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.

What’s with 1031 Exchanges?

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US News & World Report quoted me in Why 1031 Exchange Investments Are Worth a Look. It opens,

With tax reform nearing final passage in Congress, one of the most underlooked, but potentially overpowering, tax-advantaged investment tools is the 1031 exchange, which was spared major changes in the proposed legislation.

The 1031 exchange, especially when related to real estate investments, is all about “timing and taxes” and the better you manage the two, the more money you can make.

What is a 1031 exchange? By and large, IRS Section 1031 covers “exchanges” or swaps of a specific investable asset (such as real estate) for another. The end game for the taxpayer/investor is to avoid having exchanges listed as taxable sales. But if they’re executed within the confines of a 1031 exchange, taxes are either significantly reduced or eliminated altogether.

The primary benefit of 1031 exchanges related to real estate investments is tax deferral, or avoidance of capital gains taxes on the sale of appreciated investment property, says Kevin O’Brian, a certified financial planner at Peak Financial Services, in Northborough, Massachusetts.
“If held inside owner’s estate at death, the asset would receive a step-up in cost basis to the market value, as of the date of death,” O’Brian says. “Therefore, heirs could avoid capital gains taxes, if sold after inheriting it as well.”
Others note that following IRS guidelines on Section 1031 are a must.
“1031 exchanges allow a real estate investor to sell one property that has appreciated in value and not pay capital gains tax so long as the investor buys another property,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “This is a powerful tax deferral tool that many sophisticated real estate investors use. It is, however, somewhat complicated to pull off and involves some additional costs and planning so it is not for those looking for a quick and easy way to defer capital gains.”
What are the rules for a 1031 exchange? The rules governing 1031 exchanges have to be followed carefully and it makes sense to plan for it with an appropriate team of professional advisors and a reputable 1031 exchange company, Reiss says.
“Generally, the investor needs to sell the property that has appreciated in value; place the proceeds in escrow with an intermediary; and then use those proceeds to buy a replacement property within a certain period of time,” he says. “If the investor fails to follow the requirements for the exchange, he or she may be taxed on the full capital gain.”
Investors should also be sure to use a 1031 exchange company that meets specific criteria. “Not the least of which is that it’s properly insured to protect you in case your funds disappear from escrow,” Reiss says. “This has been known to happen.”

Reverse Mortgage Drawbacks

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US News and World Report quoted me in 6 Drawbacks of Reverse Mortgages. It opens,

For some seniors, reverse mortgages represent a financial lifeline. They are a way to tap into home equity and pay the bills when meager savings won’t do the job. Others view this financial product with suspicion and point to stories of seniors losing their homes because of the fine print in the paperwork.

Amy Ford, senior director of home equity initiatives and social accountability for the National Council on Aging, says regulatory changes were made in recent years to eliminate many of the horror stories associated with reverse mortgages gone wrong. Home equity conversion mortgages – as reverse mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration are known – now incorporate many consumer protections. These help seniors ensure they can afford the loan and are aware of its potential consequences.

“It’s a magic credit line,” says Jane Bryant Quinn, AARP Bulletin personal finance expert, when asked why people would want a reverse mortgage. “It increases every year at the same rate as the interest you pay.” She recommends that seniors consider taking out a HECM line of credit and then borrowing against it sparingly. That way, retirees have protection against inflation and a source of income in the event of a down market.

Despite their appealing benefits, some financial experts urge caution. “I wouldn’t say there is no place for reverse mortgages,” says Ian Atkins, financial analyst for Fit Small Business. “But that doesn’t make a reverse mortgage a good option for everyone.”

Here are six drawbacks to reverse mortgage products.

1. Not every reverse mortgage has the protections of a HECM. While HECMs are the dominant player in the reverfederally insured

consumer proptection

se mortgage market, seniors could end up with a different product. Atkins says single purpose reverse mortgages are backed by a state or non-profit to allow seniors to tap home equity for a specific purpose, such as making home repairs or paying taxes. There are also proprietary reverse mortgages, sometimes called jumbo reverse mortgages, available to those who want a loan that exceeds the HECM limits.

These proprietary reverse mortgages make up a small portion of the market, but come with the most risk. They aren’t federally insured and don’t have the same consumer protections as a HECM.

A reverse mortgage can be a lifesaver for people with lots of home equity, but not much else.

“Another common issue with [proprietary] reverse mortgages is cross-selling,” Atkins says. “Even though it may not be legal, some companies will want to push investments, annuities, life insurance, home improvements and any other number of products on their borrowers.”

2. Other people in the house may lose their home if you move. HECMs are structured in such a way that once a borrower passes away or moves out, the balance on the loan becomes due. In the past, some reverse mortgages were taken out in one person’s name and the non-borrowing spouse’s name was removed from the title. When the borrowing spouse died or moved to a nursing home, the remaining husband or wife often needed to sell the house to pay off the loan.

“There are now some protections for those who were removed from titles,” Ford says. However, the protections extended to non-borrowing spouses do not apply to others who may be living in the house.

A disabled child, roommate or other relative could wind up without a place to live if you take out a reverse mortgage, can no longer remain in the home and don’t have cash to pay off the balance. “If it’s a tenant, you might not care,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and author at REFinBlog.com. “But if it’s your nephew, you may care.”

3. Your kids might be forced to sell the family home. If you’re hoping to pass your home on to your children, a reverse mortgage can make that difficult. Unless they have cash available to pay off the loan, families may find they have no choice but to sell once you’re gone.

That isn’t necessarily a reason to rule out a reverse mortgage, but Ford encourages parents to discuss their plans with family members. Everyone with a stake in the home – either emotional or financial – should understand what happens to the property once the borrower can no longer live there.

4. The mortgage balance might be due early if you have trouble paying your property taxes, insurance or homeowners association fees. Reiss says the marketing for some reverse mortgages can make seniors feel like the product is a cure-all for money problems. “There’s this promise that reverse mortgages will take care of your finances,” he says. “What they don’t mention is that your mortgage doesn’t cover your property taxes.”

If a borrower fails to pay taxes, maintain insurance or keep current with homeowners association dues, the lender can step in. Ford says many companies will try to work with a borrower to address the situation. However, repeated missed payments could result in the loan being revoked.

Financial counseling requirements for HECMs are designed to prevent these scenarios. Quinn says some companies will take additional precautions if warranted. “If the lender thinks there’s a risk you’ll run out of cash, it will set aside part of the loan for future taxes and insurance,” she says.

5. Fees can be high. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes reverse mortgages are often more expensive than other home loans. “Don’t just assume that because it’s marketed to seniors without a lot of money, that it is the most cost-efficient way of solving your [financial] problem,” Reiss says. Depending on your needs, a traditional line of credit or other loan product may be a cheaper option.

What Is Compound Interest?

photo by Roman Oleinik

US News & World Report quoted in What Is Compound Interest? It opens,

When it comes to investing, compound interest really is the most powerful force in the universe. Remarkable in both its simplicity and its power, compound interest is the concept of reinvesting, along with the original principal sum, the interest earned on your investment.

As a result, you earn interest on top of interest, and then more on top of that larger sum, and so on. “Over time, a small amount of money can become a mountain of money,” says David Winters, CEO of Wintergreen Advisers.

Compound interest is one of the most basic concepts for investors to understand, in no small part because its magical results work the same whether you have $100 or $100 million.

In that sense, it’s every investor’s secret weapon – and you probably want to use your secret weapon if it can help you build your retirement nest egg (which it can). Unfortunately, if you look at how the average American spends and invests, it doesn’t reflect a great respect or understanding of compound interest.

It’s time to change that.

Proving its power in a thought experiment. David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, likes to convey the profound power of compound interest with a riddle of sorts.

“Would you rather receive a gift on Jan. 1 of $1 million, or a penny that doubles every day for the rest of the month?” Reiss says. “Most kids would go for the million bucks, but those who are patient enough to do the math know that they can get millions more if they are patient enough to wait the month.”

It’s true. The penny-doubler would in fact finish January with $9.7 million more than his or her instant gratification-seeking friend.

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.

Return to the Great Recession?

US News & World Report quoted me in What Happens if Trump Dismantles the Financial Regulations of the Great Recession? It opens,

On Feb. 3, 2017, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders that will affect the financial sector. That change will come to consumers is undeniable. But exactly what change is coming is, naturally, up for debate.

One of the orders requires the Treasury secretary to review the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 and designed to address some of the shortcomings in the financial system that led to the Great Recession. The other executive action mandates that the Labor Department review its Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule and look at its probable economic impact. As it stands now, the fiduciary rule is supposed to be phased in from April 10, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2018. The rule requires financial professionals who work with retirement plans or provide retirement planning advice to act in a way that’s only based on the client’s best interests.

What do these executive orders portend for consumers? Nobody knows, but what follows are some educated guesses – with best-case and worst-case outcomes.

How the housing market might be affected. There’s potential good news and bad news here, according to Francesco D’Acunto, a finance assistant professor at the University of Maryland. In a study performed by D’Acunto and faculty colleague Alberto Rossi, in the wake of Dodd-Frank, banks decreased mortgage lending to middle class families by about 15 percent in 2014.

“Title XIV, which regulates the mortgage market, could be in for a full-scale renovation that might ultimately improve the fortunes of potential homebuyers from the middle class,” D’Acunto says.

So if you’ve been having trouble getting a mortgage for a house, you may have less trouble – provided you find a reputable lender. Because the downside, according to D’Acunto, is that “such a move risks bringing a return of predatory behavior in lending and mortgage cross-selling, especially by large banks and by non-bank mortgage originators.”

To avoid that, D’Acunto hopes that Congress intervenes “surgically on Title XIV” and only reduces the regulatory costs imposed by the new Qualified Mortgage classification. Created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Qualified Mortgage category of loans includes features designed to make it more likely that a consumer will be able to pay it back.

But if they don’t intervene with the careful attention to detail D’Acunto advises, then expect “big changes, most of them negative,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor whose specialty is in real estate finance.

Potential best-case scenario: After being denied a mortgage for some time, you finally get your house.

Potential worst-case scenario: Because you were steered to a high-interest loan you can’t afford, you lose your house.

How credit cards, auto loans and student loans might be affected. There has been a lot of talk that the CFPB could be a casualty in the executive order that asks the Treasury secretary to review Dodd-Frank. But will it be ripped to shreds or have its power diminished?

The latter seems to already be happening. For instance, lawmakers, led by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), are in the midst of trying to repeal a rule that is scheduled to go into effect this fall. The rule, among other things, would mandate prepaid-card companies to disclose detailed information about their fees, make it easier to access account information and would curb a consumer’s losses if the cards are lost or stolen.

A little weakening might not be so bad, Reiss says. He thinks the CFPB has tightened “the credit box too much, meaning that some people who could manage more credit are not getting access to it.”

But he also thinks if the CFPB were dismantled, the negatives would far outweigh the positives.

Potential best-case scenario: Easier access to loans and more choices. And for some consumers who can now get that car or credit card, their quality of life improves.

Potential worst-case scenario: Thanks to that easier access, some consumers end up stuck with high-interest loans with a lot of hidden fees and rue the day they applied for them.