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.

Choosing a Real Estate Agent

US News & World Report quoted me in 6 Tips for Choosing a Real Estate Agent. It opens,

Selling a home has become easier over the years with online services to help the seller set a price and advertise, but most homeowners still hire a real estate agent.

While many agents have deep experience and know their markets intimately, newcomers abound – people looking to cash in when the market is hot and may not even work at the job full time. So experts advise homeowners to look carefully for an agent with the right combination of experience, knowledge, work ethic and personality.

What is a Realtor? Typically an agent is someone licensed by the state to sell real estate, while a broker is a manager of a team of agents. A Realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, the industry’s main trade group, which requires members abide by certain ethical standards. Experts suggest sellers use agents who have received more than minimum training required in their state.

“In California, the requirements for a real estate salesperson’s license are very low, basically, three classes and a test,” says Bryan Zuetel, a real estate attorney and broker in Orange County, California.

“Almost any agent can get a listing, enter the property into the (multiple listing service), create some flyers, hold open houses and fill in blanks on the contract forms,” Zuetel says. “However, most agents do not understand, but should understand, the complex contract terms, implications of an unhappy party in the transaction, legal requirements for the numerous disclosures, appropriate negotiations during the escrow period, conflict resolution via mediation or arbitration, and the remedies under the contract.”

Do your homework. Law professor David Reiss, academic program director at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, says it’s important to check out a prospective agent with previous sellers.

“Some real estate agents are great at pitching themselves but not great at marketing homes once they have the listing,” Reiss says. “Getting recommendations from friends and relatives will give you information that the agent herself or himself would not provide. Do they return phone calls promptly? Are they creative problem solvers? Do they educate themselves about the pros and cons of the home and (comparable properties in the area)?”

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.

Retired With A Mortgage

photo by Katina Rogers

U.S. News & World Report quoted me in Rethinking a Mortgage While Retired. It opens,

It’s one of the cardinal rules of retirement planning: pay off the mortgage before quitting work. Giving up your income while still supporting a big debt can mean chewing away at your retirement savings way too fast, and can leave you in a tight spot if something goes wrong.

But paying off a mortgage years early is easier said than done, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College says way too many pre-retirees are too far behind schedule, largely because of borrowing before the housing bust and financial crisis.

On the other hand, some experts say carrying low-interest debt into retirement is not always such a bad thing, especially if it means leaving money in investments that perform well.

“In 2013, almost 40 percent of all households ages 55 and over had not paid off their mortgages, up from 32 percent in 2001,” the Center reports, citing a study using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances in 2013. “These borrowers were also carrying a lot more housing debt by 2013.”

“I’ve been advising clients for over 20 years and on just an anecdotal level, I can tell you that more clients are retiring with mortgage balances than in years past,” says Margaret R. McDowell, founder of Arbor Wealth Management in Miramar Beach, Florida.

A.W. Pickel III, president of the Midwest division of AmCap Mortgage in Overland Park, Kansas, says many baby boomers traded up as their families grew, then took second mortgages to help fund college costs.

In the years before 2008, homeowners were encouraged to take out big loans when home values appeared to be soaring, the center says. They bought expensive homes or tapped home value through cash-out refinancing or home equity loans, it says.

When home prices collapsed, millions were left “underwater” – owing more than their homes were worth – and were unable to get out from under because they could not sell for enough to pay off their loan. McDowell believes many homeowners also concluded their home was not the rock-solid asset they’d thought, so they felt it unwise to pour more money into it by paying down the mortgage early.

So many just hung in there. By taking on too much debt, and monthly payments so large they could not afford extra payments to bring it down, they left themselves with too much debt too late in the game.

The center says “that 51.6 percent of working-age households were at risk of having a lower standard of living in retirement,” largely because of mortgage debt.

“In recent years, U.S. house prices have started to really improve, to the benefit of homeowners and retirees,” the center says. “But it’s difficult to predict whether the other factor that has reduced retirement preparedness – more older households with big housing debts – was a boom-time phenomenon or represents the new normal.”

But is the situation really as dire as it seems? David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York City, thinks it may not be.

“According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sales price of an existing home increased from $197,100 in 2013 to $232,200 in October of 2016,” he says. “That is a roughly 15 percent price increase and about $40,000 of additional equity for the owner of the median home.”

Many homeowners who were underwater may not be any longer.

Also, he adds, it’s not necessary to be absolutely debt free at retirement so long as income is large enough to cover expenses and leave a cushion.

“Often, paying off a mortgage gets a retiree where he or she needs to be in terms of that balance, but it is not always necessary,” he says.

The key, he says, is to not be underwater. Once the remaining debt is smaller than the home value, the homeowner is better able to sell. One option is downsizing, selling the current home, then using cash from the sale or a new, smaller mortgage to buy a cheaper home. A less expensive home will also likely have lower property taxes and maintenance costs.

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”