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.

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.

Should Seniors Pay Off Their Mortgages?

photo by Andreas Lehner

TheStreet.com quoted me in Should Seniors Pay Off Their Mortgages? It opens,

Increasingly, seniors are going against the conventional retirement wisdom about mortgages which, always before, preached that a cornerstone of a good retirement was to enter it debt free. That meant without a mortgage.

And yet about one-third of homeowners 65 and older have a mortgage now. That’s up from 22% in 2001. Among seniors 75 and older, the rate jumped from 8.4% to 21.2%.

The appeal, of course, is that home mortgages are cheap; 30-year fixed-rate loans are going out under 3.7%, and 15-year fixed rates can be had for 3.1%.

That puts the question in sharp focus: is this good financial planning or is it reckless?

Understand: age discrimination is flatly illegal in home loans. But law does not dictate financial prudence and the question is: is it wiser to pay off a home mortgage if at all possible – which used to be the prevailing wisdom? That still brings a sense of relief, too. Tim Shanahan of Compass Securities Corporation in Braintree, Mass. said: “It’s a great feeling to have no debt and a significant accomplishment to be able to tear up the mortgage.”

True.

But is this still the smartest planning? As more seniors take on home mortgages, experts are re-opening the analysis.

“The short answer to the question is it depends,” said certified financial planner Kevin O’Brien of Peak Financial Services in Northborough, Mass. O’Brien is not being cute. So much of this is individual-centric.  O’Brien continued: “It depends on how strong the person’s cash flow is or not. It depends on how much liquid savings and investments they have after they might pay it off. It also depends on the balance they need to pay off in relation to their sources of cash flow, and liquid assets.”

Keep in mind, too: today’s retirement is not yesteryear’s. About one senior in four has told researchers he plans to work past 70 years of age. That means they have income. Also, at age 70, a person has every reason to claim Social Security – there are no benefits in delaying – so that means many 70+ year-olds now have two checks coming in, plus what retirement savings and pensions they have accrued.

That complexity is why Pedro Silva of Provo Financial Services in Shrewsbury, Mass offered nuanced advice: “We like to see clients go into retirement without mortgage debt. This monthly payment can be troublesome in retirement if people are using pre-tax money, such as IRAs, to pay monthly mortgage. That means that they pay tax on every dollar coming from these accounts and use the net amount to pay the mortgage.”

“If clients will carry a mortgage, then the low rates are a great opportunity to lock in a low payment,” Silva continued. “We encourage those folks who don’t foresee paying off their home in retirement, to stretch the payments as long as possible for as low a rate as possible.”

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law and a housing expert, offered what may be the key question: “I think the right question is – what would you do with your money if you did not pay off the mortgage? Would it sit in a savings account earning 0.01% interest — and taxable interest, at that? Paying off your mortgage could give you a guaranteed rate that is equal to your mortgage’s interest rate. So if you are paying 4.5% on your mortgage and you take money from your savings account that is not spoken for — like your emergency fund — you would do way better than the 0.01% you are getting in that savings account, even after taxes are taken into account.”

 

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Millennials and Homeownership

photo by flickr@tonywebster.com

TheStreet.com quoted me in Millennials Are Accruing Less Debt, Bypassing Homeownership. It reads, in part,

Millennials are accruing less debt than their counterparts did back in 2003 — despite being saddled with large amounts of student loans — because they are putting off buying homes.

The research conducted by Torsten Sløk, a Deutsche Bank international economist, shows that Millennials, ages 25 to 35, attained less debt in 2015 than their counterparts did in 2003. The data demonstrates a 29-year old in 2003 had an average debt amount of $41,761 compared to $36,810 in 2015 or a 33-year old owed $56,859 in 2003 and $52,640 in 2015.

“It is an urban myth that the young generation today is more indebted, it is the older generations that have higher debt levels,” said Sløk in a research note. “The reason is that since 2009, it has been difficult for Millennials to get a loan. As a result, 25 to 35 year olds today have less debt than in 2003.”

Debt has been “harder to obtain” for Gen Y-ers whether they are credit cards or mortgages, said Jim Triggs, a senior vice president of counseling and support of Money Management International, a Sugar Land, Texas-based non-profit debt counseling organization.

“Millennials have not been inundated with easy to obtain credit cards like in past years,” he said. “Creditors are not on college campuses offering credit cards to college students any longer.”

While Millennials are saddled with record levels of student loans because of the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and the ease of obtaining these loans, Millennials “continue to have less credit card and mortgage debt than their parents and grandparents,” Triggs said.

The level of student loan debt is hindering borrowers ages 18 to 35 from paying for necessities such as rent, utilities and even food as 43% expressed this sentiment, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s 2016 consumer financial literacy survey, said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit organization.

“There is a staggering amount of student loan debt and it is a burden for many,” he said.

Homeownership Delays

Although Millennials have expressed the desire the own a home in the future, they are keen to keep renting in part because many of them switch jobs frequently, have not amassed a down payment or do not want the financial commitment. The zeal to pursue the “American dream” of owning a home has waned.

*     *     *

The assumption that home values would rise faster than other investments has been challenged since the Great Recession, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“One big issue is the role that home ownership plays in wealth creation,” he said. “The bottom line is that homeownership can help build a nest egg for retirement, but long-term trends and individual decisions about homeownership will have a big impact as well.”

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Round-Up

  • The Federal Reserve Bank of NY’s Center for Microeconomic Data has released its 3rd quarter Household Debt and Credit Report which shows that Mortgage debt, the largest component of household debt, increased in by $144 billion since the 2nd quarter of 2015.  Balances on Home Equity Lines of Credit decreased by $7 billion.
  • The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) sent a letter to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, proposing that advocating upfront risk sharing targets be set for 2016.  This proposal is prompted by FHFA’s near doubling of insurance fees, which are necessary to reduce the risks borne by the taxpayer when debtors default.  The MBA is advocating for private opportunity to compete in the insurance of these loans – which they say will lead to lower fees for borrowers as well.
  • The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has released its Pending Home Sales Index for October which inches up .2% to sustain 14 consecutive months of increase.  NAR also is predicting another housing boom for 2016.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup