Wanting a More Expensive Property Than You Can Really Afford

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This is one of the biggest issues with my local real estate market. Because the San Diego market has very high demand and limited supply of property, prices are high. A reasonable two bedroom condo runs around $300,000. A 1200 square foot three bedroom, two bath detached home in decent shape on a 7000 square foot lot costs around $500,000. There are areas that are less expensive, and buyers have a lot of leverage right now, but those are real ballpark numbers. These numbers are sustainable, because even though a relatively small fraction of the population can afford such numbers, that fraction is enough to absorb the properties that come onto the market for sale. It doesn't matter if minimum wage people can't afford your property. All you need is one willing buyer who can. We're not the most expensive area of the country, but we're up there,

When you put people into this sort of environment, a certain number of them are going to want more expensive property than they can really afford. Most of them have what they believe are really excellent reasons for it. "My kids need a yard to play in!", "I've got two kids who need their own room!", and "I've got to live where the schools are the best!" are three of the most common. Other people will say they've got to live within so much distance of the ocean, they've got to have so much space, or they've got to live in a "safe" neighborhood. What they all have in common is that they're rationalizations.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a better property. I want lots of things I can't have right now. There's a car company called Morgan. They make cars that may not be the fastest or the most luxurious, but they are an absolute blast to drive. They've got a waiting list two years long. If I ever actually buy one, then in my own mind I will officially have more money than sense. I can think of roughly an infinite number of charities that would put that money to better use. But it's not wrong for me to want one - it's just stupid if I buy one without being able to afford it, and if I ever can afford it, it'll be my money to do as I want (although I hope I'd donate it to something like Soldier's Angels instead). I don't think I've ever met anyone who doesn't want something they can't really afford. It's not a crime, and it's not a sin, and it can even give you motivation to get to where you can afford it. It is self-destructive if you act on your desire before you get to that point.

Nonetheless, a lot of people, will convince themselves that because they're good people, they "deserve" this property even though they cannot afford it (or cannot afford it yet). They manage to convince themselves that what they're doing is really okay, and it'll all come out okay in the end. I must disagree, because if they "deserve" this property, they "deserve" the loan that comes with it, and "deserve" all the bad stuff that will happen when (not if) they default on their payments. The odds are strongly against everything coming out okay in the end.

If you've got the cash, you can do anything legal with it that you desire, among which is buying any property you desire. But these folks want this property now, and they don't have the cash and can't afford the loan. If either of these were not the case, well then I submit to you that they really can afford it, after all.

There aren't any loans that really make more than a marginal difference in whether you can afford the property. This isn't to say it's not worth shopping around, it is. The difference between the 6.125 thirty year fixed I can do for one point, and the 6.375 the branch of that same lender in the supermarket I was in this morning wanted two points for is quite noticeable. On a $400,000 loan, that's a difference of over $4000 in initial cost, and $1000 per year of interest, not counting the fact that the borrowers will have to borrow more money for the other loan. But with reasonable and equal assumptions about equity, property taxes, etcetera, none of which are under my control, the family who gets my loan will pay $2957 per month ($2042 cost of interest), requiring monthly income of $6571, while the other loan would cause their monthly total of payments to be $3023 per month (2125 cost of interest), and the income to qualify is $6716. The difference is only about 2.2 percent. It still amounts to a lot of money, but the odds are that someone who qualifies for my loan will also qualify for the other, they'll just pay $83 per month more for the loan. This apparently small difference is one of the expensive lender's best defenses against smaller companies willing to do the loan more cheaply: it just doesn't seem like that much of a difference. Even if you dropped to a 5.875% 5/1 ARM that I had as of I'm writing this, that only drops the monthly cost of housing to $2893 ($1958 cost of interest), a further difference of only $84 (while raising the income qualification to $7613 per month, because the allowable debt to income ratio is lower). This works out to a lot of money - as I said, $4000 plus $1000 per year for however many years you keep it, but it just doesn't seem like that much to most borrowers. Nonetheless, these loans are all good loans if you qualify. That's what's real. That's what's sustainable.

But if you want the property, loan officers can use one or more tricks, such as stated income, negative amortization, or teaser loans with a low initial payment where the rate will adjust upwards at a certain time, particularly if they're "interest only" until that time. Such loans can make it appear as if you can afford the property, when you really cannot. In the vast majority of cases where they are used, such loans are unsustainable . Let's say you think of the payment as your actual cost of housing, which may not be true. You decide you need to cut your cost of housing, but you still want the same property. Lenny the Loan Shark hauls out an interest only 2/28 at 6%, and voila! cost of interest is only $2000, and the total of monthly payments drops to $2526 under the same assumptions as the previous paragraph. But in two years, not only is that rate going to jump to 8.25% (assuming the market stays exactly where it is today), but it'll start amortizing at the same time. Net result? In month 25, your loan payment goes to $3055 (cost of interest $2750), an increase of over 50%, but your overall monthly cash flow to stay in that property goes to 3581. It's more likely you can afford $3023 now, the worst option from the previous paragraph, than $3581 in two years.

Suppose you want to stretch a little further than that? Lenny pulls out a negative amortization loan, even though he calls it by one of dozens of friendly sounding pseudonymns, like "Option ARM," "Pick a pay," "Flex pay," or "1% loan". As soon as the grapevine picks up on one name for these nightmares, they come up with another. One of our local sharks is pushing these on the radio right now. Gosh, doesn't "1% loan" sound good? Why would anybody choose something different when those are available? Who wants to pay more interest?

The answer is that they're not really giving you a loan at 1%. Think of 1%, or whatever it is, as a "make believe" rate. Pretend it's your rate, and make that payment ($1286 for the loan, giving a total of monthly checks you write of $1812), and just don't pay attention to what's happening to your balance. Until of course, the loan hits recast, and you realize that they've really been charging you a variable rate above 8% this whole time, and now you discover that instead of $400,000, which you really couldn't afford the payments on, you now owe 110 to 125% of this amount you originally borrowed, and now they start charging you for the whole payment every month. Let's say you now owe $480,000, and your payment on the loan alone jumps to $3784, plus the same assumptions as previously, leads to a total of monthly payments of $4310 three years out. If you couldn't afford the real cost of housing at $2893, let along $3023, how likely is it you'll be able to afford $4310 three years down the line? How many people do you know that get 43% raises over three years? Now, how many people do you know that don't?

As for stated income, the thinking goes something like this: So what if you don't qualify by standard measurements! Those old banker stick in the muds don't ever want to loan money to people who really need it! You can make the payments, right? You're going to pay them back, right? We'll just tell them you make what you need to make in order to qualify! We do need to choose this short term loan to give you a payment you can make, but that's no problem! In two years, we'll refinance you into something better!

I'm perfectly willing to do unsustainable loans if the client can convince me they're aware of the downsides and risks. You're a legal adult, and being a legal adult means you're able to assume responsibility for your own mistakes. But doing this requires me to go over those downsides and risks in person with that client. Hiding it among 500 pages of disclosures while you're signing the final paperwork is not acceptable. People who accept these loans are putting themselves into a situation where it's essentially going to be mandatory that they refinance within two to three years. If the equity situation deteriorates, if their credit has gotten worse, if they've had late payments, they are not going to be able to obtain a loan on terms as good as what they initially had. If they didn't need a lower payment than could be had on a sustainable loan, they could have had a loan without any of these downsides. Nor is refinancing free. The fees can be paid by accepting a higher rate, but that higher rate itself means a higher payment, leading to questions of whether they can still qualify. For that matter, rates change over time. What it available rates then are significantly higher? Unlike everyone else, the person who accepts this type of loan does not really have the option of waiting for the rates to get better again. They need to understand that before they sign up to start it, not thirty days later when they're looking at final loan documents, and most people don't think they have any other choice but to sign.

All of this also begs a couple of other questions. What about pre-payment penalties, which I haven't touched on until now? What about the fact that the client who gets these loans is stretching beyond their real limits in most cases, and the credit score and situation is more likely to deteriorate than improve? Finally, most importantly, even if none of these concerns manages to bite this client, what makes you think that better loans will be available in two or three years? There just isn't anyone who can reliably predict the state of the loan market that far out.

In short, by attempting to circumvent one of the central questions of whether they qualify, these persons are not only short-circuiting a protective measure intended for their benefit as much as the lender's, but they're laying themselves open for unscrupulous providers. All of this is part of the reason why San Diego, which started out expensive and got more so, was on the bleeding edge of the bubble. If people want the house of their dreams right now, and they're seeing the market increase 20% per year with no end they can see in sight, Fear and Greed are both telling them to do whatever it takes - lie, cheat, steal, deal with shady practitioners, in order to get into that property. This was, predictably as gravity to anyone who understands macroeconomics, the wrong decision, but these folks didn't take the time to understand the market. Not to excuse them from all culpability, but here were people they thought of as credible experts, real estate agents and loan officers, telling them to do it. A rough equivalent would be if my lawyer told me it was permissible to haul off and shoot someone (other than in self defense). I'm still going to prison if I do, and rightly so, but the lawyer would certainly bear a certain amount of culpability. There is no magic wand that makes murder legal, and there is no magic wand that makes loans and properties well beyond your means affordable. Many of these were working class folks, told they qualified for a home that looks like it came straight out of Architectural Digest. This was a wedge that enabled them to be taken advantage of. It was a welcome message, it made them feel good about themselves, and it appeared to give them something that they desperately wanted, but fearful that there was no way they could afford. Yes, they were fooling themselves, but they've had a lot of company throughout history. While I cannot excuse their failure to heed warnings that most of them were given, or their failure to maybe do a little bit of research on something that any rational adult should have known was too good to be true, I can also understand it. It's a mistake I can see myself having made in different contexts.

There are variations in the market, but finding the beautiful mansion you can afford is not a matter of persistent looking, waiting for one to go on sale for the right price, or even just somehow finding the right loan. This isn't the meat section of the supermarket, where they try to lure you in with loss leaders in order to sell you the rest of your groceries for a higher price. People only buy one property or get one loan at a time. The lenders want you to pay a high cost of money, and they will play all sorts of games with payment, and what you have to pay for with money out of your pocket, or checks out of your checking account, in order to secure what they really want: You paying a higher cost for the money you borrow. That's what gets them paid. You paying a higher cost for the money you borrow than you might otherwise, gets them paid more. Much more. They can take a small portion of it and make it seem like you're getting something for free, and still come out way ahead. And there's really only one place all this money can come out of in the end: Your pocketbook. The lenders who really have superior loan prices and rates don't play these games, because on the margins they make, they can't afford to.

Getting people to be realistic about what they can afford is probably the hardest part of a buyer's agent's job, especially when your competition is telling them they can afford something they can't. It isn't popular, and you'll lose more than a few potential clients, but you'll keep yourself out of court, out of regulatory hearings, and out of jail.

For consumers, I advise you to limit yourself to sustainable loan types, fully amortized and fixed in interest rate for five years or more. There are exceptions, but if you're the kind of expert who can recognize those exceptions, you've stopped reading before this, because this article hasn't taught that person anything they don't already know. Set yourself a fixed budget in purchase price dollars, based upon your ability to afford the full payments at current rates, and refuse to go over that. If you've got a good buyer's agent, you can get a better property for less money than you might otherwise pay. If you're willing to rehab the place yourself, you can get a better property for less money, even considering the money and time you'll spend doing so. Think of it as your pay for handling the job in place of the soon to be former owner. If you shop around, you can find significantly better loans than if you don't. But you're not going to find a palace for the price of a dump. If you do, there's something wrong with the situation, and if you aren't so certain that you understand what it is and why, that you can give someone permission to tear your arm off and beat you to death with it if you're wrong, chances are you should run, not walk, in the other direction.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 9, 2007 7:00 AM.

Problems with Exclusive Listings was the previous entry in this blog.

Regulators Toughen Negative Amortization Loans? is the next entry in this blog.

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