The Advantages of ARMs

photo by Kathleen Zarubin

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Why Home Buyers Should Consider Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (behind paywall). It opens,

While many out-of-the-mainstream loans got a black eye in the subprime debacle, today’s versions have been shorn of the toxic features—such as negative amortization and prepayment penalties—that tripped up many borrowers during the housing bubble a decade ago.

Plan to move

Experts say today’s adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, as well as interest-only loans, are especially suitable for borrowers who expect to move before any rate increases can wipe out the savings in the early years. They’re also useful for sophisticated borrowers wrestling with uneven income, borrowers who expect their income to rise, or borrowers who are willing to bet they can invest their mortgage savings for a greater return elsewhere.

“Many of the mortgage products that some may have thought slipped into extinction, such as interest-only loans, do still exist today, but in far less volume” than in the heyday of the subprime era, says Bill Handel, vice president of research and product development at Raddon Financial Group, consultant to the financial-services industry.

Adds David Reiss, a law professor and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School: “The benefits of non-30-year, fixed-rate mortgages are legion.”

A sweet spot

Many borrowers can find a sweet spot, for example, in the so-called 7/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, which carries a fixed rate for seven years before starting annual adjustments. With a typical rate of 3.75%, the monthly payment on a $300,000 loan would be $1,389, compared with $1,449 for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan at 4.1%, saving the borrower $5,040 over seven years.

Even if the loan rate then went up, it could take two or three years for higher payments to offset the initial savings, making the mortgage a good choice for a borrower likely to move within 10 years. Once annual adjustments begin, they are generally calculated by adding a fixed margin to a floating rate, such as the London interbank offered rate.

“ARMs are very underutilized,” says Mat Ishbia, president of United Wholesale Mortgage, a lender in Troy, Mich. He expects the 7/1 ARM to account for 15% of new mortgages within the next few years, up from less than 5% today. Historically, ARMs become more popular as interest rates rise, making savings from the loan’s low initial “teaser rate” more attractive, he notes.

Judge Gorsuch v. Uncle Sam

The Hill published my latest column, Where Does Judge Gorsuch Stand on Limiting the Federal Government? It opens,

This week, all eyes are on Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court. While Gorsuch has not explicitly stated that he wants to drown or deconstruct the federal government, there is troubling language in his opinions that indicates that he shares that goal. While this will hearten many a Tea Partyer, moderate Republicans along with Democrats should be wary of someone who does not value the good that the federal government can and does do.

His opinion in Caring Hearts Personal Home Services v. Burwell describes a federal government that has ceased to function rationally: “The number of formal rules [administrative] agencies have issued thanks to their delegated legislative authority has grown so exuberantly it’s hard to keep up. The Code of Federal Regulations now clocks in at over 175,000 pages. And no one seems sure how many more hundreds of thousands (or maybe millions) of pages of less formal or ‘sub-regulatory’ policy manuals, directives, and the like might be found floating around these days.”

He continues, “This case has taken us to a strange world where the government itself — the very ‘expert’ agency responsible for promulgating the ‘law’ no less — seems unable to keep pace with its own frenetic lawmaking. A world Madison worried about long ago, a world in which the laws are ‘so voluminous they cannot be read’ and constitutional norms of due process, fair notice, and even the separation of powers seem very much at stake.”

While this opinion draws a colorful picture of a topsy-turvy government that plays well to the crowd, the fact is that the federal government runs pretty well given its size and complexity. Indeed, employees of large and profitable corporations can often be heard making the same kind of complaints about their employers. All large organizations have their catch-22s, their inconsistencies, their maddening snafus. But the fact remains that large organizations have been remarkably successful at navigating the modern world.

Gorsuch’s lazy originalism, with musings of Madison’s concerns about a legal code so massive that it is unknowable, may have packed a punch at the dawn of the administrative state a hundred years ago. Today it misses its mark. Indeed, the first lesson I teach my law students is that their job is not to know what the law is in advance, but rather to be able to figure it out when a case presents itself. The same could be said of any professional. A doctor need not know all of the medical literature. She just needs to be able to search it in order to diagnose her patient. In fact, the massive code is pretty knowable. Just use Google. It’s all there.

For those of us who work for large organizations, who deal with large amounts of data, who crisscross the world’s borders, who do business over state lines, we know that we can survive and thrive in this complex world. And there simply is no alternative. To deny this is to pander to silly romantics who pine for a time that passed more than a century ago for most people: when you only did business with your neighbors, when your justice of the peace lived down the block and when you walked to your job across town.

President Trump knows this. His businesses are scattered across the globe. Steve Bannon knows this. He worked at Goldman Sachs. And Judge Gorsuch certainly knows this. But they also know that people like to hear that we can go back to a simpler time that never really existed for most Americans.

We do not need that kind of patronizing nostalgia in the Supreme Court. Our ninth justice should be one who can craft solutions to our 21st century legal problems that are based on the values embodied in the Constitution, not the facts of life of a bygone era.

Understanding FSBO

US News & World Report quoted me in 3 Things to Know About Selling a House on Your Own. It opens,

The internet is full of sites that help homeowners sell property on their own, promising thousands in savings by avoiding commissions, but the National Association of Realtors says commission savings on a for-sale-by-owner transaction, or FSBO, are more than offset by lower sales prices.

The truth lies somewhere in between, according to most objective analysts. So for most sellers, deciding whether to go FSBO is a tough call.

Ali Wenzke, a Chicago writer with a blog called the Art of Happy Moving, says do-it-yourself transactions have worked well for her.

“My husband and I have sold two houses FSBO and purchased one home without an agent,” she says. “Be objective. Work hard. Be flexible to do showings at any time.”

“Anyone can do it and the average home is shown five times or less,” says Sissy Lappin, co-founder of the FSBO website ListingDoor.com.“The notion that no buyers or sellers can understand or manage what happens in a transaction is simply absurd.”

One thing is sure: the average seller’s experience does not necessarily apply in any specific case. What matters is whether you can succeed with a FSBO, regardless of whether your neighbor has.

Adjust your expectations. Experts do agree that FSBO novices should be realistic. Even if you get top dollar and avoid the agent’s commission, the process can be a time-consuming headache. And even if you don’t have an agent of your own, you may have little choice but to pay one representing the buyer, cutting the savings in half.

“While listing on your own seems easy, you are in fact replacing a job which you usually employ a broker to do full time,” says New York-based real estate agent Dylan Hoffman, who is not a fan of FSBOs. “You will need to organize showings, tours, previews and open houses. Plus all the back-end work, like maintaining photos and descriptions on websites, checking for a clear title, etc. An owner would also take on the role of marketing, both digital and print.”

The internet has made the process much easier, with many sites now offering listings, advice and services like printing signs. For a fee, usually several hundred dollars, some services will get your home on the multiple listing service used by real estate agents and buyers, though Lappin says it’s good enough to list on a site like Zillow.com, which is free. The goal is to save the agent’s commission, typically about 6 percent of the sales price, or $18,000 for a $300,000 home.

“FSBO has grown up and sellers don’t have to settle for a red-and-white generic yard sign,” Lappin says.

She says the seller of a $400,000 home with $60,000 in equity would spend 40 percent of that equity if they paid a real estate agent 6 percent commission, or $24,000.

What kind of homes sell without an agent? The National Association of Realtors says about 10 percent of home sales are conducted without an agent, though some critics say the figure is higher. The association says the average FSBO sells for 13 percent less than the average agent-assisted sale. Again, critics like Lappin disagree, with many noting the association’s studies do not look at comparable homes and lump in mobile homes and other inexpensive properties, as well as intra-family deals that tend to have low sales prices. Association figures do show that FSBO is less common with high-priced homes.

FSBO advocates generally agree that doing it yourself is more difficult for the seller, and can take longer. Though you might catch a buyer’s eye right off the bat, the FSBO approach is relatively passive, as you won’t have an agent steering buyers your way. Obviously, the seller must be available to show the house, and that can require weekdays, not just Sunday afternoons.

“It takes a lot of people skills to sell your own home,” says law professor David Reiss, director of The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at New York’s Brooklyn Law School. “Can you engage with potential buyers even as they are criticizing your house and the choices you made about it? Can you distinguish serious buyers from window shoppers? Can you negotiate without giving away the farm or playing too hard to get?”

Anti-discrimination laws limit what you can tell buyers about issues like the ethnicity of neighbors, or even the number of school-aged kids or seniors on the block. And you have to be willing to show to all comers.

Going it alone also means you won’t have an agent’s advice setting the home up to it up to look its best, though you could hire a professional stager.