Unsustainable Loans You Should Not Use to Purchase a Property

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You've probably heard the horror stories, and I've mentioned the possibility more than once. Some unsuspecting person is looking at properties beyond their price range, and it therefore has all kinds of attractive features that properties which are in their price range do not have. They are just about to regretfully but firmly put the notion of buying this particular property out of their heads when the Real Estate agent whispers seductively, "I can see that you want it, so let me show you how you can afford it!"

There are all kinds of reasons why this happens. Bigger commission check for the bigger sale certainly is one, but a far bigger concern to most of the predators who do this is that it's an easy immediate sale. Instead of having to take those folks around to dozens more properties that are in their price range (and perhaps lose them to some other agent taking advantage of an opportunity in the meantime), while the clients agonize about the trade-offs of linoleum versus carpet in the bathroom and kitchen, and maybe if they'll keep looking just a little while longer they'll find one that is perfect despite the market, so they're not going to make an offer today, thank you very much, this predator has shown them the equivalent of the holy grail, provided the clients do not understand the downsides of the loan that is necessary to procure that property.

There is a reason why I advise people shopping for a property to make a budget based upon what they can afford based upon current rates on 30 year fixed rate loans, or at the very most an amortized 5/1 ARM, and stick to it. That the maximum price you will offer - end of discussion. Even if you, the client, end up applying for another type of loan that has lower payments, if you could make the payment on a thirty year fixed rate loan, you are pretty certain you are not getting in over your head. But shop by sales price, not payment. "Creative financing" has become so pervasive that shopping by the payment the real estate agent has posted, or tells you about, is severely hazardous to your financial health. This number should be the most important thing buyer's discuss with their agents, and the budget must be quoted in terms of purchase price, not monthly payment. There are too many games that can be played with monthly payment.

Indeed, the very head of the list of reasons why buyers should fire an agent is that the agent showed them a property which can not reasonably be gotten for the sales price limit they told the agent about. You tell me that your limit is $320,000, it might be okay to show you a property listing for $340,000 or even $350,000. In the current buyer's market, that's a comparatively small amount of bargaining power. In a seller's market, of course, it would likely rule out anything where the ask is over $325,000. But if the agent shows you a property listing for $450,000, simply ask to be taken home or back to your vehicle immediately, and then inform them that their services are no longer required and that you desire them to make no further efforts to contact you. Were I shopping for a property, I would demand to know the asking prices before I went, and not only fire the agent but also refuse to go if they cannot show me why they think this property can be obtained for the total cost limits we have agreed upon. Not monthly payment limits, sales price.

So what loans should not be used to purchase a property? Well keep in mind that this list assumes that your loan providers are telling the truth about the kind of loan they are working on for you, an assumption that, judging by a dozen or so different e-mails I've gotten from people who were scammed, is increasingly iffy. Furthermore, if you are a real financial and loan expert, there are reasons why these warnings may not apply, particularly if the property in question is investment property, but those sorts of experts should know the exceptions, should not be looking to this website for advice, and are always able to accept the financial consequences of not following these guidelines (in other words, they have the ability to absorb the losses).

The absolute head of the list, the loan that should never be used for purchase of a primary residence is the negative amortization loan. Known by many other friendly sounding names such as "pick a pay", "Option ARM", "COFI loan," "MTA loan," and "1% loan" (which it is not), this loan is a truly horrible choice for the vast majority of the population (99%+). It was only approved by regulators to service a very small niche market, and if you are a member of that niche market, chances are that your Option ARM will not be approved by the lender! This loan is usually sold strictly on the basis of the fact that the minimum payment is lower than any other type of loan, making it look like clients can afford a loan that they cannot, in fact, afford. This low payment is based upon a low nominal, or "in name only" rate that is not the real rate the money is accumulating interest at. In fact, the real rate that you are being charged is currently at least 1.5 percent above equivalent rates for thirty year fixed rate loans, as well as being month to month variable. How often do you think people who are being fully informed of the loan would agree to accept a rate a full 1.5 percent higher on a fully variable loan than what they would have gotten on a thirty year fixed rate mortgage, and with a prepayment penalty also? The lenders pay very high yield spreads for doing these loans, and the bond market pays even higher premiums, so many lenders push them hard, and many wholesalers push them even harder. Despite being warned that I was not interested in any loans that feature negative amortization, three new potential wholesalers have gotten themselves thrown out of my office in the last month. I guess they weren't interested - or able - to compete with other lenders on real loans.

The Interest only 2/28 does have one redeeming factor, as compared to the negative amortization loan. At least your balance isn't getting higher every month. With the average loan around here being about $400,000, a rate of 5.5% would have the payment being $1833. But if that's all you can afford, what happens in two years when the rate adjusts and it starts amortizing, and if the market stays right where it is today, the payment goes to $2771, an increase of 51%? You haven't paid the principal down. There's a pre-payment penalty stopping you from selling or refinancing until it does adjust. If prices have appreciated enough to pay the costs of selling you might not come out so bad, but what if they haven't, or if prices have actually gone down? This is not the sort of bet that someone with a fiduciary relationship should make, as real estate prices increasing is not something you can make a risk free bet on. Millions of people are finding that out right now.

The next loan on the list is the 3/27 Interest Only. This does offer you one more year to get your act together and start making more money to make the payments with than the 2/28. The downside is that it actually adjust higher due to the increased interest only period. In the example above, the payment would adjust to $2804, an increase of just under 53%. This also means you have another year for the value of the property to do the historically normal thing and appreciate a little. Still doesn't mean it's a bet somebody with a fiduciary responsibility should be making with your finances.

The next type of loan to be wary of is anything stated income or even lesser levels of documentation (NINA or "no ratio" loans). These loans are great and wonderful if you really are making that money and really can make those payments, but don't let the temptation to buy a more expensive property lead you to exaggerate what you really make, or allow a loan officer to exaggerate what you really make, in order to qualify for the loan. Remember, you are still going to have to make those payments, and if you can't, the bad things that will happen more than counterbalance the nicest thing that might happen. Again, millions of people are discovering this right now.

Somewhat less dangerous are interest only loans with a longer term or extended amortization loans. A five, seven, or ten year interest only period, while much more endurable than a two or three, is still not a certain bet of making a profit. Same thing with a forty or fifty year amortization loan. Given the way the rate structure is applied by most lenders, these loans are given out by lenders wishing to cover questionable lending practices to people who do not qualify for interest only loans according to bond market guidelines. Still, if it's got a good long fixed period of at least five years, you are paying the balance down and it's a reasonable bet that you will be able to sell for a profit before the adjustment hits. Not a certain bet, but a reasonable one, as in "the odds of making a profit or being able to refinance on more favorable terms before the payment becomes something you cannot afford are definitely on your side."

The ordinary 2/28 and 3/27 are dangerous enough for most fully informed adults. Using the interest only examples above, the 5.5% rate actually becomes 5.25% fully amortized, as it's a less risky loan. The initial payment becomes $2208, which does pay the loan down some, but then the payment becomes $2691 (in the case of the 2/28) or $2678 (3/27) holding the market constant as it sits and keeping other background assumptions constant. If you cannot afford these smaller jumps when they happen, at least you've got several thousand dollars that you have paid the principal down to use for closing costs on the new loan or towards the costs of selling, but be aware that the market is never reliable in its fluctuations over a short period of time, and using these loans for a purchase can and many times has meant that when the fixed period ran out, those people who choose these loans are in the unenviable position of being unable to afford their current payments, being unable to refinance, and being unable to sell for enough to break even when you consider the costs of selling.

There is nothing really wrong if you can afford the thirty year fixed rate loan but deliberately choose some other loan. I do this myself to save money on interest charges, which is the real major cost of the loan, but as narrow as the gap in rates is right now, even I might choose a thirty year fixed rate loan if I needed to refinance. It's not being able to afford the sustainable loan that will kill you. If not a thirty year fixed rate loan, at least a fully amortizing ARM with a fixed period of at least five years.

The most important things about any loan is the interest you are being charged for the money you are borrowing, how long it lasts, and the cost in dollars of getting that loan done, not a lower minimum payment that, certain as gravity, has a gotcha! engraved on it that will cause you to regret getting that loan. Unfortunately, we cannot go back to the past with information we learn in the future, and real estate loans are especially unforgiving of borrowers who do not understand the future implications of their current loan decisions.

As a final note, I have structured this essay around the loan to purchase a property, but the arguments work just as strongly and just as universally for so-called "cash out" refinances as they do for purchase money loans.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 5, 2008 7:00 AM.

Hot Bargain Property June 4, 2008 was the previous entry in this blog.

San Diego Real Estate Market: June 2008 Advice is the next entry in this blog.

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