Leverage in a Tight Market

photo by Rex Pe

TheStreet.com quoted me in Home Shoppers Seeking Leverage in a Tight Market. It opens,

Homebuyers have faced tight supply issues this year, and obtaining leverage in this market has been challenging.

The lower inventories pushed sales in July down by 3%, according to the National Association of Realtors, a Chicago-based trade organization. The decline has resulted in sales falling back to levels in March and April with an annualized pace of 5.39 million, bringing the sales pace down by 2% from July 2015. The level of inventory of homes for sale has declined by 6%.
As the faster summer buying pace has moved into the fall phase when there are fewer buyers, consumers have a greater advantage as homes are on the market longer. For both May and June, the listings stayed on Realtor.com a median of 65 days. By July, that figure rose to 68 days and August brings even more options and should end at 72 days. The reduction of inventory has occurred for 47 consecutive months, helping sellers, but restricting options for buyers.

For homebuyers who want to nab their dream house in the neighborhood they have been eyeing, they still have leverage, but here are some tips to improve the process.

Home Buying Tips

Before consumers start shopping, they should work on improving their finances and avoid making any large purchases such as a car. After finding out your FICO score, the goal is to find ways for it to rise above 700, which means you will qualify with more lenders and obtain a lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company.

Determine how much you can carve out of your savings for a down payment, but still maintain six months of emergency funds, especially if you are buying an older home which may have unexpected repairs.

The average down payment in 2016 is 11% across the U.S., but it depends vastly on the market and loan you are seeking.

“If you are struggling to come up with a down payment necessary for your market or type of mortgage, research down payment assistance programs,” he said. “Get all of your financial records organized, including recent bank and financial statements, the last two years of income tax filings and pay statements.”

There are many opportunities available since mortgage rates remain near historic lows and are unlikely to see substantial moves soon.

“The buying opportunity is still substantial and now the annual cycle means you will face less competition on homes that are on the market,” Smoke said.

Sellers want to see serious buyers, so getting pre-approved from a lender is important.

“A pre-approval letter as part of an offer will communicate to the seller that you have the ability to close,” he said.

Sellers still have an advantage and even though there are fewer potential buyers with fall right around the corner, the existing inventory remains low, so getting a house under contract can still be problematic, Smoke said.

“Don’t expect sellers to feel desperate,” he said. “Sellers may still act like it is the spring. Listen to the advice of your realtor on the composition of the initial offer so that you are more likely to keep the conversation going rather than face complete rejection.”

While you continue to search for another home, maintain your savings and increase the amount of your down payment and keep paying down your credit cards and student loans. Consumers who will be receiving a bonus in December should include these funds it into their down payment. If the interest rates for your credit card rates are fairly low, consider bulking up your down payment since mortgage rates are very low, said Colby Sambrotto, president of USRealty.com, a New York-based online real estate broker. said. These measures will help increase your odds as you house hunt.

“Ask your lender to recalculate your loan preapproval to reflect your updated debt-to-income ratio and the greater amount you can put down,” he said. “That can reframe your search parameters.”

Down payment assistance is available through employer and community group programs. Some companies will offer loans if you remain employed there for a certain number of years, said Sambrotto. A good source for more information about various programs is Down Payment Resource.

“The loans are usually geared to encourage employees to buy around a certain area, usually within walking distance of the employer,” he said.

Location is Key

Transportation can emerge as a “hidden cost” if your commute includes costly tolls or you want quicker access to cultural and sporting events, schools for children, shopping districts and professional education opportunities.

“Narrow your search to neighborhoods that offer economical options for commuting and routine errands,” Sambrotto said. “Look for neighborhood groups on Facebook and ask to join the conversation so you can quiz current residents about the true cost of living in that area.”

While homeowners might prefer a standard standalone house, a two-family duplex might be a better option, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. These homes have a clear advantage because they generate investment income along with various financing, tax and capital gains advantages which the traditional single-family house does not have.

“Think through your preferences and then take a fresh look at the market,” he said. “You might have that idealized picket-fenced house in mind, but a duplex will expand the number of houses you can look at. They also bring along all sorts of additional maintenance responsibilities with them, so they are not right for everyone.”

Bringing Debt Collectors to Heel

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TheStreet.com quoted me in Debt Collectors Hounding You With Robo Calls? Here’s What To Do. It reads, in part,

Mike Arman, a retired mortgage broker residing in City of Oak Hill, Fla., owns a nice home, with only $6,000 left on the mortgage. He’s never been late on a payment, and his FICO credit score is 837.

Yet even with that squeaky clean financial record, Arman still went through the ninth circle of Hell with devilish debt collectors.

“The mortgage servicer would call ten days before the payment was even due, then five days, then two days, then every day until the payment arrived and was posted,” he says. “I told them to stop harassing me, and that my statement was sufficient legal notice under the Fair and Accurate Credit and Transaction Act (FACTA). But they said they don’t honor verbal statements, which is a violation of the law. So, I sent them a registered letter, with return receipt, which I got and filed away for safekeeping.”

The next day, though, the mortgage servicer called again. Instead of taking the call, Arman called a local collections attorney, who not only ended the servicer’s robo calls, but also forced the company to fork over $1,000 to Arman for violating his privacy.

“That was the sweetest $1,000 I have ever gotten in my entire life,” says Arman.

 Not every financial consumer’s debt collector story ends on such an upbeat note, although Uncle Sam is working behind the scenes to get robo-calling debt collectors off of Americans’ backs.

The latest example of that is a new Federal Communications Commission rule that closed a loophole that allowed debt collectors to robo call people with impunity.

Here’s how the FCC explains its new ruling against robo calls.

“The Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits most non-emergency robo calls to cell phones, but a provision in last year’s budget bill weakened the law by allowing debt collectors to make such calls when the debt is owed to, or even just guaranteed by, the federal government,” the FCC states in a release issued last week. “Under the provision passed by Congress, debt collectors can make harassing robo calls to millions of Americans with education, mortgage, tax and other federally-backed debt.”

“To make matters worse, the provision raised concerns that it could lead to robo calls not only to those who owe debt, but also their family, references, and even to someone who happens to get assigned a phone number that once belonged to another person who owed debt,” the FCC report adds.

Under the new rules, debt collectors can only make three robo calls or texts each month per loan to borrowers – and they can’t contact the borrower’s family or friends. “Plus, debt collectors are required to inform consumers that they have the right to ask that the calls cease and must honor those requests,” the FCC states.

That’s a big step forward for U.S. adults plagued by debt collection agency robo calls. But the FCC ruling is only one tool in a borrower’s arsenal – there are other steps they can take to keep debt collectors at bay.

If you’re looking to take action, legal or otherwise, against debt collectors, build a good, thorough paper trail, says Patrick Hanan, marketing director at ClassAction.org.

“Keep any messages, write down the phone number that’s calling and basically keep track of whatever information you can about who is calling and when,” Hanan advises. “Just because you owe money, that doesn’t mean that debt collectors get to ignore do-not-call requests. They need express written consent to contact you in the first place, and they need to stop if you tell them to.”

Also, if you want to speak to an attorney about it, most offer a free consultation, so there isn’t any risk to find out more about your rights, Hanan says “They’ll tell you right off the bat if they think you have a case or not,” he notes.

*     *      *

Going forward, expect the federal government to clamp down even harder on excessive debt collectors. “The Consumer Financial Protection Board takes complaints about debt collector behavior seriously, and has recently issued a proposal to further limit debt collectors’ ability to contact consumers,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “In the mean time, one concrete step that consumers can do is send a letter telling the debt collector to cease from contacting them. If a debt collector continues to contact a consumer — other than by suing — it may be violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Tax Expenditure Wars: Wealthy Households v. Poor

Henry Rose has posted How Federal Tax Expenditures That Support Housing Contribute to Economic Inequality to SSRN. This short article examines “how federal income tax laws benefit more affluent owner households but provide no benefits to economically-strapped renter households.” (1) Housing policy analysts (myself included) constantly bemoan the regressive nature of federal tax policy as it relates to housing, but it is always worth looking at the topic with updated numbers. And this article contains some tables with some interesting numbers.

One table provides an overview of the estimated tax savings (in billions) in FY 2014 for five federal tax expenditures for owners of housing that they occupy:

Mortgage Interest Deduction  (MID)                                                 $66.91

Property Tax Deduction (PTD)                                                        $31.59

Capital Gains Exclusion on Sales                                                   $35.54

Net Imputed Rental Income Exclusion                                            $75.24

Discharge of Mortgage Indebtedness Exclusion                            $3.1

Total                                                                                                 $212.38

The next table provides an estimated distribution of two of these tax expenditures (FY 2014, savings in millions):

Tax-Filer AGI                PTD Tax Savings         MID Tax Savings                

Below $50,000              $693                              $1,443

$50,000-75,000             $2,190                           $4,330

$75,000-100,000           $3,478                           $6,581

$100,000-200,000         $13,648                         $27,421

$200,000+                     $11,798                         $29,340

Total                              $31,806                         $69,115                               

The article concludes by noting that despite

the great disparity in economic positions between owners and renters, federal tax expenditures lavish tax savings on primarily affluent owners and provide none for renters. The federal tax expenditures for owners are so generous that interest can be deducted on mortgage balances up to $1,000,000 and can also be taken on second homes, even yachts, as well as primary residences. It is difficult to conceive of a federal public policy that more directly promotes economic inequality than the federal tax expenditures that support owners of housing but are not available to renters. (9-10, footnote omitted)

I don’t expect this disparity to be addressed any time in the near future, given the current political environment, but it is certainly one that should stay at the top of any list of reforms for those concerned with promoting equitable federal housing policies.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Friday’s Tax Roundup