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.

The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

I published a short article in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL)  (ACREL) News & Notes, The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump. The abstract reads,

Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs was one of President Trump’s first Executive Orders. He signed it on January 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states that it “is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. . . . [I]t is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations.” The Reducing Regulation Executive Order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but was short on details other than the requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones.

A few days later, Trump issued another Executive Order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular, Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System. Pursuant to this second Executive Order, the Trump Administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” The Core Principles Executive Order was also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has been issuing a series of reports that fill in many of the details for financial institutions. The Department of Treasury has issued three of four reports that are collectively titled A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities that are directly responsive to the Core Principles Executive Order. While these documents cover a broad of topics, they offer a glimpse into how the Administration intends to regulate or more properly, deregulate, residential real estate finance in particular.

This is a shorter version of The Trump Administration And Residential Real Estate Finance, published earlier this year in the Westlaw Journal: Derivatives.

Trump and the Regulation of Real Estate

I have posted my article, The Trump Administration and Residential Real Estate Finance, which just came out in Westlaw Journal Derivatives to SSRN (and also to BePress). The abstract reads,

An executive order titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” was one of President Donald Trump’s first executive orders. He signed it Jan. 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states: “It is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. … It is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with federal regulations.” This executive order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but it was short on details other than setting a requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones. A few days later, Trump issued another executive order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular. That order is titled “Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System.” It says the Trump administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” However, it is also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad executive orders, his administration issued two sets of documents that fill in applicable details for financial institutions. The first is a slew of documents that were released as part of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ Current Regulatory Plan and the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. The second is a series of Treasury reports — titled “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities” — that are directly responsive to the core principles executive order. While these documents cover a broad range of topics, they offer a glimpse into how this administration intends to regulate — or more properly, deregulate — residential real estate finance in particular. What is clear from these documents is that the Trump administration intends to roll back consumer protection regulation so that the mortgage market can operate with far less government oversight.

American Bankers on Mortgage Market Reform

The American Bankers Association has issued a white paper, Mortgage Lending Rules: Sensible Reforms for Banks and Consumers. The white paper contains a lot of common sense suggestions but its lack of sensitivity to consumer concerns greatly undercuts its value. It opens,

The Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, enumerated in Executive Order 13772, include the following that are particularly relevant to an evaluation of current U.S. rules and regulatory practices affecting residential mortgage finance:

(a) empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth;

(c) foster economic growth and vibrant financial markets through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis that addresses systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry; and

(f) make regulation efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored.

The American Bankers Association offers these views to the Secretary of the Treasury in relation to the Directive that he has received under Section 2 of the Executive Order.

 Recent regulatory activity in mortgage lending has severely affected real estate finance. The existing regulatory regime is voluminous, extremely technical, and needlessly prescriptive. The current regulatory regimen is restricting choice, eliminating financial options, and forcing a standardization of products such that community banks are no longer able to meet their communities’ needs.

 ABA recommends a broad review of mortgage rules to refine and simplify their application. This white paper advances a series of specific areas that require immediate modifications to incentivize an expansion of safe lending activities: (i) streamline and clarify disclosure timing and methodologies, (ii) add flexibility to underwriting mandates, and (iii) fix the servicing rules.

 ABA advises that focused attention be devoted to clarifying the liability provisions in mortgage regulations to eliminate uncertainties that endanger participation and innovation in the real estate finance sector. (1, footnote omitted)

Its useful suggestions include streamlining regulations to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens; clarifying legal liabilities that lenders face so that they can act more freely without triggering outsized criminal and civil liability in the ordinary course of business; and creating more safe harbors for products that are not prone to abuse.

But the white paper is written as if the subprime boom and bust of the early 2000s never happened. It pays not much more than lip service to consumer protection regulation, but it seeks to roll it back significantly:

ABA is fully supportive of well-regulated markets where well-crafted rules are effective in protecting consumers against abuse. Banks support clear disclosures and processes to assure that consumers receive clear and comprehensive information that enables them to understand the transaction and make the best decision for their families. ABA does not, therefore, advocate for a wholesale deconstruction of existing consumer protection regulations . . . (4)

If we learned anything from the subprime crisis it is that disclosure is not enough.  That is why the rules.  Could these rules be tweaked? Sure.  Should they be dramatically weakened? No. Until the ABA grapples with the real harm done to consumers during the subprime era, their position on mortgage market reform should be taken as a special interest position paper, not a white paper in the public interest.

Patenaude To Help Lead HUD

photo: J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families

Pamela Hughes Patenaude

Realtor.com quoted me in ‘Ultimate Housing Insider’: Pam Patenaude Nominated as HUD Deputy Secretary. It reads,

Pam Patenaude was nominated by President Donald Trump to become deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development, according to a White House statement released on Friday. The move has been met with resounding applause by industry insiders who think her background could serve as the perfect complement to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who entered his role without experience in housing or government.

Patenaude, currently president of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for America’s Families, was formerly an assistant secretary for community, planning, and development at HUD, under President George W. Bush. She also served as director of housing policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission. Patenaude’s nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

“She’s the ultimate housing insider,” says David Reiss, research director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “She’s connected and has a lot of respect within the housing field.”

Real estate industry organizations hailed the choice, including the National Association of Realtors®. In a statement, NAR President William E. Brown said, “Pam’s extensive and strong background in real estate and housing will be an asset. … Pam is an ideal candidate for the position; she understands the issues that impact the industry.”

David Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, also offered his thumbs-up.

“Pam is an exceptional choice for the position,” Stevens said in a statement. “Personally, I have worked with her for a number of years and she is exactly the kind of leader who will help support the secretary and also address the critical issues ahead for HUD. She has a well-informed understanding of the agency, and essential technical knowledge of the real-estate finance industry. I would encourage the Senate to move swiftly in confirming her nomination.”

This depth of experience, Reiss says, serves as the perfect foil for Carson. As HUD secretary, Carson serves as the public face of this department, while Patenaude will handle the daily duties of running the organization.

“The big criticism of Carson is that he has no experience or background in housing,” Reiss continues. “So to have a No. 2 who’s really responsible for the day-to-day responsibility of the agency is a plus.”

What Patenaude’s appointment could mean for housing

In November, rumors were swirling that the Trump administration was considering Patenaude as HUD secretary, but then Carson got the nod instead, and then the Trump administration released a budget calling for $6 billion in cuts to the department. Patenaude’s nomination has many hopeful that HUD’s core initiatives—like affordable housing—will remain a priority.

“Trump’s ‘skinny budget’ decimated HUD,” Reiss continues. “Trump has made lots of appointments who’ve expressly said they want to destroy the agencies that they’re running. But Patenaude is an insider with HUD. So my hope is she sees the value it provides, and be an advocate for many HUD programs.”

What is the Debt to Income Ratio?

OppLoans.com quoted me in What is the Debt to Income Ratio? It opens,

One of the great things about credit is that it lets you make purchases you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford at one time. But this arrangement only works if you are able to make your monthly payments. That’s why lenders look at something called your debt to income ratio. It’s a number that indicates what kind of debt load you’ll be able to afford. And if you’re looking to borrow, it’s a number you’ll want to know.

Unless your rich eccentric uncle suddenly dies and leave you a giant pile of money, making any large purchase, like a car or a home, is going to mean taking out a loan. Legitimate loans spread the repayment process over time (or a longer term), which makes owning these incredibly expensive items possible for regular folks.

But not all loans are affordable. If the loan’s monthly payments take up too much of your budget, then you’re likely to default. And as much as you, the borrower, do not want that to happen, it’s also something that lenders want to avoid at all costs.

It doesn’t matter how much you want that cute, three-bedroom Victorian or that sweet, two-door muscle car (or even if you’re just looking for a personal loan to consolidate your higher interest credit card debt). If you can’t afford your monthly payments, reputable lenders aren’t going to want to do business with you. (Predatory payday lenders are a different story, they actually want you to be unable to afford your loan. You can read more about that shadiness in our personal loans guide.)

So how do mortgage, car, and personal lenders determine what a person can afford before they lend them? Well, they usually do it by looking at their debt to income ratio.

What is the debt to income ratio?

Basically, it’s the amount of your monthly budget that goes towards paying debts—including rent or mortgage payments.

“Your debt to income ratio is benchmark metric used to measure an individual’s ability to repay debt and manage their monthly payments,” says Brian Woltman, branch manager at Embrace Home Loans (@EmbraceHomeLoan).

“Your ‘DTI’ as it’s commonly referred to is exactly what it sounds like. It’s calculated by dividing your total current recurring monthly debt by your gross monthly income—the amount you make before any taxes are taken out,” says Woltman. “It’s important because it helps a lender to determine the proper amount of money that someone can borrow, and reasonably expect to be paid back, based on the terms agreed upon.”

According to Gerri Detweiler (@gerridetweiler), head of market education for Nav (@navSMB), “Your debt to income ratio provides important information about whether you can afford the payment on your new loan.”

“On some consumer loans, like mortgages or auto loans, your debt to income ratio can make or break your loan application,” says Detweiler. “This ratio typically compares your monthly recurring debt payments, such as credit card minimum payments, student loan payments, mortgage or auto loans to your monthly gross (before tax) income.”

Here’s an example…

Larry has a monthly income of $5,000 and a list of the following monthly debt obligations:

Rent: $1,200

Credit Card: $150

Student Loan: $400

Installment Loan: $250

Total: $2,000

To calculate Larry’s DTI we need to divide his total monthly debt payments by his monthly income:

$2,000 / $5,000 = .40

Larry’s debt to income ratio is 40 percent.

David Reiss (@REFinBlog), is a professor of real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. He says that the debt to income ratio is an important metric for lenders because “It is one of the three “C’s” of loan underwriting:

Character: Does a person have a history of repaying debts?

Capacity: Does a person have the income to repay debts?

Capital: Does the person have assets that can be used to retire debt if income should prove insufficient?

What is a good debt to income ratio?

“If you listen to Ben Franklin, who subscribed to the saying ‘neither a borrower nor lender be,’ the ideal ratio is 0,” says Reiss. But he adds that only lending to people with no debt whatsoever would put home ownership out of reach for, well, almost everyone. Besides, a person can have some debt on-hand and still be a responsible borrower.

“More realistically, in today’s world,” says Reiss, “we might take guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) which advises against having a DTI ratio of greater than 43 percent. If it creeps higher than that, you might have trouble paying for other important things like rent, food and clothing.”

“Requirements vary but usually if you can stay below a 33 percent debt-to-income ratio, you’re fine,” says Detweiler. “Some lenders will lend up to a 50 percent debt ratio, but the interest rate may be higher since that represents a higher risk.”

For Larry, the guy in our previous example, a 33 percent DTI would mean keeping his monthly debt obligations to $1650.

Let’s go back to that 43 percent number that Reiss mentioned because it isn’t just an arbitrary number. 43 percent DTI is the highest ratio that borrower can have and still receive a “Qualified Mortgage.”

Trump and The Housing Market

photo by Gage Skidmore

President-Elect Trump

TheStreet.com quoted me in 5 Ways the Trump Administration Could Impact the 2017 U.S. Housing Market. It opens,

Yes, President-elect Donald Trump may have chosen Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but as the U.S. housing market revs its engines as 2016 draws to a close, an army of homeowners, real estate professionals and economists are focused on cheering on a potentially rosy market in 2017.

And with good reason.

According to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices released on November 29, U.S. housing prices rose, on average, by 5.5% from September, 2015 to September, 2016. Some U.S. regions showed double-digit growth for the time period – Seattle, saw an 11.0% year-over-year price increase, followed by Portland, Ore. with 10.9% and Denver with an 8.7% increase, according to the index.

The data point to further growth next year, experts say.

“The new peak set by the S&P Case-Shiller CoreLogic National Index will be seen as marking a shift from the housing recovery to the hoped-for start of a new advance,” notes David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While seven of the 20 cities previously reached new post-recession peaks, those that experienced the biggest booms — Miami, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas — remain well below their all-time highs. Other housing indicators are also giving positive signals: sales of existing and new homes are rising and housing starts at an annual rate of 1.3 million units are at a post-recession peak.”

But there are question marks heading into the new year for the housing market. The surprise election of Donald Trump as president has industry professionals openly wondering how a new Washington regime will impact the real estate sector, one way or another.

For instance, Dave Norris, chief revenue officer of loanDepot, a retail mortgage lender located in Orange County, Calif., says dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, encouraging higher interest rates, and broadening consumer credit are potential scenario shifters for the housing market in the early stages of a Trump presidency.

Other experts contacted by TheStreet agree with Norris and say change is coming to the housing market, and it may be more radical than expected. To illustrate that point, here are five key takeaways from market experts on how a Trump presidency will shape the 2017 U.S. real estate sector.

Expect higher interest rates – The new administration will likely lead to higher interest rates, which will compress home and investment property values, says Allen Shayanfekr, chief executive officer of Sharestates, an online crowd-funding platform for real estate financing. “Specifically, loans are calculated through debt service coverage ratios and a borrower’s ability to make their payments,” Shayanfekr says. “Higher interest rates mean larger monthly payments and in turn, lower loan amount qualifications. If lenders tighten up, it will restrict the buyer market, causing either a plateau in market values or possibility a decrease depending on the margin of increased rates.”

Housing reform will also impact home purchase costs – Trump’s effect on interest rates will likely depress housing prices in some ways, says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “That’s because the higher the monthly cost of a mortgage, the lower the price that the seller can get,” he notes. Reiss cites housing reform as a good example. “Housing finance reform will increase interest rates,” he says. “Republicans have made it very clear that they want to reduce the role of the federal government in the housing market in order to reduce the likelihood that taxpayers will be on the hook for another bailout. If they succeed, this will likely raise interest rates because the federal government’s involvement in the mortgage market tends to push interest rates down.”