The Cost of Owning Is Rising

"Balloons" by Shaun Fisher is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

ValuePenguin quoted me in The Cost of Owning a Home Is Rising. It reads, in part,

If you’ve looked lately at home prices in any major U.S. city, you likely got a dose of sticker shock thanks to a red-hot housing market that shows few signs of cooling off. And if that wasn’t enough of a setback for prospective homebuyers, now news comes that the cost of owning a home is rising.

In October, average mortgage rates reached 4.9%, the highest they’ve been since 2010, according to a new report from the Urban Institute. While it’s only an incremental increase over 2017’s average rate of 4.1%, it could affect both current homeowners and would-be buyers.

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What do rising mortgage rates mean for prospective home buyers?

With mortgage rates on the rise, homebuyers may need to reassess their budgets. “Homebuyers seeking to purchase a home priced at $275,000 when interest rates were at 4% will see an increase in their monthly payment of approximately $150,” said John Myers, a qualifying broker at Myers & Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “A homebuyer who could quality for a $275,000 home at a 4% interest rate will now qualify for a home of approximately $243,000.”

But despite average mortgage rates sitting at an 8-year high, it’s still considered low enough to be attractive to millions of Americans who dream of owning a home. “Five percent remains a very low interest rate for mortgages over the long term,” said David Reiss, a professor of law and real estate expert at the Brooklyn Law School. “They were over 7% in the early ‘70s and over 17% in the early ‘80s. Rates like today’s have not been seen for more than 50 years.”

Reiss told ValuePenguin he believes that nearing the 5% threshold has more of a psychological impact than anything else, and that would-be homeowners should instead focus on how much house they need and can afford. “If the monthly cost is manageable and the house meets the needs of your family, then ignore this marker,” he said. “If you are not sure you can afford that cost month-in and month-out for the foreseeable future, then find something that is more manageable, whatever the interest rate you are offered.”

Rising Mortgage Rates

graphic by Chris Butterworth

NBC News quoted me in Mortgage Rates Just Hit 5 Percent: What Does That Mean for Homebuyers and Owners? It opens,

Mortgage rates crossed the 5 percent line on Wednesday for the first time since 2011, marking a new era for a generation of Americans raised on super-low borrowing rates and highlighting the downside of a burgeoning national economy.

Strengthening economic growth, near-record low unemployment, inflation rates and policy moves by the Federal Reserve have all contributed to move the needle beyond the psychological 5 percent barrier.”It has only been in this decade that they have fallen below 5 percent, rates not seen since the 1960s,” said David Reiss, an expert in real estate law and professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

From 1971 through early October 2008, the average rate for a 30-year mortgage was 8.1 percent. The day before Halloween 1981, the number spiked at 18.44 percent, according to data from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage rebundler.

Psychology aside, there’s a real money impact as well. Every increase of 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, means another $6 per month per $100,000 of mortgage, said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com.

Over the last year, the mortgage on a typically priced home of $295,000 has increased by $115 to $120 a month.

Growing monthly payments are just one of the factors contributing to tougher times for many buyers. House prices also have been on the increase, and potential homeowners must contend with the loss of the so-called SALT deductions in last year’s tax cut legislation, which complicate things in high-tax states.

Sustainable Housing for FHA Borrowers

photo by Michael Daddino

Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Donghoon Lee and Joseph Tracy of the NY Fed have posted a staff report, Long-Term Outcomes of FHA First-Time Homebuyers. It opens,

The Commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), David Stevens, in remarks delivered on December 12, 2009, defined the purpose of the FHA as follows. “As a mission-driven organization, FHA’s goal is to provide sustainable homeownership options for qualified borrowers.” These remarks followed a remarkable increase in the scope of the FHA mortgage insurance program in response to the financial crisis and housing bust. This comment by Commissioner Stevens is important in that it clarifies a goal of the FHA program. However, this clarity was not followed up by the FHA with a definition of “sustainable homeownership.” Nor was there any documented attempt by the FHA to develop metrics to track their progress toward this objective, or a commitment by the FHA to make this information available to the public in the future.

Program evaluation is an integral part of any effective program—government or private. We illustrate in this paper that advances in data availability offer the opportunity for the FHA to both define what it means by sustainable homeownership and to measure its progress against this definition. We believe that it would be beneficial for the FHA to be transparent in this effort and to report on not only its definition and metrics, but also on its progress on an annual basis. Improved tracking of long-term outcomes of FHA borrowers will better help inform the FHA on program design. This should lead to improved outcomes over time and enhanced public support.

We focus our analysis on first-time homebuyers who are an important market segment for the FHA. The mission of sustainable homeownership is particularly relevant for these new homeowners. The benefits of a government mortgage insurance program that helps to facilitate the transition from renting to owning rests importantly on the success of these new borrowers in remaining homeowners in the future. However, to date, the FHA has not systematically tracked the progress of its first-time homebuyers after they pay off their credit risk to the FHA. We use the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) data to do this analysis starting with the 2002 cohort of FHA first-time homebuyers. (1, footnotes omitted)

This is inarguably right. The FHA should set forth performance metrics and provide annual progress reports for them. For too long, the FHA has cherry-picked metrics without providing a holistic perspective on its performance. The authors conclude,

A stated mission of the FHA mortgage insurance program is to support sustainable homeownership. An examination of the history of the FHA program illustrates a strong initial focus on sustainability, but legislated changes in the 1950s and early 1960s shifted the focus to affordability. If sustainability remains an important goal for the FHA, then it would be desirable for the FHA to define what they mean by sustainability and to track their performance over time. Only by being transparent and holding themselves accountable can the FHA improve on this objective over time. (14)

Amen to that.

Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform?

Law360 published my op ed, Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform? It reads,

There has been a lot of talk of the closed-door discussions in the Senate about a reform plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth housing finance government-sponsored enterprises. There has long been a bipartisan push to get the two entities out of their conservatorships with some kind of permanent reform plan in place, but the stars never aligned properly. There was resistance on the right because of a concern about the increasing nationalization of the mortgage market and there was resistance on the left because of a concern that housing affordability would be unsupported in a new system. It looks like the leader of that right wing, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has indicated that he is willing to compromise in order to create a “sustainable housing finance system.” The question now is whether those on the left are also willing to compromise in order to put that system on a firm footing for the 21st century.

In a speech at the National Association of Realtors, Hensarling set forth a set of principles that he would be guided by:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be wound down and their charters repealed;
  • Securitizers need strong bank-like capital and community financial institutions must be able to compete on a level playing field;
  • Any new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, be results-based and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep;
  • The Federal Housing Administration must return to its traditional role of serving the first-time homebuyer and low- and moderate-income individuals.

I am not yet sure that all of the stars are now aligned for Congress to pass a GSE reform bill. But Hensarling’s change of heart is a welcome development for those of us who worry about some kind of slow-moving train wreck in our housing finance system. That system has been in limbo for nearly a decade since Fannie and Freddie were placed in conservatorship, with no end in sight for so long. Ten years is an awfully long time for employees, regulators and other stakeholders to play it by ear in a mortgage market measured in the trillions of dollars.

Even with a broad consensus on the need for (or even just the practical reality of) a federal role in housing finance, there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. Should Fannie and Freddie be replaced with many mortgage-backed securities issuers whose securities are guaranteed by some arm of the federal government? Or should Fannie and Freddie become lender-owned mutual insurance entities with a government guarantee of the two companies? These are just two of the many options that have been proposed over the last 10 years.

Two housing finance reform leaders, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., appear to favor some version of the former while Hensarling seems to favor the latter. And Hensarling stated his unequivocal opposition to some form of a “recap and release” plan, whereas Corker and Warner appear to be considering a plan that recapitalizes Fannie and Freddie and releases them back into private ownership, to the benefit of at least some of the companies’ shareholders. The bottom line is that there are still major differences among all of these important players, not to mention the competing concerns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressives. Warren and her allies will seek to ensure that the federal housing system continues to support meaningful affordable housing initiatives for both homeowners and renters.

Hensarling made it clear that he does not favor a return to the status quo — he said that the hybrid GSE model “cannot be saved, it cannot be salvaged, it must not be resurrected, and needs to be scrapped.” But Hensarling also made it clear that he will negotiate and compromise. This represents a true opening for a bipartisan bill. For everyone on the left and the right who are hoping to create a sustainable housing finance system for the 21st century, let’s hope that his willingness to compromise is widely shared in 2018.

I am now cautiously optimistic that Congress can find some common ground. With Hensarling on board, there is now broad support for a government role in the housing sector. There is also broad support for a housing finance infrastructure that does not favor large financial institutions over small ones. Spreading the risk of default to private investors — as Fannie and Freddie have been doing for some time now under the direction of their regulator — is also a positive development, one with many supporters. Risk sharing reduces the likelihood of a taxpayer bailout in all but the most extreme scenarios.

There are still some big sticking points. What should happen with the private investors in Fannie and Freddie? Will they own part of the new housing finance infrastructure? While the investors have allies in Congress, there does not seem to be a groundswell of support for them on the right or the left.

How much of a commitment should there be to affordable housing? Hensarling acknowledges that the Federal Housing Administration should serve first-time homebuyers and low- and moderate-income individuals, but he is silent as to how big a commitment that should be. Democrats are invested in generating significant resources for affordable housing construction and preservation through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hensarling appears to accept this in principle, while cautioning that any “new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, results based, and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep.” Democrats can work with Hensarling’s principles, although the extent of the ultimate federal funding commitment will certainly be hotly contested between the parties.

My cautious optimism feels a whole lot better than the fatalism I have felt for many years about the fate of our housing finance system. Let’s hope that soon departing Congressman Hensarling and Sen. Corker can help focus their colleagues on creating a housing finance system for the 21st century, one with broad enough support to survive the political winds that are buffeting so many other important policy areas today.

What’s the CFPB Ever Done for Housing?

TheStreet.com quoted me in What’s the CFPB Ever Done For Housing? Quite A Lot. It reads, in part,

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau grew out of the housing market crash of 2008 and subsequent Dodd-Frank legislation. As a watchdog with teeth, the CFPB’s job is to protect homebuyers from the predatory mortgages that helped sink the economy nine years ago. And it worked.

In theory.

Problem is, for some would-be homeowners, the CFPB is an inconvenient middle-man, adding more red tape to an already impossible situation. In short, it isn’t perfect. But with the Trump administration threatening to tear the whole damn thing down, you’ve got to wonder, is the CFPB really doing more harm to the housing market than good?

How we got here

Pre-housing market crash, the mortgage lending world was a vastly different, Wild West sort of landscape. Dodd-Frank and the CFPB entered the scene, in part, for lending oversight in that uncontrolled housing market. For example, once not-uncommon ‘liar loans,’ which were largely based on the borrower’s word and not much else-for instance, someone saying they made $100,000 a year to qualify for a huge home even though they made $30,000-are now illegal thanks to Dodd-Frank and the CFPB. Mortgage companies cashing in at the expensive of uneducated buyers happened, and it happened a lot.

“Just about everybody I talked to prior to 2008 thought the lending climate was out of control,” says Chandler Crouch, broker and owner of Chandler Crouch Realtors in Dallas-Fort Worth. “People were saying it couldn’t last. It just didn’t make sense. Lending requirements were too loose. Everybody, from Wall Street to the banks to the loan officers to the consumers, was being rewarded for making bad decisions. Lending needed to tighten.”

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“The CFPB has been criticized for restricting mortgage credit too much with its Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School who has practiced real estate law since 1998.

This was all done to ensure buyers could afford their home and not end up in foreclosure or short sale (and also avoid another economic collapse). These rules also bar lenders from predatory loans like massive balloon loans and shady adjustable rate mortgages.

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Will no CFPB = housing hellscape?

Let’s say the Republicans get their way and the CFPB goes poof. What happens?

“You’d see an expansion of the credit box-more people would be approved for credit,” says Reiss. “To the extent that credit is offered on good terms, that would be a good development. I think you would see more potential homebuyers being approved for mortgages which would drive up home prices in the short term as there would be more competition.”

But then there’s the opportunity for those really bad loans to come swinging back, which harm homeowners would have in the past and also trigger fears of another housing collapse.

“Liar loans would definitely have a comeback if the CFPB and Dodd-Frank were dismantled,” says Reiss. “The Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules were implemented as part of the broader Dodd-Frank rulemaking agenda; without those rules, credit would quickly return to its extreme boom and bust cycle, with liar loans a product that would pick up steam just as the boom reaches its heights…We would bemoan them once again as soon as the bust hits its depths.”

Impact on Consumers of Dodd-Frank Repeal

TheStreet.com quoted me in What Would a Repeal of Dodd-Frank Mean to Consumers? It reads, in part,

With the political atmosphere unsettled at best, much of the current talk out of Washington, D.C. centers on unraveling the Dodd-Frank Act.

But what would such a move mean to the normal Main Street consumer?

“Consumers should not get too freaked out in the short term,” said David Reiss, a professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School. “The rollback is not going to happen overnight and we don’t yet know how far it will go.”

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed in 2010, as a response to the financial crisis the country saw in 2007 and 2008. However, with a new administration in the White House, some now see it as too restrictive to banks.

“Consumers should focus on the fundamentals — what are their short- and medium-term goals and how can they best achieve them?” Reiss said.

Reiss said homebuyers, for instance, should stay focused on identifying a home that is affordable for the long-term, and educate themselves about how mortgages work. And homeowners should evaluate whether their current mortgage is right for them — or should they refinancing with a mortgage that has a lower interest rate?

Repealing the act could affect more than mortgages, with many pointing to the credit card industry as being impacted the most. Ben Woolsey, president of CreditCardForum.com, said many of the protections afforded in Dodd-Frank were intended to roll back abusive practices by the financial services industry, often triggered when consumers occasionally strayed — such as by paying their card late or exceeding their credit limits. These consumer errors resulted in interest rate hikes and penalty fees.

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The good news likely is consumers still have time to prepare.
“People have plenty of time to act, but they should also not be putting off until tomorrow the things they should be doing today,” Reiss said. “We don’t know where interest rates are heading, so it makes sense to be on top of things while rates are still at historically low levels, notwithstanding the bump we saw after the election.”

Leverage in a Tight Market

photo by Rex Pe

TheStreet.com quoted me in Home Shoppers Seeking Leverage in a Tight Market. It opens,

Homebuyers have faced tight supply issues this year, and obtaining leverage in this market has been challenging.

The lower inventories pushed sales in July down by 3%, according to the National Association of Realtors, a Chicago-based trade organization. The decline has resulted in sales falling back to levels in March and April with an annualized pace of 5.39 million, bringing the sales pace down by 2% from July 2015. The level of inventory of homes for sale has declined by 6%.
As the faster summer buying pace has moved into the fall phase when there are fewer buyers, consumers have a greater advantage as homes are on the market longer. For both May and June, the listings stayed on Realtor.com a median of 65 days. By July, that figure rose to 68 days and August brings even more options and should end at 72 days. The reduction of inventory has occurred for 47 consecutive months, helping sellers, but restricting options for buyers.

For homebuyers who want to nab their dream house in the neighborhood they have been eyeing, they still have leverage, but here are some tips to improve the process.

Home Buying Tips

Before consumers start shopping, they should work on improving their finances and avoid making any large purchases such as a car. After finding out your FICO score, the goal is to find ways for it to rise above 700, which means you will qualify with more lenders and obtain a lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company.

Determine how much you can carve out of your savings for a down payment, but still maintain six months of emergency funds, especially if you are buying an older home which may have unexpected repairs.

The average down payment in 2016 is 11% across the U.S., but it depends vastly on the market and loan you are seeking.

“If you are struggling to come up with a down payment necessary for your market or type of mortgage, research down payment assistance programs,” he said. “Get all of your financial records organized, including recent bank and financial statements, the last two years of income tax filings and pay statements.”

There are many opportunities available since mortgage rates remain near historic lows and are unlikely to see substantial moves soon.

“The buying opportunity is still substantial and now the annual cycle means you will face less competition on homes that are on the market,” Smoke said.

Sellers want to see serious buyers, so getting pre-approved from a lender is important.

“A pre-approval letter as part of an offer will communicate to the seller that you have the ability to close,” he said.

Sellers still have an advantage and even though there are fewer potential buyers with fall right around the corner, the existing inventory remains low, so getting a house under contract can still be problematic, Smoke said.

“Don’t expect sellers to feel desperate,” he said. “Sellers may still act like it is the spring. Listen to the advice of your realtor on the composition of the initial offer so that you are more likely to keep the conversation going rather than face complete rejection.”

While you continue to search for another home, maintain your savings and increase the amount of your down payment and keep paying down your credit cards and student loans. Consumers who will be receiving a bonus in December should include these funds it into their down payment. If the interest rates for your credit card rates are fairly low, consider bulking up your down payment since mortgage rates are very low, said Colby Sambrotto, president of USRealty.com, a New York-based online real estate broker. said. These measures will help increase your odds as you house hunt.

“Ask your lender to recalculate your loan preapproval to reflect your updated debt-to-income ratio and the greater amount you can put down,” he said. “That can reframe your search parameters.”

Down payment assistance is available through employer and community group programs. Some companies will offer loans if you remain employed there for a certain number of years, said Sambrotto. A good source for more information about various programs is Down Payment Resource.

“The loans are usually geared to encourage employees to buy around a certain area, usually within walking distance of the employer,” he said.

Location is Key

Transportation can emerge as a “hidden cost” if your commute includes costly tolls or you want quicker access to cultural and sporting events, schools for children, shopping districts and professional education opportunities.

“Narrow your search to neighborhoods that offer economical options for commuting and routine errands,” Sambrotto said. “Look for neighborhood groups on Facebook and ask to join the conversation so you can quiz current residents about the true cost of living in that area.”

While homeowners might prefer a standard standalone house, a two-family duplex might be a better option, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. These homes have a clear advantage because they generate investment income along with various financing, tax and capital gains advantages which the traditional single-family house does not have.

“Think through your preferences and then take a fresh look at the market,” he said. “You might have that idealized picket-fenced house in mind, but a duplex will expand the number of houses you can look at. They also bring along all sorts of additional maintenance responsibilities with them, so they are not right for everyone.”