How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Rising Mortgage Borrowing for Seniors

graphic by www.aag.com/retirement-reverse-mortgage-pictures

J. Michael Collins et al. have posted Exploring the Rise of Mortgage Borrowing Among Older Americans to SSRN. The abstract reads,

3.6 million more older American households have a mortgage than 2000, contributing to an increase in mortgage usage among the elderly of thirty-nine percent. Rather than collecting imputed rent, older households are borrowing against home equity, potentially with loan terms that exceed their expected life spans. This paper explores several possible explanations for the rise in mortgage borrowing among the elderly over the past 35 years and its consequences. A primary factor is an increase in homeownership rates, but tax policy, rent-to-price ratios, and increased housing consumption are also factors. We find little evidence that changes to household characteristics such as income, education, or bequest motives are driving increased mortgage borrowing trends. Rising mortgage borrowing provides older households with increased liquid saving, but it does not appear to be associated with decreases in non-housing consumption or increases in loan defaults.

The discussion in the paper raises a lot of issues that may be of interest to other researchers:

Changes to local housing markets tax laws, and housing consumption preferences also appear to contribute to differential changes in mortgage usage by age.

Examining sub-groups of households helps illuminate these patterns. Households with below-median assets and those without pensions account for most of the increase in borrowing. Yet there are no signs of rising defaults or financial hardship for these older households with mortgage debt.

Relatively older homeowners without other assets, especially non-retirement assets, may simply be borrowing to fund consumption in the present—there are some patterns of borrowing in response to local unemployment rates that are consistent with this concept. This could be direct consumption or to help family members.

Older homeowners are holding on to their homes, and their mortgages, longer and potentially smoothing consumption or preserving liquid savings. Low interest rates may have enticed many homeowners in their 50s and 60s into refinancing in the 2000s. Those loans had low rates, and given the decline in home equity and also other asset values in the recession, paying off these loans was less feasible. There is also some evidence that borrowing tends to be more common in areas where the relative costs of renting are higher–limiting other options. Whether these patterns are sustained as more current aging cohorts retire from work, housing prices appreciate, and interest rates increase remains ambiguous.

The increase in the use of mortgages by older households is a trend worthy of more study. This is also an important issue for financial planners, and policy makers, to monitor over the next few years as more cohorts of older households retire, and existing retirees either take on more debt or pay off their loans. Likewise, estate sales of property and probate courts may find more homes encumbered with a mortgage. Surviving widows and widowers may struggle to pay mortgage payments after the death of a spouse and face a reduction of pension or Social Security payments. This may be a form of default risk not currently priced into mortgage underwriting for older loan applicants. If more mortgage borrowing among the elderly results in more foreclosures, smaller inheritances, or even estates with negative values, this could have negative effects on extended families and communities.

Loan Mods Amidst Rising Interest Rates

photo by Chris Butterworth

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have posted Government Loan Modifications: What Happens When Interest Rates Rise?. This brief is another product of the newly formed Mortgage Servicing Collaborative. This brief

examines the current loan modification product suite for government loans insured or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). When a delinquent borrower with a government loan obtains a modification, the mortgage rate is typically reset to the prevailing market rate, which can be higher or lower than the original note rate. When the market rate is below the original rate, providing payment reduction becomes inherently easier and less expensive for the investor. Conversely, when market rates are above the note rate, providing payment reduction becomes more expensive and challenging, making it more difficult to cure the delinquency. This can result in more redefaults and foreclosures, larger losses for government insurers, and greater distress for borrowers, communities, and neighborhoods. In addition, most government mortgage borrowers are first-time homebuyers and minorities, who tend to have limited incomes and savings, making loan modifications all the more important. (1)

Given the recent upward trend in interest rates, this is more than a theoretical exercise. And indeed, the brief “explains why FHA, VA, and USDA borrowers who fall behind on their payments are unlikely to receive adequate payment relief when the market interest rate is higher than the original note rate. ” (3)

The brief outlines some options that could increase payment relief for those borrowers, including deploying a 40-year extended term and principal forbearance to reduce the monthly mortgage payment. The brief acknowledges that there are barriers to implementing the options it has identified but it also proposes ways to overcome those barriers.

As I had stated previously, the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative is providing sorely needed guidance through some of the darker corners of the mortgage market. This brief sheds some welcome light on an obscured problem that may cause trouble in the years to come.

The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative

The Urban institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have announced The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative:

All mortgage market participants share the same goal: successful homeownership. Failure to achieve that goal hurts not only consumers and neighborhoods, but investors, insurers, guarantors, and servicers. Successful homeownership hinges on several factors. Consumers need access to a range of mortgage products when buying a home and need effective mortgage servicing. Servicing is the critical work that begins after the mortgage loan is closed and includes collecting and transferring mortgage payments from borrowers to investors, managing escrow, assisting borrowers who fall behind on their payments, and administering the foreclosure process. If closing the loan is the birth of the mortgage, servicing is its day-to-day care.

Despite its importance, mortgage servicing is frequently overlooked in major policy conversations, including the housing finance reform debate. That is a mistake. The servicing industry has changed dramatically since the 2008 mortgage default and foreclosure crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Overlooking servicing while implementing changes to the housing finance system has resulted in some unintended and unwanted consequences, including significant increases in the cost of servicing, a suboptimal servicing system, reduced access to credit for consumers, and an exodus from the industry by depository servicers.

To address this policy oversight, the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center (HFPC) has convened the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative (MSC) to elevate the mortgage servicing discussion and facilitate evidence-based policymaking by bringing more data and evidence to the table. The MSC has convened key industry stakeholders—lenders, servicers, consumer groups, civil rights leaders, researchers, and government—and tasked them with developing a common understanding of the biggest issues in mortgage servicing, their implications, and possible solutions and policy options that can advance the debate. And with the mortgage industry no longer operating in crisis mode, we believe now is the right time for this effort.

In this brief, the first in a series prepared by HFPC researchers with the collaboration of the MSC, we review how we arrived at the present state of affairs in mortgage servicing and explain why it is important to institute mortgage servicing reforms now. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The report provides a short but useful history of servicing, which at the best of times is a dark corner of the mortgage market. It also provides an overview of the risks inherent in a poorly constructed system of servicing for consumers and other players in that market. The Collaborative will certainly be taking deeper dives into these risks in future releases.

As with much of the Housing Finance Policy Center’s work, this collaborative is very forward-looking. Hopefully, it will help us prepare for the next downturn in the housing market.

The Miraculous Continuous Workout Mortgage

Professor Robert Shiller

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller et al. have posted Continuous Workout Mortgages: Efficient Pricing and Systemic Implications to SSRN. The paper opens,

The ad hoc measures taken to resolve the subprime crisis involved expending financial resources to bail out banks without addressing the wave of foreclosures. These short-term amendments negate parts of mortgage contracts and question the disciplining mechanism of finance. Moreover, the increase in volatility of house prices in recent years exacerbated the crisis. In contrast to ad hoc approaches, we propose a mortgage contract, the Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM), which is robust to downturns. We demonstrate how CWMs can be offered to homeowners as an ex ante solution to non-anticipated real estate price declines.

The Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM, Shiller (2008b)) is a two-in-one product: a fixed rate home loan coupled with negative equity insurance. More importantly its payments are linked to home prices and adjusted downward when necessary to prevent negative equity. CWMs eliminate the expensive workout of defaulting on a plain vanilla mortgage. This subsequently reduces the risk exposure of financial institutions and thus the government to bailouts. CWMs share the price risk of a home with the lender and thus provide automatic adjustments for changes in home prices. This feature eliminates the rational incentive to exercise the costly option to default which is embedded in the loan contract. Despite sharing the underlying risk, the lender continues to receive an uninterrupted stream of monthly payments. Moreover, this can occur without multiple and costly negotiations. (1, references omitted)

If it is not obvious, this is a radical idea.  It was not even contemplated before the financial crisis. That being said, it is pretty brilliant financial innovation, one that should not just be discussed by academics. The paper provides a lot more detail about the proposal for those who are interested. And if you want to avoid taxpayer bailouts of the housing market in the future, you should be interested.

Understanding Homeownership

 

The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute released its House Finance at a Glance Chartbook for December. It states that financial education “can help reduce barriers to homeownership.” As I argue below, I do not think that financial education is the right thing to emphasize when trying to get people to enter the housing market.

The Introduction makes the case for financial education:

While mortgage debt has been stable to marginally increasing, other types of debt, particularly auto and student loan debt have increased far more rapidly. Our calculations, based on The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, show that over the past 5 years (Q3 2012 to Q3 2017), mortgage debt outstanding has grown at an annualized rate of 1.3 percent, while non-mortgage debt (which includes credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and other debt) has grown by 6.8 percent annualized rate. Student loan debt has grown by 7.3 percent per year while auto debt has been growing by 9.6 percent per year. In Q3 2012, the number of accounts for mortgage loans and auto loans are very close (84 million vs 82 million). By Q3 2017, the number of accounts for mortgages had fallen to 80 million consistent with declining homeownership rate, while the number of accounts for auto loans had increased to 110 million.

Another metric where auto loans have diverged from mortgages is delinquency rates. Over the past 5 years, mortgage delinquencies have plummeted (pages 22 and 29) while the percent of auto loans that is more than 90 days late is roughly flat despite an improving economy. However, the percent of auto loans transitioning into serious delinquency has risen from 1.52 percent in Q3 2012 to 2.36 percent in Q3 2017. While these numbers remain small, the growth bears monitoring.

When we looked at the distribution of credit scores for new auto origination and new mortgage origination, we found no major change in either loan category; while mortgage credit scores are skewed higher, the distribution of mortgage credit scores (page 17) and the distribution of auto credit scores have been roughly consistent over the period. Our calculations based off NY Fed data shows the percent of auto loan origination balances with FICOs under 660 was 35.9% in Q3, 2012, it is now 31.7%; similarly the percent of auto origination with balances under 620 has contracted from 22.7 percent to 19.6 percent. There have been absolutely more auto loans with low FICOs originated, but this is because of the increased overall volume.

So what might explain the differences in trends in the delinquency rate and loan growth between these two asset classes? A good part of the story (in addition to tight mortgage credit) is that many potential low- and moderate-income borrowers do not believe they can get a mortgage. As a result, many don’t even bother to apply. We showed in our recently released report on Barriers to Accessing Homeownership that survey after survey shows that borrowers think they need far bigger down payments than they actually do. And there are many down payment assistance programs available. Moreover, it is still less expensive at the national level to own than to rent. This suggests that many LMI borrowers who are shying away from applying for a mortgage could benefit from financial education; with a better grasp of down payment facts and assistance opportunities, many of these families could be motivated to apply for mortgages and have the opportunity to build wealth. (5)

I am not sure if financial education is the whole answer here. Employment instability as well as generalized financial insecurity may be playing a bigger role in home purchases than in car purchases. The longer time horizon as well as the more serious consequences of a default with homeownership may be keeping people from stepping into the housing market. This is particularly true if renters have visions in their heads of family members or friends suffering during the long and lingering foreclosure crisis.

Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.