Amazonian Rage in NYC

photo by Theeditor93

Vice quoted me in Amazon Is Bringing in Elite Lobbyists Amid Seething Rage Over HQ2. It opens,

Amazon might be too big to tax, but it’s not too big to freak out.

As the company tries to erect a massive headquarters in America’s largest city, it has come up against staunch opposition from residents, politicians and unions—all concerned the powerful monopoly will serve to inflate rent and strain local infrastructure, especially the housing supply and subway system. And while it might seem like a trillion-dollar company could easily quash protesting naysayers, turns out CEO Jeff Bezos might actually have good reason to try and win the haters over.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon hired high-powered Democratic consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, and a lobbying shop called Greenberg Traurig, to help smooth the way forward for its new HQ. While Amazon remained relatively tight-lipped, the company has sought to make inroads into affected communities—planning meetings with public-housing residents and reaching out to members of the city council. But some elected officials, including Senator Mike Gianaris and NYC Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose districts include the HQ’s proposed turf in Long Island City, have refused to serve on its advisory board, indicating instead a desire to kill the project entirely. Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll that dropped this week showed the majority of NYC residents backed the HQ2 plan, but activists groups and community board members have continued to organize, spurred on by Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—or at least her Twitter account.

In fact, the new Amazon influence operation, which emerged a few weeks after HQ2 plan was made official, suggested there were still concrete ways locals could thwart or at least put a dent in the company’s expansion scheme. If nothing else, an extremely-powerful company that has experience in the DC lobbying game is finding out it won’t get a new home in NYC without a fight that cuts at the core of the Democratic Party’s identity.

According to Richard Brodsky, a lawyer and veteran Democratic politician who served in the state assembly, if city officials or other activists took Amazon or the politicians who supported the plan to court, they could employ legislative subpoenas to demand more documentation of the project, and investigate compliance issues. Brodsky argued Amazon’s bid might provide the jobs promised, but that the company still had a long way to go in informing the public about how it would impact communities.

“Because the governor and the mayor have given this project to a set of soviet-style bureaucracies, there’s no one to ask the questions and no one to answer,” he told me, referring to the special fast-track process Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have tapped to push through the Amazon deal. “Who the hell do you ask?”

Litigation is a fairly common way of handling disputes over projects like this in the city, according to David Reiss, a law professor and expert on community development at Brooklyn Law School. “Not being a shy bunch, New Yorkers often file lawsuits that try to set up procedural roadblocks to the project,” he told me via email. “These suits can slow down or even stop projects—and can give community members leverage with the City, State and project developers.” Even if it isn’t stopped altogether, legal action could help modify the project and fund parks, schools or transit.

Under the current approach from on high, however, the Amazon HQ also had to be approved by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), comprised of gubernatorial appointees mostly made in consultation with the state legislature. This may prove to be among the only serious points of leverage Amazon opponents have to stall, or, in an extreme case, block the whole project. Even then, Brodsky said, the PACB was only technically supposed to oversee financial concerns, and not necessarily gauge a project’s social impact.

The city, for its part, appeared to largely be standing behind its original plan as it geared up for public hearings beginning next week. A spokesperson from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit development agency contracted by the city that helped broker the deal, told me Amazon was working to broker partnerships with affordable-housing developments and other community organizations, as well as provide concrete details about the 25,000 jobs promised in the company’s initial memo about the project.

The spokesperson also dismissed the idea that the new HQ would strain the city’s mess of a public transportation system. They argued the current flow of traffic on the subway routes amounted to Queens residents commuting to Manhattan for work, and that the “reverse commute” of Amazon employees coming to Long Island City would balance things in the other direction, not jam up trains in some new way. (It’s worth noting that Amazon employees were already reportedly looking for rental properties in Long Island City proper.)

Those resisting the headquarters, however, were unlikely to be swayed by more details, logistical help, or civic engagement on part of a brand many despised for what it represented in the annals of modern capitalism. Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a national spokesperson for anti-Bezos sentiment and a leading light of a left-wing insurgency in the Democratic Party, took to Twitter again on Tuesday: “Now what I DON’T want is for our public funds to be funding freebie helipads for Amazon + robber baron billionaires, all while NYCHA and public schools go underfunded & mom+pops get nowhere near that kind of a break,” she said, capturing criticism of some of the most comical parts of the Amazon deal as brokered by de Blasio and Cuomo.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic Socialist bent may still be a nascent one, and her job in DC means local activist groups will have to lead the fight on the ground. (Some unions actually supported the deal, further exposing the internal Democratic Party divide at issue here.) At the same time, it’s important to look back to previous massive corporate deals for context on what’s going on. While Amazon, as a company, doesn’t have many contemporaries in the city trying to launch a new home at this scale, the way stadiums, universities and other hubs have been constructed in NYC in the past will help inform what does—and doesn’t—happen in Long Island City.

The EDC spokesperson, for example, pointed out that other big projects—such as Columbia University’s expansion and Atlantic Yards—were also achieved via a General Project Plan pushed through by the state instead of undergoing to the more public land review process at the city level. Using that fast-track in Amazon’s case has been a key flashpoint in the dispute over its origin, garnering frustration from Van Bramer and his colleagues. (Announcing a project before knowing the specific details, the EDC spokesperson insisted, was par for the course in cases like this one.)

This fast-tracking does happen often with larger projects, Reiss agreed, noting that land procedures can be bypassed when the state government is involved, leaving some feeling like their voices were ignored. “This can cut deeply because they are often the ones who are most affected by the negatives of the construction process and the changes that the project bring about in their communities,” he told me.

The “Bump” Clause

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in In Cooling Housing Markets, ‘Bump Clauses’ Help Seal Win-Win Deals. It opens,

What to do when a home-seller gets an offer but holds out hope for something better?

Enter the bump clause.

A bump clause lets sellers enter into a contract with a buyer while still continuing to market the property. If the sellers get a better deal, they can “bump” the original buyer.

It’s most commonly used when a buyer’s offer has some contingency, usually that they need to sell their current home first. It can help coax the sellers into contract by offering them the ability to seek alternate buyers who don’t have a home-sale contingency or who are offering higher prices.

The clause tends to become more popular in markets that are “transitional,” where once-hot home sales are cooling but sellers haven’t yet adjusted their expectations. The tactic can be “a savvy technique” to help the sellers feel they could still get a better offer, says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate.

If the sellers do get another written offer they want to take, they must notify the original buyer. The buyer then typically has a few days to tell the seller they’ve sold their house, or that they’ve decided to waive the contingency. If not, the original contract terminates. The original buyer gets back the money they put down, and the sellers enter into contract with the new buyer.

The sellers can only keep marketing the property until the buyers satisfy or waive the contingency. So once the buyers notify the seller they’ve sold their existing home, the seller’s right to market the property ends.

Rebekah Carver, a real-estate broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Brooklyn, N.Y., says Brooklyn has been a hot market for a long time, and bump clauses haven’t been common. But now she’s representing buyers on a deal where the seller had resisted signing a contract with a home-sale contingency, even though the property had been on the market for about six months. Ms. Carver offered the bump clause to try to put the seller’s mind at ease.

In general, the bump clause can “give the seller some sense of security and comfort,” says Ms. Carver. The bump clause can be proposed by either the buyer’s or seller’s side, but is often offered by the buyer’s agent as a way to get the seller to accept a contingency.

Robin Sheridan, a real-estate broker with Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty in Seattle, says that when she is representing a seller facing a home-sale contingency, Ms. Sheridan often does her own due diligence. “I want to be certain the other property is one that will sell quickly,” she says. “I vet the buyers via their lender and ensure all their ducks are in a row to navigate the two nearly consecutive transactions. Knowing the bump clause is a possibility is comforting to a seller, but most of my clients remain firmly committed to the contract in hand.”

Here are some things to consider with bump clauses.

For sellers:

• Use it as leverage. Since the house is already under contract, a seller can use the clause as a negotiating tactic with any other buyers that show interest. The seller can try to get the other buyers to outbid the current price or negotiate a contract without contingencies.

• Don’t get greedy. If the seller receives a second offer, he may be tempted to “bump” the first buyer and sell to the second. But sellers should make sure the second offer is at least as strong as the first, which means looking deeper than price and contingencies. The new buyers may have poor credit, for example, and be less likely to obtain a mortgage. “It’s a bird in the hand,” says Mr. Reiss. “If they walk away and are stuck negotiating with a second offer that’s weak, they could end up with nothing.”

When Buyers Change Their Minds

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in When Home Buyers Change Their Minds (behind paywall). It opens,

The offer was accepted. The mortgage was approved. What happens when the buyer gets cold feet and wants to back out of the deal?

Jason Michael faced this issue about 18 months ago when he listed his three-bedroom home in St. Louis. Mr. Michael, a 36-year-old public-relations executive, asked $130,000 for his home and accepted an offer for $127,000. The buyers posted a $1,000 deposit of “earnest money,” completed inspections, negotiated repairs and were approved for a mortgage.

Then they told Mr. Michael that they had found another house and didn’t want to move ahead with the purchase.

While the contract allowed Mr. Michael to pocket the deposit if the buyers defaulted, they refused to authorize their agent to release it. Only after Mr. Michael threatened to sue did they surrender the $1,000.

“My agent had said that people don’t back out of house purchases—that this won’t happen,” Mr. Michael says. “But now I approach it as if the buyer can back out until the very last minute.” He ultimately decided to rent out the house.

According to an online survey of 2,241 adults conducted for finance website Nerdwallet.com in January, home-buyer’s remorse isn’t uncommon. Nearly half (49%) of homeowners who responded said they would do something differently if they had to go through the process again. Broken down by age group, 61% of Generation Xers (the mid-1960s through the 1970s) and 57% of millennial homeowners (born in the early 1980s through about 2004) indicated they had regrets. Many wished they had bought a bigger home or saved more money before buying.

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Here are a few things to consider if you might want to back out of your real-estate contract. Buyers and sellers should consult a qualified real-estate attorney for advice.

• Craft carefully. Rather than having a mortgage contingency allowing you to obtain a mortgage “at prevailing rates,” specify that the mortgage rate can be no more than 4%, for example. Or, consider making the contract contingent on the mortgage actually being funded by the lender. “This extends the contingency all the way to the closing,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate.

• Sharpen your negotiation skills. Even if you can’t back out legally, try to negotiate a reduction or return of the deposit with the seller. In a market where prices are rising and the homeowner can get a higher price for their home, there might be a chance to come to terms.

• Remember the broker. Even if the seller lets the buyer off the hook, he may still be liable to the broker for the commission. Contracts state that the commission is due when the broker finds a ready, willing and able buyer. Many brokers will work with the seller in this situation, Mr. Haber says, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

 

Preparing for Surprise Closing Costs

photo by Chris Potter

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Buying a Home? Prepare for Surprise Closing Costs. It opens,

Note to house hunters on a budget: A home’s sale price isn’t really the sale price—there are lots of closing costs and expenses that jack up the final number.

According to online real-estate listings site Zillow, buyers typically pay between 2% and 5% of the purchase price in closing costs. So if a home costs $300,000, that buyer can expect to pay between $6,000 and $15,000. Since the financial crisis, there’s more transparency on the part of lenders when disclosing the costs associated with a mortgage, so buyers know in advance how much they’ll need for the closing. But experts say that might not be enough.

Lender fees are only one part of the total cost of homeownership. Buyers must also pay appraisers, home inspectors and settlement agents, as well as the cost of title insurance, homeowners insurance and property taxes. And the fees don’t stop at the closing. Utilities, regular home maintenance and unexpected repairs add up as well—and can derail even the most experienced buyer.

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Here are a few considerations to help you avoid surprises at the closing table.

Stash your cash. There is no real rule of thumb as to how much money buyers should put aside in addition to the balance of the purchase price and closing costs. But the more, the better. “You definitely want an emergency fund,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate. “Appliances have a habit of breaking right after you buy a house.”

Close on the last day of the month, or just before. One of the fees due at closing is prepaid interest, the daily interest charge accruing between the closing and the day on which your first mortgage payment is due. Closing on the last day of the month reduces this upfront cost.

Get an estoppel letter from the association. Your real-estate agent or attorney may obtain this letter, which lists the maintenance fee, when it’s due, any required escrows or membership fees and whether a special assessment has been levied. Review this letter carefully, and compare it with the purchase contract to make sure all fees are apportioned accurately between buyer and seller.

Mortgages from the Shadows

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Realtor.com quoted me in ‘Shadow Banks’ Are on the Rise for Home Loans: Should We Be Afraid? It opens,

Where do home buyers go for a mortgage? To a bank, of course—or at least that’s what many might think. Yet a new force has taken over home financing, called “shadow banks.” So what are these non-banks exactly, and should we run for the hills?

In a nutshell, these are the less conventional places that don’t provide savings accounts, only loans to buy homes. They include companies like Quicken Loans, which is one of the nation’s largest mortgage providers, Caliber, and loanDepot.com.

But they can also be companies run by wealthy individuals using their personal fortunes to finance loans and then pocketing monthly interest payments, according to the Wall Street Journal. Or they could be funded by private equity, which is financed by pooled investor cash.

And, as a group, they’re no longer operating on the fringes of the housing industry. Instead, shadow banks “have overtaken U.S. commercial banks, to grab a record slice” of the market,” according to a recent housing report by ATTOM Data Solutions.

This group of nontraditional lenders now accounts for 48.3% of mortgages in 2016—compared to just 23.4% in 2008, according to the ATTOM report.

“The big banks got burned by the financial crisis, so they’ve become much more hesitant to make loans that are even close to being risky,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM.

These mortgage makers are very appealing to buyers without a 20%—or even 10%—down payment and therefore have trouble getting a loan from a regular old bank, says Blomquist. This might make sense for first-time buyers, or folks who have gone through a foreclosure.

But are they right for everyone? And, more to the point: Are they harbingers of the risky loaning behavior that help bring on the U.S. housing collapse?

Could shadow banks lead to another housing crisis?

As a group, these lenders are not subject to the same level of governmental scrutiny, regulations, and fees that drove many traditional financial institutions, like banks, out of the space after the housing bust. But they still come under a significant amount of federal oversight.

In short, regular banks retreated, so shadow banks moved in. What’s wrong with that?

As market media site Seeking Alpha has pointed out, shadow banks are “some of the same characters that played leading roles [in the last housing crisis].”

Not all experts believe we should be overly worried.

“While it’s true that so-called shadow banks played roles in the last housing crisis … the market itself is very different,” says David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinBlog.com.

For one, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 in response to the housing meltdown of 2008, changed how all lenders—banks, shadow banks, and otherwise—make loans, to better ensure there isn’t another housing bust.

Another big difference: Lenders are now documenting the income of borrowers to make sure these new homeowners can afford to make their monthly payments.

“There’s no evidence out there that non-banks are lending in any sort of imprudent way and/or hurting consumers,” Guy Cecala, publisher and CEO of Inside Mortgage Finance, tells realtor.com®. “In fact, most non-banks are more competitive than banks when it comes to mortgage interest rates and fees.”

“But they don’t have the same level of capital [such as cash], assets, or liquidity as banks do,” he says.

What to consider before getting a shadow bank loan

Borrowers should just take care to tread carefully and examine the terms and conditions of the financing before signing on the dotted line, says Mark Greene, a longtime mortgage lender based in Hackensack, NJ.

He recommends looking for red flags like adjustable rate change terms, prepayment penalties, and other hidden fees.

Good ol’ common sense will come in handy too.

“If your loan is coming from a fishy-sounding company like Two Brothers Fly-by-Night Hard Money-Lenders, Inc., you may want to dig a bit deeper, to figure out what kind of lender it really is,” says law professor Reiss.

REFinBlog has been nominated for the second year in a row for The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Competition in the Education Category. Please vote here if you like what you read.

Mortgage Market Forecast

crystal-ball

OnCourseLearning.com’s new financial services blog quoted me in Mortgage Rates Likely to Remain Low for Foreseeable Future. It opens,

In the weeks since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, previously low interest rates have fallen to near historically low levels.

For the week ending Aug. 25, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage averaged 3.43%, just slightly above the record low of 3.31% established in 2012. At the same time a year ago, the average mortgage rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was 3.84%, according to Freddie Mac.

The drop in interest rates appears to be drawing more homeowners into the mortgage market. Freddie Mac now expects 2016 loan originations to reach $2 trillion, the highest level since 2012.

Market Uncertainty

While markets have calmed since the Brexit vote in late June, the Mortgage Bankers Association cautioned in a July 14 Economic and Mortgage Finance commentary that the actual “terms and conditions of the exit will continue to destabilize markets.”

Global economic uncertainty, oil price fluctuations, slow economic growth and the potential for interest rate hikes suggest market instability will likely continue for some time, experts said. As a result, most analysts expect interest rates will remain low, at least in the short term.

“Those who have been betting on increasing interest rates have been wrong for a long time now,” said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and research director of its Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. He believes rates likely will remain low “over the next six to 12 months, partially driven by a further reduction in spreads between Treasury yields and mortgage rates.”

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a personal finance website, expects “the backdrop of slow global economic growth, low inflation, and negative interest rates elsewhere will keep demand for U.S. bonds high, and mortgage rates [below] 4% in the foreseeable future.”

In July, Freddie Mac predicted the 30-year rate won’t top 3.6% in 2016, or 4% in 2017.

Lending Opportunities

The low-interest rates have created new opportunities for lenders. Refinance bids recently reached their highest level in three years.

“With mortgage rates having been range-bound for so long, this breakout to the low side has opened the door to refinancing for homeowners who had previously refinanced around 4% or even just below,” McBride said. He expects refinancing demand to continue as long as mortgage rates stay close to 3.5%, but predicts rates may need to drop a bit more to prolong the boom.

Meanwhile, rising home prices are creating more equity, and the MBA expects homeowners to want more cash-out refinancing. In its July 14 report, the MBA raised its 2016 refinance origination forecasts by 10% to $760 billion, replacing its pre-Brexit projection of a decrease.

As rates fall, refinancing becomes attractive earlier for those with outsize mortgages. These jumbo loans are those that exceed $417,000 in most of the country, or $625,000 in high-priced markets like New York and San Francisco, according to a July 7 online article in the Wall Street Journal. With these big loans, lower rates can mean substantial savings.

“Borrowers with larger loans stand to gain more by refinancing, and may not need as large of a rate incentive than borrowers with lower loan balances,” according to the July 14 MBA report. Because more affluent borrowers take out these loans, they generally have fewer delinquencies or foreclosures, and lenders can steer big borrowers to a bank’s other accounts and services. They’re also becoming cheaper: Rates on jumbo loans were at record lows in July, according to the MBA.

Reiss thinks lenders have been somewhat “slow to expand in the jumbo market, and may now gain a leg up over their competitors by doing so.”

Potential Risks

Still, lenders face some risks to profitability, including increased regulatory expenses such as the impact of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new TRID rule. Most of the pain from the TRID regulations, Reiss said, involve “transition costs for implementing the new regulation, and those costs will decrease over time.”

Jumbo Mortgage Deals Ahead

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The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Attention, Jumbo-Mortgage Shoppers: Deals Ahead (behind paywall). It opens,

With more lenders offering jumbo loans, borrowers have more bargaining power to negotiate the best terms.

During the first quarter of this year, 20.3% of all first mortgages originated were jumbo loans, according to Guy Cecala, CEO and publisher of trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance. That’s up from 18.9% last year and 5.5% in 2009, just after the financial crisis.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just supply and demand for capital,” says Doug Lebda, founder and CEO of LendingTree, an online financing marketplace. “Over 60% of people still don’t think they can shop for loans—even rich people. But everything is negotiable.”

Since only a small percentage of jumbo loans are sold to investors, the “vast majority are winding up on bank balance sheets,” according to Michael Fratantoni, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association. But because these loans are held in a lender’s portfolio and aren’t subject to the guidelines of investors purchasing them—as opposed to conforming loans, which must comply with hard-and-fast parameters established by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—terms and underwriting standards vary widely.

“Borrowers may find more flexibility with lenders that keep mortgages on their own books,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate. “These lenders can usually take a more individualized approach to underwriting than a lender that sells its mortgages off to be securitized with a whole bunch of other mortgages.”

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Here are a few things to consider when negotiating a jumbo loan:

Prepare before applying. “Jumbo lenders are focusing on borrowers with good credit and resources,” said Brooklyn Law School’s Mr. Reiss. Before applying, borrowers should clean up their credit report and keep debt in check. Lenders look at total debt-to-income ratio and overall credit to determine how strong a buyer is; the stronger the buyer, the more the negotiating power.

Create a relationship. “If you’re a substantial borrower with a substantial relationship with a bank—one of our wealth clients—the guidelines might get a bit more flexible,” saysPeter Boomer, executive vice president of PNC Mortgage, a division of PNC Bank NA.

Don’t hesitate to negotiate. “They are the customer, and the lender is not doing them a favor,” says Mr. Lebda, of LendingTree. “People are ecstatic when they get approved for a mortgage, but they actually need to think about it the other way—that the lender should be ecstatic for giving them a loan.”