Full Circle: Back to More Traditional Lending Standards

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I've seen more changes in the lending industry in the last six months than the previous five years. But those changes simply restored us to the place we were a few years ago.

Loans are easy to get, rates are good. For all the howling and gnashing and grinding of teeth you see in the media, and elsewhere, I can get loans at rates that are very low, historically speaking. I can get 100% financing quite easily, and not just government programs, either.

You just have to be able to prove you can afford the payments.

Actually, let me modify that. You don't have to prove you can afford the payments. You can get "stated income" and NINA financing. There's actually quite a lot of it out there, and the rates have even fallen a bit in the last couple weeks. The lenders are perfectly willing to make stated income and NINA loans. Want one? I can get it, even A paper, provided you've got the credit score.

You just have to have enough equity that the lender isn't worried about losing the money they loan you.

All you need is one or the other. And that's the rub. Starting a few years ago, and increasing until the house of cards started collapsing back in the beginning of the year, many real estate agents and loan officers stopped worrying about whether or not their client could really afford the property. The question was could they get the loan funded, and let the client worry about whether they could really afford it later.

The relaxation of lending standards was like manna from heaven to the less ethical members of my professions. Agents could sell people who could barely afford a condominium in reality a beautiful huge detached house with its own yard in an affluent community with great schools, and loan officers could make it look like they could afford the payments. Talk about your easy sale! The clients expect a chintzy little condo in a rough neighborhood, and the agents shows them a beautiful five bedroom home half a block from the beach, and says they can get it for the monthly payment they told the agent they could make. Prices skyrocket! People who bought a couple years ago and are strapped for bills refinance into these ridiculously low payments while getting cash out for all of the toys they can imagine! New SUV? How about two new SUVs! Some loan officer needs to get paid for a loan, and everybody has a thirty year fixed rate loan they got in Summer 2003 at 5.25%? Offer to cut the payment in half!

Never mind that the real interest rates on these loans was much higher. People just naturally assumed that if they kept making the payments, they'd pay the loan down, and eventually, off. After all, that's what loans are! Except that wasn't the case in this particular instance. That small minimum payment, way below the real cost of interest, caused thousands of dollars to be added to the loan balances, where the above market interest rate could be charged on that money also - and the lenders could report all of this as income, doing wonderful things for their revenue and stock prices!

Some others may not have gone in for negative amortization loans in a big way. Instead, they put people into "interest only" loans where the loan and interest rate was fixed for two, or maybe even three years. They may have used stated income, or they may not, but they put people in unsustainable loans where the clients could barely afford the initial payment, and never mind thinking about what would happen, sure as gravity, when the adjustment hit. When the loan started to amortize at the same time the rate jumped by two percent, they affect to be somehow surprised that their former clients cannot afford the payments!

Or perhaps they used stated income only because the clients had two thousand dollars of other debt service per month. Well, hello! debt to income ratio is the most critical measure of whether someone qualifies for a loan there is. It protects the lender, and it also protects the borrower, and this intentionally short-circuited it. Yes, they could have afforded the property if they didn't have have this debt. It's not a distraction, it's the central, single most important issue in whether or not they qualify for that loan!

For those who were taken advantage of thusly, may I recommend finding a competent real estate attorney? The last few months have seen some very interesting court decisions. One in Ohio started it off by ordering a negative amortization loan rescinded due to failure to disclose its nature sufficiently. There are all kinds of class action suits going on, which may be the first worthwhile use to which I've seen them put in twenty years. I would not be surprised at all to see some real estate brokers successfully sued over basically the same issues (actually, I'm anticipating it with a fair amount of schadenfreude), and I also expect the regulators to get pretty heavily involved. Licenses are going to be lost, and even a few jail cells are going to be filled.

All of that is neither here nor there, really. My point is that the only thing that's changed is that the lenders have woken up to the fact that was evident all along - that they were the "deep pockets" who were liable to eat most of these losses from the price collapse, and from people who couldn't make payments on unsustainable loans, particularly after the payment started adjusting. The lending standards that contributed to the bubble are gone, and they are not coming back any time soon. Forget about them. That was then. This is now.

The lending standards in effect now are very livable. Bankers transported from the seventies - or even the early nineties - would be horrified at how lax they are. Until 1997, there was precisely one lender that would loan 100 percent of the value of the property (when they bailed out of the 100% loan market in late 2005, it was the first sign that collapse of the lending market had actually started). I've still got at least a dozen lenders who will go 100% now, but they want to see proof you can afford the payments. Failing that, they want to see enough equity (which means down payment in the case of purchases for you real estate agents reading this), so that if the loan were to go south, that lender would still get their money.

This means real affordability and down payment have become a lot more important to the purchase market, and if you're looking at a refinance, you had better be able to afford the real payments. If you can't, you better have equity. If you don't have either, that refinance is not going to happen. I just checked two wholesaler databases, and neither one had a 100% stated income loan, even with verified asset reserves.

If, on the other hand, you're willing to restrict yourself to properties you can really afford, welcome to ownership! As I've said, I've got any number of 100% loan to value ratio programs if you'll do this, and have credit that isn't putrid! As I covered a few weeks ago, affordability has increased a lot, and that's just judging by asking prices. When you judge by actual sales prices, things are more affordable yet!

The catch is that if you can only afford the payments on $300,000, then $300,000 is all you're going to be able to borrow. I've been selling my clients what they can really afford all along - the only difference it makes to me is that I'm no longer competing with the jokers that can only sell houses by showing clients the beautiful property they can't afford. I've been telling people about real, sustainable loans all along. The only difference this makes to my loan business is that I'm not competing with jokers who sell negative amortization loans by the minimum payment to unsuspecting people who don't understand what's going on.

What this means is that lazy agents and loan officers are going to have to bite the bullet and sell the client a property they can really afford with a loan they can really afford. Agents can have people make offers on property they can't afford, but they're wasting their time and the clients'. Loan officers can tell people about this loan and that loan they used to have, but they're wasting their time and the clients'. Possibly the clients deposit, inspection, and appraisal money too, in both cases. The loans to make this nonsense happen do not exist any longer.

On the other hand, 100% financing still exists for those who can afford the payments. But they have to be able to actually afford the payments. This means working within a budget, and settling for what you can afford within that budget. Settling is a very hard message to send someone who's going to be spending six figures on a property and is all emotionally tied up with how they want it to be beautiful, and in a great neighborhood with wonderful schools and all of the usual things that have buyers gushing - particularly when everyone else is telling them they don't have to settle. They really did have to settle, all along, and those that believed ethical practitioners when they were told that are doing just fine, thank you, while those who didn't are in real trouble. The real world has come crashing back into real estate. The fantasy may have been nice while it lasted, but the real world always comes crashing back.

Among those real world facts that have come crashing back is that all of the long term benefits of owning over renting are just as real, just as relevant, and just as true, as I painted them back when I wrote those articles. Let's review a few:

Should I buy a Home?, Leverage in Real Estate - Making a Decent Investment Spectacular, Why Renting Really Is For Suckers (And What To Do About It) (and its counterpoint, When You Should Not Buy Real Estate), Save For A Down Payment or Buy Now?, The High Cost of Waiting To Buy A Home, Real Estate: Getting From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be.

My local market in San Diego County has been on the bleeding edge of all of this, because it's such a desirable place to live, and our housing supply is probably the second most constricted in the nation (after Manhattan, and although the City of San Francisco also has a decent claim it covers a much smaller area). Between natural obstacles to growth and zoning codes constricting the building of new housing, I think we've had about all the downwards adjustment we're going to get. If you can't afford to buy a detached house, buy a condominium, townhome, or PUD (indeed, how dead the condo market has been the last three summers has been directly attributable to two factors: Over-conversion or apartments, and the fact that lazy agents were selling people properties they couldn't afford because it was easy), or think seriously about moving out of town, because with the number of people who want to live here, it's only the current meltdown in lending that's causing the hiccough in prices (and what effect do you think over-conversion of rentals will have on the rental market?). With local housing demand trends going the way they are going, even the prices at the peak of the bubble two years ago are going to look pathetically cheap in a few years, and that's pretty much the facts of the matter, albeit perhaps not so strongly where there's still room and the building codes to allow growth People are able to qualify here locally. Right now, the only thing preventing them is irrational Fear and Greed, exactly opposite to but caused by exactly the same psychological factors I wrote about in February 2006, back when everybody else thought the market was still going gangbusters, and updated here. But psychological fear and greed are difficult to maintain. It's not going to be very much longer before people figure out, en masse, that the economic basis is there to support those few sales that are actually happening. Actually, the economic basis is more than there to support current prices - I'd look for a significant bounce in prices next spring and summer, and even if I'm wrong about the exact timing, the price turn-around is coming. Buy something you can really afford, and be ready to see it increase in value.

If you buy something you can really afford, the moderate increases in value I expect to see will leverage your money favorably, such that you will be better able to afford something more expensive, more quickly, than if you saved your money, even if you invested those savings in the stock market. Even if you never move up, the fact that you have fixed your costs of housing now means that if you can afford those costs now, you will be even better able to afford those costs in the future, assuming inflation and all of those other economic factors we've gotten accustomed to these last fifty years. Homes are not going to continue at today's prices any more than candy bars are still ten cents, or that you're going to be happy working for today's wages thirty years from now. What's going on right now is an opportunity for buyers, and an opportunity for those who would like to be able to continue to afford to live here for the rest of their lives. If you decide to wait until event prove me right, that's your prerogative, but neither I nor anyone else will be able to bring the market back to today's state. The moving finger writes and moves on.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 2, 2007 7:00 AM.

The Seller Always Knows More About the Property Than the Buyer was the previous entry in this blog.

The "We'll Keep You In Your Property" Scam is the next entry in this blog.

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