Lingering Effects of Racially Restrictive Covenants

Image by US Census as modified by Ruhrfisch

The York Daily Record quoted me in York County Neighborhoods That Once Barred ‘Any Negro or Mongolian’ Still Do Harm. It opens,

When the Rev. David and Eulamae Orr moved into the Fayfield neighborhood in Springettsbury Township in 1963, they were the first to break the color barrier in the all-white suburban subdivision.

While the Orrs were a well-known and respected York-area black couple, owners of several business enterprises and active in civil rights, their purchase of the South Harlan Street home was uncommon enough at the time to draw headlines in local newspapers.

“My parents were very dignified about it,” Charles Orr, who inherited the home, said in a 1999 interview. “They simply said it was our right, that they had worked hard, that they always had wanted a larger, nicer house and were now able to afford it.”

The color barrier that the Orrs broke through, however, was multi-layered and resilient. People found other ways to keep minorities out of the white neighborhoods even after the Orrs had crossed the line. In fact, social and economic obstacles blocking access to fair housing for minorities remain today.

And urban planning experts say such racial barriers must come down if the city and the county of York are to reach their full potential.

Restrictions elsewhere in York County

By 1963, the 1947 Fayfield subdivision restriction prohibiting the occupancy of any Fayfield home “by any Negro, or any person of Negro extraction, excepting domestic servants …” had disappeared.

The same discriminatory restrictions against minority ownership were found in the 1931 subdivision plan for the proposed Wyndham Hills area. That covenant prohibited home ownership or occupancy by any “negro” or “Mongolian.”

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, Academic Program Director for The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, explained the term “Mongolian” in that time period was used to refer to “various people of Asian descent, including those of Chinese and Japanese heritage.”

The Wyndham Hills deed restriction placed minority home ownership under its “Nuisances” clause along with operating a foundry, a slaughterhouse, bone-boiling “or other establishment offensive to the neighborhood.”

And, it wasn’t just in the middle- and upper-class York County suburbs either. Two city homes a block apart on West Kurtz Avenue and West Maple Street, for example, carried the same minority ownership restrictions.

That initial covenant restriction against minority home ownership in Fayfield was to be open to a vote among home owners in the neighborhood in 1952. Fayfield homeowners were to vote whether the prohibition against minority ownership was to be removed, rescinded, altered, changed or extended for definite periods of time or perpetuity.

If that vote ever took place, York County historical records don’t easily reveal any documentation of it.

Now illegal, but effects remain

Steve Snell, former president of Realtors Association of York and Adams Counties, said those covenants and restrictions — while apparently legal when written — became blatantly unlawful. He couldn’t be sure if Fayfield homeowners took any action against them or if they were quietly removed as houses in the neighborhood were resold.

These covenants and restrictions kept minorities concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, primarily in the city of York. The effects of this concentration of poverty remain today, according to acclaimed urban planner David Rusk and others who have studied York. Those effects are seen in everything from the rate of homicide to the school dropout rate.

 

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.

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.

Tax Reform and Home Equity Loans

photo by Kalmia

MortgageLoan.com quoted me in Tax Reform Just Made Home Equity Loans A Lot Less Attractive. It reads, in part,

Home equity loans have long been attractive ways for homeowners to borrow money to pay for everything from major home improvements to a child’s college education. But these loans just lost a major benefit: When filing their income taxes, homeowners can no longer deduct the interest they pay on home equity loans each year.

This might make these loans less popular. The loss of the interest deduction might persuade homeowners to look for other ways to tap the money in their homes.

“From what I see, there are very limited times that home equity loans would still come in as a benefit,” said Tristan Ahumada, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Westlake Village, California.

A rush to pay off home equity loans?

And she’s not alone. Donald Daly, managing partner of REIS Group LLC in New York City and a licensed real estate appraiser, said that since January 1 he has seen a higher level of requests for appraisals from homeowners seeking to refinance their existing mortgage loans. Many of these owners are doing this as a way of paying off their Home Equity Lines of Credit, a form of home equity loan.

The reason? These lines of credit, better known as HELOCs, are not nearly as attractive to homeowners when they don’t come with the bonus of a tax deduction.

“We fully expect this trend to grow over the next weeks and months as more and more homeowners learn of the effect these changes will have on their personal finances,” Daly said.

Goodbye, deduction

In the past, homeowners who took out home equity loans or HELOCs could deduct the interest they paid on up to $100,000 of these loans. If you took out a home equity loan for $50,000, then, you could deduct all the interest you paid during the year on that loan. If you took out a home equity loan for $150,000, you could deduct the interest you paid on the first $100,000 of that loan.

When Congress in December of last year signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law, this all changed. The big tax reform legislation eliminates the home equity loan deduction starting in 2018. You can still claim your tax deduction when you file your income taxes in April of this year. That’s because you’re paying taxes from 2017.

But you won’t be able to claim the home equity loan deduction when you file on your 2018 taxes and beyond. Most of the tax cuts impacting taxpayers, including the home equity deduction rules, are scheduled to expire after 2025. No one knows, though, whether Congress will vote to continue them past that date once that year rolls around.

Existing loans aren’t grandfathered in, either. If you took out a home equity loan in 2016 and you’re still paying it off this year, you won’t be able to deduct any interest you pay on it in 2018, even if you’ve already deducted interest payments in the past.

*     *      *

Home equity loans can still work, though

Just because the tax benefits of home equity loans are disappearing, though, doesn’t mean that these loans are no longer a viable option for all homeowners.

The deduction was a benefit, but the biggest advantage of home equity loans is that they are a relatively cheap way to borrow money. The mortgage rates attached to home equity loans tend to be low. That isn’t changing.

So if you do have equity in your home and you want money to help pay, say, for your children’s college tuition, a home equity loan or HELOC might still be a smart move.

“While tax deductions are important, they are not the only reason we take out home equity loans,” said David Reiss, professor law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, New York.

Reiss said that when considering whether a home equity loan or HELOC is right for them, homeowners need to ask several important questions.

First, why do they want to take out the loan? If it’s for home improvements or to reduce high-interest-rate debt, the loan might still be worthwhile, even with the tax changes.

Next, homeowners need to look at their monthly budgets to determine if they can afford the payments that come with these loans. Finally, homeowners should consider whether they can borrow money cheaper somewhere else, taking the loss of the deduction into consideration.

“If you are comfortable with your answers, there is no reason not to consider a home equity loan as a financing option,” Reiss said.

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.

The Impact of Tax Reform on The Real Estate Sector

photo by Sergiu Bacioiu

Congress passed the tax reform act on December 20, 2017 and President Trump is supposed to sign it by the end of the week. A lot of ink has been spilled on the impact of tax reform on homeowners, but less on real estate as an investment class. It will take lawyers and accountants a long time to understand all of the in ands outs of the law, but it is pretty clear that commercial real estate investors will benefit significantly. Most of the provisions of the act are effective at the start of the new year.

Homeowners and the businesses that operate in the residential real estate sector will be impacted in various ways (the net effect on any given taxpayer will vary significantly based on a whole lot of factors) by the increase in the standard deduction; the limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes; the shrinking of the mortgage interest deduction; and the restrictions on the capital gains exclusion for the sale of a primary residence. There are tons of articles out there on these subjects.

The impact on real estate investors has not been covered very much at all. The changes are very technical, but very beneficial to real estate investors. There are a couple of useful resources out there for those who want an overview of these changes. The BakerBotts law firm has posted Tax Reform Act – Impact on Real Estate Industry and the Seyfarth Shaw law firm has posted Tax Reform for REITs and Real Estate Businesses.

To understand the impacts on the real estate industry in particular, it is important to understand the big picture.  The new law lowered the highest marginal tax rates for individuals from 39.6% to 37% (some individuals will also need to pay unearned income Medicare tax as well). The highest marginal tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains stays at 20% for individuals. The other big change was a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 21%. Because qualified dividends are taxed at 20%, the effective tax rate on income from a C corp that is distributed to its shareholders will be 36.8% (plus Medicare tax, if applicable).

Benefits in the new law that particularly impact the real estate sector include:

  • REITs and other pass-through entities are eligible for as much as a 20% deduction for qualified business income;
  • favored treatment of interest expense deductions compared to other businesses;
  • Real estate owners can still engage in tax-favored 1031 exchanges while owners of other assets cannot; and
  • Some types of commercial real estate benefit from more favorable depreciation provisions.

While it is clear that real estate investors came out ahead with the new tax law, it is not yet clear the extent to which that is the case.

The Impact of Tax Reform on Real Estate

Cushman & Wakefield have posted The Great Tax Race: How the World’s Fastest Tax Reform Package Could Impact Commercial Real Estate. There is a lot of interesting insights in the report, notwithstanding the fact that ultimate fate of the Republicans’ tax reform is still a bit up in the air. Indeed, C&W estimates that there is a 1 in 5 chance that a bill will not pass this year.

Commercial Real Estate

C&W states that history

suggests that tax law changes by themselves are often not key drivers for transactions or for investment performance. However, there is likely to be a period of transition and market flux as investors restructure to optimize tax outcomes with implications for the underlying asset classes. Corporations are likely to separate the real estate aspects of their businesses. (2)

The commercial real estate industry is largely exempt from the biggest changes contained in the House and Senate bills. 1031 exchanges, for instance, have not been touched. C&W sees corporations being big beneficiaries, with a net tax cut of $400 billion over the next 10 years; however, they “anticipate that the tax cut will be preferentially used to return capital to shareholders or reduce debt, rather than to increase corporate spending.” (2)

Residential Real Estate

C&W sees a different effect in the residential real estate sector, with a short-term drag on home values in areas with high SALT (state and local tax) deductions, including California, NY and NJ:

The drag on home values is likely to be largest in areas with high property taxes and medium-to-high home values. There is also likely to be a larger impact in parts of the country where incomes are higher and where a disproportionate proportion of taxpayers itemize. Both versions of the tax reform limit property tax deductibility to $10,000. While only 9.2% of households nationally report property taxes above this threshold, this figure rises to as high as 46% in Long Island, 34% in Newark and 20% in San Francisco according to Trulia data.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) estimates that 22% of mortgages in the U.S. have balances over $500,000, with most of these concentrated in high costs areas such as Washington, DC and Hawaii—where more than 40% of home purchase loans originated last year exceeded $500,000. This is followed by California at 27%, and New York and Massachusetts at 16%. (6)

C&W also evaluated tax reform’s impact on housing market liquidity and buy v. rent economics:

The median length of time people had owned their homes was 8.7 years in 2016—more than double what it had been 10 years earlier. Now that interest rates have begun to tick upward from their historic lows, the housing market may face a problem called the “lock-in” effect, where homeowners are reluctant to move, since moving might entail taking out a new mortgage at a higher rate. This leads to the possibility of decreasing housing market liquidity in high-priced markets.

All things considered, the doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on the property tax deduction is likely to have the largest impact on the buy vs. rent incentive, especially as it seems likely that there will be minimal changes to the mortgage interest deduction in any final tax reform bill. (7-8)