Foreclosures - A Good Investment?

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Well, sometimes. Okay, most of the time. But not always.

Foreclosures: Bargain hunters beware!

Myth no. 1: A big spike in foreclosures is right around the corner...

...That's because in most of the country, anyone who has owned a home for even a year or two is likely sitting on enough equity to sell or refinance if the loan payments become unaffordable.


Used to be true. Not so much any more. When prices are going up 20% per year, this is true. When prices have slid about 30 percent locally, anybody who bought for peak or near peak prices is in trouble, not to mention the folks in negative amortization loans that got into a situation where they can't afford the real payment, and now they owe thousands of dollars more than they paid. Nonetheless (as the article mentions) the banks want the loan repaid. They don't want to own the house. A "hard money" lender will foreclose fast and hard, but a regulated lender wants the loan repaid, and they'll pretty much take a loss anytime they foreclose, and it's always bad business, because it's always someone who won't use that bank, and who tells all their friends and family. The bank isn't going to have a representative there to tell their side of the story, so no matter how justified they were in foreclosing, it's bad for business. They will put it off as long as they possibly can.

It can take a couple of years after payments start being a problem before the lender decides to cut their losses and foreclose. Sometimes the individuals concerned go to heroic lengths to stay out of foreclosure, drawing out all their savings, even their retirements to meet the payment. They are usually ill-advised to do so; nonetheless I understand the emotional attachment that occurs. The peak for foreclosure is usually somewhere around the fourth year of the loan. Foreclosures are up now, locally, but look for them to start going up further at the end of 2007, as the option ARMs really took off in 2004.

Myth no. 2: Foreclosed houses sell for far less than their market value.

In a study of foreclosure sale prices in more than 600 counties nationwide in 2005, Christopher Cagan of data provider First American Real Estate Solutions found that, on average, foreclosed properties sold for about 15 percent less than comparable homes in the area that were not distressed. But in states where real estate prices have risen the most, including Arizona, California and Virginia, foreclosed properties sold for within 5 percent of full market value.

This is true. Furthermore, many foreclosure homes have maintenance and repair issues. If I can save my several tens of thousand dollars of equity by fixing the property up a little bit and cutting the price a little in order to sell it before foreclosure, I'll do it. On the other hand, if I bought it for $500,000 with a 5% down payment on a negative amortization loan, and now it's only worth $420,000, my investment is long gone, and any work I do and any money I spend is helping nobody but the bank. Some people may strip the copper out of the walls for scrap (I've seen what one such person left behind). Some people may even take a sledgehammer and break things in one last act of spite.

In highly appreciated areas, the auction is usually the worst time to buy. Get them from the owners before the lenders pile on all the default and foreclosure fees, while there is still something to save for the owner, equity-wise. Get them from the lenders as REOs after they fail to sell at auction. Depending upon who forecloses, that can wipe out entire trust deeds. For instance, if there's a first and a second on the property, and the first forecloses, that second is gone. Dust. History. Worthless paper with unimportant markings, basically good for fire starter. If it originally sold for $500,000, and there's a $400,000 first and a $75,000 second, but the property is only worth $420,000 now, that second holder is crazy if they show up to the auction to defend it, especially since the holder of the first has added thousands of dollars in fees, every penny of which gets paid before the second gets a penny. The second is unlikely to get a penny, and bidding on it is throwing good money after bad. It's a waste of an employee's time, if nothing else. For buyers at auction, there's a key phrase to remember: cash or the equivalent. You don't win the auction and then arrange financing; you have to have that first. This doesn't apply to sales before and after the auction. Nor does California's ninety percent rule.

Now, you are not (if you're smart) buying at auction sight unseen. You can usually make an appointment to see the property in the days before the auction. You should also look at other properties in the area. Know the market before you bid. Know what you intend to do with the property, know how much it's going to cost. Depending upon the law where you are, there may be a building inspection required, or perhaps you can take an inspector with you. This costs money, so you may want to preview once before you haul the inspector out there. Do your homework before you toss your money into the ring. That's what the people who make money at foreclosure auctions do. It's practically a full time job if you want to do well, and if you're not doing it all the time, a good agent is a lifesaver. Every situation is different, and it takes a certain amount of experience to know the best way to approach buying a given distressed property. You're competing with people who do this full time for a living. Ask yourself questions like "Why should I be willing to pay more for this property than Joe, who's been doing this for twenty years?" Auctions get crazy and emotional. If you have someone there to help take the emotion out of it, you are less likely to waste large sums of money. If you have someone there to help point out the pitfalls, you've probably just saved yourself every penny of their commission and thousands of dollars more besides. So long as they do what they say they will, of course.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on January 2, 2008 7:00 AM.

Real Estate and Mortgages: Back to Basics? was the previous entry in this blog.

Time for Listing Agents To Earn Their Money is the next entry in this blog.

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