recent pictures of the park to Eric F. Trump, the president’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, to see what he thinks of its current state. He responded that the state has failed to maintain the property and that he’s disappointed by what he saw in the photographs.

“It is very disappointing to see the recent pictures of the Donald J. Trump State Park. My father donated this incredible land to the State of New York so that a park could be created for the enjoyment of all New York State’s citizens,” Eric F. Trump told Yahoo News. “Despite the fact that the terms of his gift specifically required the State to maintain the Park, the State has done a poor job running and sustaining the property. While we are looking into various remedies, it is my sincere hope that going forward, the State will exercise greater responsibility and restore the land into the magnificent park it was, and should continue to be.”

In the ’90s, then businessman Trump purchased a large swath of open meadows and thick woods 45 miles north of midtown Manhattan for a reported two million dollars, with plans to build a private golf course. But Trump couldn’t get approval from the towns of Putnam Valley or Yorktown and wound up donating the land to New York State in 2006. He claimed to the media that this “gift” was worth $100 million (though this was likely his characteristic hyperbole), and received a substantial tax write-off.

On April 19, 2006, then Gov. George E. Pataki announced Trump’s “generous and meaningful gift” would become New York’s 174th state park. He said the park would protect open space, increase public access to scenic landscapes and provide recreational opportunities in the city’s far-northern suburbs.

“On behalf of the people of the Empire State, I express our gratitude to Donald Trump for his vision and commitment to preserve the natural resource of this property for the benefit of future generations,” Pataki said at the time.

Trump said, “I have always loved the city and state of New York, and this is my way of trying to give something back. I hope that these 436 acres of property will turn into one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in the world.”

The establishment of Donald J. Trump State Park combined two parcels of land: the 282-acre Indian Hill site, which straddles the border of Westchester and Putnam counties, and the 154-acre French Hill site in Westchester County. Pataki’s office touted the new park as an example of New York’s role as a national leader in stewarding the United States’ natural resources.

But the promised recreational facilities never were built. New York stopped maintaining Donald J. Trump State Park in 2010 because of budget cuts, even though its annual operation costs were only $2,500, and it was cared for by workers at nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Park.

Randy Simons, a public information officer for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, told Yahoo News that the park is currently open and serves “as a passive park offering hiking, birdwatching and similar outdoor recreational activities.”

Simons explained that the office recently removed several vacant and shabby buildings to address potential public safety and environmental hazards. This consisted of demolishing a 3,700-square-foot house, four other structures and a swimming pool. They also conducted asbestos and lead paint abatement.

 “Trail planning is underway for a formalized hiking trail network and mountain bike trails. The first step is a natural resources review and state environmental quality review to ensure that sensitive wetlands and plant and animal habitats are protected,” Simons said. “The ultimate timeline will be determined by this review.”

*     *     *

How much Trump benefited from donating the land is difficult to determine. Bridget J. Crawford, a professor at Pace University School of Law in nearby White Plains, N.Y., and a member at the American Law Institute, said it’s quite common for wealthy people to donate real property to a state or a local government for a park. The Rockefeller family, for instance, donated the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., little by little starting in 1983.“

“There’s nothing unusual about the donation,” Crawford told Yahoo News. “The problem of course here is that the donation of land was made but there was no additional cash gift made in order to maintain or create the park. It seems the state and municipalities don’t have the money to do that. If these sort of deals ‘fail,’ it’s always because of lack of funding.”

Crawford’s scholarship focuses on wealth transfer taxation and property law. She said people who are serious about establishing open space parks that the public can use in meaningful ways often make substantial cash contributions as well to fund the park’s maintenance.

As for how much money Trump saved, it would depend on what valuation the IRS accepted for the land; the figure of $100 million was Trump’s unofficial estimate, for public consumption. Another variable is whether he personally owned the property or purchased it via a pass-through entity like an LLC. Crawford explained that if it were owned through an LLC that was ignored for income tax purposes, which is not unusual, a $100 million donation would have saved Trump about $35 million in taxes.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the IRS would accept a $100 million appraisal of land that was sold for a few million dollars at fair market value in the 1990s.

David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate finance and community development, said he doesn’t doubt that Trump got an appraisal that “pushed the limits” to price it as high as possible, a move that is not uncommon. He said it’s possible that Trump got an appraisal that determined he would make more money by donating the land than he would by selling it. And it wouldn’t have to be as high as $100 million.

“If he claimed it was worth $10 million and he bought it for two or three million dollars, it’s conceivable that he came out ahead with this donation,” he said. “He actually could be better off financially. And this is not just for Donald Trump, but any donor in a comparable situation.”

Housing Booms and Busts

photo by Alex Brogan

Patricia McCoy and Susan Wachter have posted Why Cyclicality Matter to Access to Mortgage Credit to SSRN. The paper is now particularly relevant because of President Trump’s plan to roll back Dodd-Frank’s regulation of the financial markets, including the mortgage market. While McCoy and Wachter do not claim that Dodd-Frank solves the problem of cyclicality in the mortgage market, they do highlight how it reduces some of the worst excesses in that market. They make a persuasive case that more work needs to be done to reduce mortgage market cyclicality.

The abstract reads,

Virtually no attention has been paid to the problem of cyclicality in debates over access to mortgage credit, despite its importance as a driver of tight credit. Housing markets are prone to booms accompanied by bubbles in mortgage credit in which lenders cut underwriting standards, leading to elevated loan defaults. During downturns, these cycles artificially impede access to mortgage credit for underserved communities. During upswings, these cycles make homeownership unnecessarily precarious for many who attain it. This volatility exacerbates wealth and income disparities by ethnicity and race.

The boom-bust cycle must be addressed in order to assure healthy and sustainable access to credit for creditworthy borrowers. While the inherent cyclicality of the housing finance market cannot be fully eliminated, it can be mitigated to some extent. Mitigation is possible because housing market cycles are financed by and fueled by debt. Policymakers have begun to develop a suite of countercyclical tools to help iron out the peaks and troughs of the residential mortgage market. In this article, we discuss why access to credit is intrinsically linked to cyclicality and canvass possible techniques to modulate the extremes in those cycles.

McCoy and Wachter’s conclusions are worth heeding:

If homeownership is to attain solid footing, mitigating the cyclicality in the housing finance system will be imperative. That will require rooting out procyclical practices and requirements that fuel booms and busts. In their place, countercyclical measures must be instituted to modulate the highs and lows in the lending cycle. In the process, the goal is not to maximize homeownership per se; rather, it is to ensure that residential mortgages are made on safe and affordable terms.

*     *     *

Taming procyclicality in industry practices in housing finance is much farther behind and will require significantly more work. There is no easy fix for the procyclical effect of mortgage appraisals because appraisals are based on neighboring comparables. Similarly, procyclicality will require serious attention if the private-label securitization market returns. While the Dodd-Frank Act made modest reforms designed at curbing inflation of credit ratings, the issuer-pays system that drives grade inflation remains in place. Similarly, underpricing the risk of MBS and CDS will continue to be a problem in the absence of an effective short-selling mechanism and the effective identification of market-wide leverage. (34-35)

McCoy and Wachter offer a thoughtful overview of the risks that mortgage market cyclicality poses, but I am not optimistic that it will get a hearing in today’s Washington.  Maybe it will after the next bust.

Promissory Note v. Mortgage

photo by Thugvillage

 

Zing! quoted me in What’s the Difference Between a Promissory Note and a Mortgage? It opens,

Buying a home can sometimes feel like learning a new language. Preapprovals, appraisals and the fact that “concessions” don’t involve hot dogs at a baseball game can be more than a little bewildering for first-time homebuyers. If you’re in the market for a mortgage, the more you know, the more confident you’ll be with each transaction during the life of the loan. If you find yourself scratching your head over mortgage lingo, we’d like to make your contract a little clearer by explaining two items that are often confused for one another: a promissory note and a mortgage.

What’s a Promissory Note?

Essentially, a promissory note is an agreement that promises that the money borrowed from a lender will be paid back by the borrower. “It also includes how the loan is to be repaid, such as the monthly amount and the length of time for repayment,” explains David Bakke, a finance expert at MoneyCrashers.com.

Although the home loan process involves both a mortgage and a promissory note, a promissory note can be used singularly in a lending relationship between two individuals. In this case, a promissory note is simply a promise to pay back the amount of money that is borrowed in a set amount of time.

“Another way to think of it is that the promissory note is the IOU for the home loan,” says David Reiss, who teaches about residential real estate as a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

What Is a Mortgage?

The second part of the home loan involves a mortgage, also referred to as a deed of trust. While a promissory note provides the financial details of the loan’s repayment, such as the interest rate and method of payment, a mortgage specifies the procedure that will be followed if the borrower doesn’t repay the loan.

“The actual home loan (or mortgage) provides information as far as the lender being able to demand complete repayment if the loan goes into default, or that the property can be sold if the buyer fails to repay,” says Bakke.

In the case of a home loan, the promissory note is a private contract between the client and the lender, while the mortgage is filed in the regional government records office. “Once you have paid off your loan your lender will record a document that releases you from the liability of the deed of trust and the promissory note,” says Ross Kilburn, CEO of Ark Law Group, PLLC.

It’s a Package Deal

In the home loan process, a mortgage and a promissory note are not a question of one or the other, but rather, both play distinct roles in the relationship between the lender and borrower. “A home loan refers to a transaction where a borrower borrows money from the lender and in turn signs a promissory note that reflects the indebtedness as well as a mortgage that gives a security interest in the home in case the debt is not paid back,” explains Reiss.

Negotiating Real Estate Fees

office-negotiationPolicyGenius quoted me in 5 Mortgage Loan Fees and Rates You Should Always Negotiate. It opens,

When it comes to making major purchases or financial decisions, we always hear that mantra, “Everything is negotiable.” You can haggle with the salesman when shopping for a new car, or with the hiring manager at a new job over your starting salary. It’s even possible to negotiate your tuition rates as a college student.

But a lot of the costs associated with buying a house can be difficult to negotiate down, according to mortgage advisor and author Casey Fleming.

“Appraisal, underwriter and processor are chosen by the lender, and the variation in fees is quite small,” he says. “Escrow and title services are typically chosen by the real estate agent of the seller in most areas, so the buyer has little say in what those fees will be.”

There’s also not much way around paying private mortgage insurance — you’ll need no less than a 20% down payment to avoid it.

But, you don’t need to let the non-negotiable items prevent you from bargaining for a better deal on other house-hunting costs. Here are a few fees and costs worth negotiating:

Real estate broker’s fees and commissions

From the outset, consider negotiating your real estate broker’s fees, according to Prof. David Reiss of the Brooklyn Law School, who teaches real estate finance and community development. “If 6% is standard in your community, you can look for brokers who will sell your home for 5% or less,” he says. “Be careful how low to go though, because you want your broker to be motivated enough to sell your property.”

Reiss notes that to gain the most advantage in negotiating their fees, your broker’s listing agreement should outline all the services they’ll provide you regarding advertisements, showing, and the plan in place to buy or sell the property in question.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

Judge Chesler issued an Opinion in The Prudential Insurance Company of America et al. v. Bank of America, National Association et al., No. 13-1586 (Apr. 17, 2014), deciding the motion to dismiss the Complaint. Claims relating to fraud, a theory of underwriting abandonment and the 1933 Securities Act survived the motion to dismiss. The Court summarized the case as follows:

In a nutshell, this case arises from a dispute over the sale of certain residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”) by Defendants [various Bank of America parties , including Merrill Lynch parties] to Plaintiffs [various Prudential parties]. The Complaint alleges that Defendants obtained the underlying mortgages, created the securitizations based on them, issued “offering Materials” for their sale, and sold them to Plaintiffs.

*     *     *

The Complaint alleges a variety of statistics in support of its claims. It is often not clear, however, what the basis for a particular statistic is. (1-2)

The Court’s description of the Complaint is pretty damning. But the Court does not find that the poor use of statistics in the Complaint is fatal to all of its claims.

Here are some highlights of the Court’s assessment of the Complaint:

  • “this Court does not find that the Analysis, as described in the Complaint, is such obvious junk research that it fails to constitute relevant factual allegations which, considered along with the other factual allegations in the Complaint, make plausible certain of the assertions of misrepresentation.” (8)
  • “The Complaint alleges that Defendants knowingly misrepresented that they would properly transfer title to the underlying mortgage loans to the particular trusts. The sole factual allegation made in support is: ‘Prudential’s forensic loan-level analysis revealed that across the Offerings Prudential tested, 43% of the Mortgage Loans were not properly assigned to the Trusts.’ Yes, if true, that is an astonishing fact– but there is not even a suggestion in the Complaint of a theory of how this gives rise to the inference of a knowing misrepresentation.” (13)
  • “The Complaint has so little explanation of the AVM [automated valuation model] methodology that this Court has no idea of how the computer used what information to generate property appraisals.” (15)

Notwithstanding the Court’s critique, it ends up finding the Complaint persuasive in the main:

The claim that Defendants’ representations about the underwriting practices and standards used in the issuance of the underlying mortgage loans were fraudulent because of a systemic abandonment of such underwriting standards is perhaps the central claim in this case. in brief, this Court has carefully examined the Complaint and finds that it states an abundance of factual allegations supporting this claim. (21)

The drafters of the complaint might reckon, ‘no harm no foul’ from the Court’s conclusion. But the rest of us might better see this as their having dodged a bullet, a bullet that the Plaintiffs’ attorneys shot at themselves. Mark Twain had said that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Not sure what he would have said about those in this Complaint — damned statistics?