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.

How Are First-Time Homebuyers Doing?

photo by designmilk

Genworth Mortgage Insurance Corporation released a a First-Time Home Market Report.  The big news from the report is that first-time homebuyers purchased fifteen percent more single-family homes in 2016 than in 2015.  The 2 million homes purchased in 2016 was the most since 2006, before the financial crisis. This is a positive sign for the housing market and for the homeownership rate which has fallen to long-time lows since the financial crisis. The Executive Summary reads,

First-time homebuyers represent an important segment of the housing market, generating significant revenue to real estate agents, homebuilders, and the mortgage finance industry. In this report, we adopt the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of first-time homebuyers as homebuyers who did not own a home in any of the prior three years  . . . Compared to repeat homebuyers, first-time homebuyers play a more pivotal role in influencing housing inventory and home prices because they represent the shift of housing demand from rental to owner occupancy. Despite this well-recognized dynamic, there has been limited data available on the first-time homebuyer market, starting with market size. In this report, we estimate the size of the first-time homebuyer market going back to 1994 using a combination of government and mortgage industry data—20.1 million actual first-time homebuyers were identified. This data provides a historical perspective on the first-time homebuyer market as well as important recent trends. (2)

The report’s key findings include,

1. Between 1994 and 2016, first-time homebuyers purchased on average 1.8 million single-family homes each year, accounting for over one in three of all single-family homes sold, and 45 percent of the purchase mortgages originated.

2. First-time homebuyers have led the housing recovery, contributing over 60 percent of the sales growth in the housing market over the past five years and 85 percent of the growth in the past two years. The resurgence of the first-time homebuyer market has contributed to very tight housing supplies and accelerating home prices, especially at the “low” end of the housing market.

3. During the Housing Crisis, the number of single-family homes sold to first-time homebuyers saw a peak to trough decline of 900,000 units (43 percent) – reaching a trough of just 1.2 million units in 2011. Over the last 10 years, the housing market has seen 3 million fewer first-time homebuyers in aggregate compared to the historical average.

4. The first-time homebuyer market stagnated during the historic housing expansion of the 1990s and early 2000s, leading to a decline in first-time homebuyer mix. Instead, it was repeat homebuyers, including second-home buyers and investors, who led the surge in housing activity.

5. The expansion of government lending programs and the implementation of the first-time homebuyer tax credit provided temporary support to first-time homebuyers. Between 2008 and 2010, first-time homebuyers represented 35 percent of all single-family home sales, which is close to its historical average. However, the percentage of single-family home sales to first-time homebuyers declined once the tax credit expired, and stayed below 30 percent for these three years.

6. First-time homebuyers have always demonstrated a greater need for low down payment mortgage products. Between 1994 and 2016, 73 percent of first-time homebuyers chose such products compared to 30-50 percent for repeat homebuyers. Mortgage products with a lower down payment will likely have a higher first-time homebuyer mix.

7. Private mortgage insurance and FHA (government-backed mortgage insurance) are the two leading products for first-time homebuyers and have together accounted for close to 1 million first-time homebuyers a year since 1994. They have played a key role in reviving the first-time homebuyer market in the current recovery, accounting for approximately 80 percent of its growth in the past two years.

8. First-time homebuyers purchased 2 million single-family homes in 2016, 15 percent more than 2015 – and the most since 2006. During the first quarter of 2017, there were more first-time homebuyers than any other year since 2005. A total of 424,000 single-family homes were sold to first-time homebuyers, up 11 percent from a year ago, and accounting for 38 percent of all single-family home sales. (3)

Gen Z Eying Real Estate Trends

photo by Thomas Tolkien

The Washington Post along with its content partner National Association of Realtors quoted me in Eye on the Future. It reads, in part,

The suburbs as we know them are in flux. Many of the country’s bedroom communities have traditionally been known for their single-family homes and a lack of walkable public spaces. That’s changing as condos, sprawling townhome complexes and apartment buildings now dot areas where single-family homes would have been built.  Developers are building walkable public spaces to accommodate young families leaving cities but still seeking urban-like amenities.

 Another wave of change is expected in the next five to 10 years. That’s when members of Generation Z-those born on the heels of millennials-will become homeowners. Experts say they’ll transform areas that are sandwiched between major cities and suburbs into districts with an urban feel and amenities, without the hefty price tags major metros demand.

That transformation is already starting to happen. “Many of our ‘suburbs’ are actually neighborhoods in Los Angeles, particularly the San Fernando Valley,” said Kathryn Bishop, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, Calif. and member of the National Association of Realtors. “In the Valley, many neighborhoods have become mini ‘cores.’ Sherman Oaks, Encino and Woodland Hills have office towers, good restaurants and night-life business creating their own city areas.”

It’s no surprise that the younger generation needs to find an alternative to the sky-high costs of urban living. The Economic Policy Institute noted in 2016 that folks who live in San Francisco face a cost of living that’s 52.9 percent above the national average. For New Yorkers, living costs were 49.4 percent higher. The country’s least-affordable place to live was Washington D.C., where residents faced costs 63.5 percent higher than the national average.

*     *     *

“Since the financial crisis there has been an increase in multigenerational households, driven in large part by financial limitations and insecurity as well as by marital status and educational attainment,” said David Reiss, professor of law and research director at he Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.  “Young adults are more likely to live at their parent’s home in recent years than they have been for more than a century.”

What Is an HOA?

photo by Clotee Allochuku

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is an HOA? Homeowners Associations—Explained. It opens,

If you’re buying a condo, townhouse, or freestanding home in a neighborhood with shared common areas—such as a swimming pool, parking garage, or even just the security gates and sidewalks in front of each residence—odds are these areas are maintained by a homeowners association, or HOA.

So what is an HOA, and how will it affect your life?

HOAs help ensure that your community looks its best and functions smoothly, says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. For instance, if the pump in the community swimming pool stops working, someone has to take care of it before the water turns green and toxic, right? Rather than expect any one individual in the neighborhood to volunteer their time and money to fix the problem, HOAs are responsible for getting the job done. And the number of Americans living in HOAs is on the rise, growing from a mere 1% in 1970 to 1 in 4 today, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research. So, it’s wise to know exactly how they work.

How much are HOA fees?

To cover these maintenance expenses, HOAs collect fees (monthly or yearly) from all community members. For a typical single-family home, HOA fees will cost homeowners around the $200 to $300 per month, although they can be lower or much higher depending on the size of your unit and the services provided. The larger the home, the higher the HOA fee—which makes sense, because the family of four in a three-bedroom condo is probably going to be using the common facilities more than a single woman living in a studio.

In addition, most HOAs charge their members a little more than monthly expenses require, so that they can build up a reserve to pay for emergencies and big-ticket items like repairing the roof and water heaters, or acquiring new carpeting, paint, and lights for the hallways.

If the HOA doesn’t have enough money in reserve to cover necessary expenses, it can issue a special “assessment,” or an extra fee, in addition to your monthly dues, so that the repairs can be made. For example, if the elevator in your condo building goes out and it’s going to cost $15,000 to replace it—but the HOA reserve account holds only $12,000—you and the rest of the residents are going to have to pony up at least an additional $3,000, divided among you, to make up the difference.

And yes, you would still have to contribute your share even if you live on the first floor.

HOA rules: What to expect

All HOAs have boards, made up of homeowners in the complex who are typically elected by all homeowners. These board members will set up regular meetings where owners can gather and discuss major decisions and issues with their community. For major expenditures, all members of the HOA usually vote.

In addition to maintaining the common areas, HOAs are also responsible for seeing that its community members follow certain rules. Homeowners receive a copy of these rules, knowns as “covenants, conditions, and restrictions” (CC&Rs), when they move in, and they’re required to sign a contract saying that they’ll abide by them.

CC&Rs can cover everything from your type of mailbox to the size and breed of your dog. Some HOAs require you to purchase extra homeowners insurance if you own a pit bull, for example; others prohibit certain breeds entirely. An HOA may even regulate what color you paint your house, and what kind of curtains you can hang if your unit faces the street. Its goal is not to meddle—it’s merely to maintain a neighborhood aesthetic. However, if you don’t like being told what to do with your home, an HOA may not be for you.

The (R)evolution of Single-Family Rental Securitization

Kroll Bond Rating Agency distributed its Single-Family Rental Securitization Methodology. Because this is a new asset class, it is interesting to watch how rating agency’s assess the risks inherent in it. And it will be interesting, of course, to evaluate down the road whether they got it right or not. The Methodology states that

Single-family Rental (SFR) securitizations are a new class of asset-backed securities with characteristics of both commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) and residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). Like CMBS, the primary source of certificateholder distributions during the term of an SFR transaction are loan debt service payments that are generated by income producing real estate collateral. Also like CMBS, there is an element of balloon risk, as SFR loans do not fully amortize over their terms, and the repayment of ultimate principal on the certificates is dependent upon a successful refinance of the loan or loans that serve as trust collateral. However, there is a broader source of demand for the single-family homes underlying an SFR securitization, which can be sold into the vast market for owner-occupied homes, totaling approximately 79 million units. In the event that the pool of single-family homes backing an SFR securitization needs to be partially or entirely liquidated due to an event of default either during the loan’s term or at the loan’s maturity, the expected recovery from such a distressed sale of homes would be largely determined by the conditions in the larger market for single-family homes, which is a primary focus of RMBS analysis.

*     *     *

the SFR securitization market is currently characterized by large institutional sponsors that have engaged in purchasing and refurbishing large numbers of single-family homes in distressed markets over relatively short periods of time.

*     *     *

As this is an evolving asset class, we will modify or adjust our methodology to address new transaction features as they emerge. SFR securitizations to date have been collateralized by a single large loan that is in turn secured by mortgages on several thousand income producing single-family homes. While this methodology is designed for this structure, it is also applicable to securitizations secured by a few large loans. Structures featuring a larger number of loans to distinct borrowers, many of whom may be non-institutional in nature, pose additional credit considerations that are not addressed herein. (3)

This summary demonstrates that there are a lot of new characteristics for this asset-class that Kroll is trying to capture in its rating methodology. These include the hybrid nature of the security itself; the hybrid nature of the underlying collateral for the security; the innovative business model of institutional investors entering the single-family market in a big way; and the possible entry of new players in that market, such as non-institutional ones; and changes in the type of collateral underlying the securities.

The takeaway for readers: don’t mistake the apparent simplicity of a rating (AAA, Aaa) as a signal of the solidity of the reasoning that went into it. Ratings, particularly those for new types of securities, are constantly evolving. To think otherwise is to risk being left holding a bag filled with all of lemons that the market has to offer to unsuspecting investors.