Dan Melson: January 2008 Archives

I knew this was coming.

With holders of second mortgages not wanting to go above 90% Loan to Value Ratio, sellers of Private Mortgage Insurance, (PMI) have the "less than 10% equity" market all to themselves. The rates had gotten surprisingly low (less than 1% for 100% financing), but there are two factors that combined to make this boost happen:

1) With the risk of default rising, the actuaries at the insurance companies legitimately have increased costs to worry about. With equity being stagnant right now, the risk that mortgage insurance is going to have to pay a claim has risen dramatically in the last year or so. It is nothing except fiscal prudence to raise insurance rates when the probability and likely magnitude of a claim both increase as they have. Insurance companies are so strictly regulated as to reserves and margins and everything else that they probably had no other legal option. This explains some fraction of the increase.

2) "All The Traffic Will Bear" You don't think these companies are in the business of putting their money on the line for free, did you? Furthermore, not only is Private Mortgage Insurance a "wide moat" operation (a business that's hard to get into), you don't see any large number of companies who currently want to get into it. Profit margins are comparatively low, and there is, to their way of thinking, a significant risk the market could get even worse than this. With second mortgage holders no longer lending above 90% CLTV, PMI providers not only have the field to themselves, but they're in a very high demand situation. Increasing demand plus essentially constant supply equals higher prices.

Here's a sample of the rate boosts I was notified of today:

30 year fixed, credit score 620-659, 97- 100% LTV old rate 96 basis points (.96%) new rate 170 basis points.

15 and 20 in the same situation go from 85 to 163 basis points (although I can't remember the last time I saw a 15 year loan with PMI).

Given a 5.75 fixed rate mortgage without points today (rates will change by the time you're reading this), this substantially increases the effective interest rate, from about 6.7% to almost 7.5.

Payment on a $300,000 balance? Goes from roughly $1990 (principal and interest plus PMI) to approximately $2175. That $185 makes a difference of about $415 in the minimum monthly income to qualify for the same loan, in the case of 100% financing. People who may have been able to qualify last week could be rejected in the future. Rates would have to drop by about a full percent to offset this, and between you, me, and however many thousands of other people read this, I don't think that's going to happen. Fed cutting the overnight rates or not, the macroeconomic market pressures are all upwards. Matter of fact, even with the new cut the Fed made yesterday, rates today are higher than they were just a few days ago.

For those whose loans are already funded with PMI, don't lie awake nights wondering when they're going to hit you for more money. The rates on existing loans is already under contract, and they're not able to raise the rates on PMI, as the terms are specified in your loan note - a legal contract. The lender can't alter any of the other terms, either - why should they be able to suddenly boost PMI? It's only for loans that have yet to be funded that the rate increase applies.

For those looking to sell real estate, this puts current owners who are willing and able to "carry back" part of the purchase price into an even stronger position, negotiations-wise. If the prospective buyers can pay you more money for your property or not buy anything, some will pay more money. It's still a situation to be just as careful about as ever, but every bit of leverage helps in negotiations.

As I've said in the past, having a down payment for real estate is not mandatory, but is an excellent idea. That same $300,000 loan at 5.75% only has a payment of $1751 if you've got 20% equity. PMI hits every first trust deed above 80% of the value of the property. Period. It's in the federal banking regulations. Some lenders will hide it in the note rate, but you're still paying it if you're in this situation. Good Credit, excellent credit, perfect credit - the only difference it might make is the exact cost, not whether or not you're paying it. Wouldn't you really rather make the lower payment? The extra money you pay for PMI doesn't do anything towards paying your principal down, either. If you didn't have to pay it, you could invest that money, use it to pay down your principal faster, or just have a good time. You'd be done in 227 months if you made a payment of $2175 on a $300,000 loan at 5.75% - less than 19 years, instead of 30.

If you're looking for a new loan, whether purchase or refinance, don't waste your time calling around trying to find one lender who'll let you slide without PMI. It will be there if the situation requires it - any first trust deed over eighty percent of the value of the property. It can be priced into the loan or broken out as a separate charge, but it will be there when the loan funds. However, there is no requirement to disclose PMI at sign up, or to disclose that a certain amount of what you're paying is PMI, and many loan originators are quite deft at hiding it or deflecting questions about it. Which is likely to be the better loan in the final analysis: The one who hides the real cost of the loan and its nature, or the one who tells you the whole truth in the first place?

Caveat Emptor

The Best Loans Right NOW

5.5% 30 Year fixed rate loan, with one total point to the consumer and NO PREPAYMENT PENALTIES!. Assuming a $400,000 loan, Payment $2271, APR 5.633! This is a thirty year fixed rate loan. The payment and interest rate will stay the same on this loan until it is paid off! 30 year fixed rate loans as low as 5.00 percent!

Best 5/1 ARM: 5.125% with 1 total point and no prepayment penalty. Assuming $400,000 loan, payment $2178, APR 5.255. This is a loan where the rate is fixed for five years, and the payment pays your balance down! With rates on hybrid ARMs having dropped of late, they are once again something for people to consider. 5/1 ARMs as low as 4.25 percent!

10 and 15 year Interest only payments available on 30 year fixed rate loans!

Great Rates on jumbo and super-jumbo loans also available!

Zero closing costs loans also available!

Yes, I still have 100% financing and stated income loans!

Interest only, No points and zero cost loans also available!

These are actual retail rates at actual costs available to real people with average credit scores! I always guarantee the loan type, rate, and total cost as soon as I have enough information from you to lock the loan (subject to underwriting approval of the loan). I pay any difference, not you. If your loan provider doesn't do this, you need a new loan provider!

All of the above loans are on approved credit, not all borrowers will qualify, based upon an 80% loan to value and a median credit score on a full documentation loan. Rates subject to change until rate lock.

Interest only, stated income, bad credit and other options also available. If you need a mortgage, chances are I can do it faster and on better terms than you'll actually get from anyone else in the business.

100% financing a specialty.

Please ask me about first time buyer programs, including the Mortgage Credit Certificate, which gives you a tax credit for mortgage interest, and can be combined with any of the above loans!

Call me. EZ Home Loans at 619-449-0070, ask for Dan. Or email me: danmelson (at) danmelson (dot) com

Somebody asked, "What are my legal options when there's a change on a good faith estimate."

Short answer: Sign the documents or don't. Same thing with a Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement here in California. Neither one means anything binding; that's why they call the one an estimate. Nonetheless, because there is a perception that they mean something, that people think the lenders are trying to disclose everything fully. The fact is that some are while others aren't, and there is no correlation with size of the lender, how well known they are, or even what the loan officer at the next desk over is doing.

The fact is that if the loan officer cannot persuade you to sign up, there is a guarantee that neither they nor their company will make anything. This creates an incentive to tell you whatever it takes to get you to sign up. Once signed up, most folks consider themselves committed or bound to that lender, and stop looking around.

But the only documents that mean anything, legally, all come at the end of the loan process. Note, Trust Deed, HUD-1. So you can see the motivation exists to pull a bait and switch, or more often just not to tell the whole truth. Nor will they point out the differences at closing from what you signed up for. That would get you upset to no good purpose, from their point of view. The fact is that a majority doesn't take the time to spot the difference, and of those who do, some just don't understand how to spot the difference. Of those who do take the time, and do spot the difference, most will cave in and sign just to be done with the process, and of course there are those who are trying to purchase who won't get it and will lose the deposit if they don't sign.

The fact is that these forms are estimates. They may or may not be accurate estimates. In some cases, the loan provider tells you about every single dollar you're going to need up front, in others they might as well be telling you the loan is going to be done for free at a rate two percent below any real loan out there. If they can't get you to sign up, they don't make anything, so the incentives are for them to over-promise and under-deliver. In other words, tell you about something better than what you'll end up with. Now the loan officers know what it's going to take to get the loan done - or they should know, anyway. But they often tell you a fairy tale that might as well begin "Once upon a time..." to make it seem like their loan is better than the competition, because if they can't get you to sign up, they don't make anything.

Now, the fact is that the vast majority of people out there go out shopping for loans in the wrong fashion. They find someone they think they can trust, because they are family, because they are the scoutmaster, or because they go to church with them. Exactly what type of loan will they deliver, and at what rate? With what costs? It is always a trade-off between rate and cost on any given loan type.

Even less likely to get a good rate at a decent cost are the people who do shop around, but won't give loan officers a chance to figure out what's really the best loan for them. The first group of people might stumble onto someone trustworthy who gives them a good loan at a reasonable rate for a reasonable cost; these people are going to fall for the biggest lie, because a loan officer can always tell you about a better loan than really exists and they are motivated to get you to sign up. They call around asking about the lowest rate or the lowest payment, and don't want to hear anything else out of the loan officer.

The fact is that it's going to take a good, in depth conversation about your situation for a loan officer to figure out the best loan for you, and you want to have that conversation with at least three or four loan officers. Why? Because the first one could have told you exactly what they thought you wanted to hear. Ditto the second. Keep going until you hear a couple of different suggestions. Furthermore, once they've given you their suggestions, ask about the other suggestions you heard in the past. Don't shop by lowest payment; that's a good way to get stuck with an abomination like the so-called Option ARM or another loan type that you don't want. Don't shop by interest rate alone, because you'll get stuck with a loan that has six points and you'll never save enough money on the payments to recover those sunk costs. Shop by the trade-off between rate and cost, because there always is one.

Now at the end of the process, the lender has all the power. You need or want this loan, and they're the ones with it ready to go. In the case of a purchase, you've got a deposit you're going to lose and a home you wanted that you won't get if you don't sign the loan documents. If you sign the documents, you are stuck with the loan, that probably isn't on the terms you were originally told about. I pointedly did not say "promised" because the earlier forms are not promises unless somehow guaranteed, and very few loan providers guarantee their quotes. Chances are, if they won't guarantee their quotes, they are not telling the entire truth about the loan they are telling you about.

The most important question on this page of Questions You Should Ask Prospective Loan Providers is "If I say I want this right now, will you personally guarantee this rate with those closing costs, and will you cover the difference (if any) between the quote and the actual final cost?" You won't get a flat "Yes." If you do get a flat "yes", they're making a promise on something that is not under their control, and I wouldn't trust it as far as I can throw an aircraft carrier. What you're hoping for is something like "Subject to full underwriting approval, yes we will guarantee this quote as to rate, type of loan, and total cost." This is a simple sentence that makes a specific guarantee subject to a reasonable condition, as loan officers never know if a prospective borrower is intentionally hiding or shading something at loan sign up. If you get a response full of nonsense about how long they have been in business, how they honor their commitments, or any such equivalent claptrap, then they are trying to buffalo you. None of the stuff when you initially inquire about the loan is a loan commitment in any way, shape or form. I'd rather have a higher quote that was guaranteed than a lower one that wasn't, and I strongly suggest you adopt that attitude as well. For an illustration as to why: If the quote is guaranteed, there's no incentive to stick you with a rate an eighth of a percent higher so they can make a little more money - they're going to have to make it good. There's no incentive to pad the closing costs with junk, because they've got to turn right around and give it back to you. If I offered you a choice between two envelopes, one transparent where you can see the $100 bill (guaranteed), and the other one opaque where I told you there might be anywere up to $110 in it (not guaranteed), which envelope would you choose? The same thing applies to whether the loan is at 6.5 percent with no points and no more than $3400 of closing costs guaranteed, or 6.375% with no points and no more than $3000 of closing cost, but not guaranteed. From my experience, the first quote intends to deliver a better loan than the second quote.

So (if you can't find someone who guarantees their quotes) how do you force the loan provider to deliver the loan they told you about in the first place? You can't. But you can give them a better reason to do so, if you have more than one loan ready to go. This gives you a third option. Your options are not limited to signing the first set of loan documents they put in front of you. You can sign the others. More to the point, because there is another loan ready to go, you can use that fact to negotiate a better deal - one that more closely adheres to what you were told about in the first place. If provider A won't do it, provider B will. If one of the two providers won't move, then the other one is likely to get your business. If the other provider gets your business, the first provider makes nothing. If they will give you the better loan, that's what you want, right? Keep in mind that if either provider actually provides the loan they talked about in the first place, you are miles ahead of the game. But this puts the power to control the transaction where it belongs, with you.

Now the loan provider is going to make money, or they won't do your loan. Judge loans by the benefits and costs to you, not by how much they loan provider is making, or whether they even have to disclose it (brokers do, direct lenders do not). The important thing to you is that you were delivered a thirty year fixed rate loan at 6.5 percent without paying any points, as opposed to 6.625% with one point and higher costs, not that loan provider had to tell you they made $4000 by doing it while loan provider B doesn't have to tell you anything. Sounds obvious, but I have seen people who chose the higher rate at more cost for the same loan, even stuck themselves with a prepayment penalty where my loan had none, because they thought I was making too much. In point of fact, I would have made a fraction of what the other guy did make, and therefore, by the only universal measure, I performed work work considerably more valuable to my client. So don't shoot yourself in the foot like that.

Now expect to spend a little bit extra (about a $100 retyping fee, if you're the one who orders the appraisal and therefore controls it) on the second loan. That $100, together with the extra time you spend getting the other loan through, is the best, cheapest, most cost-effective insurance policy you can buy anywhere for any financial purpose. It will not indemnify you for your losses, but the odds are overwhelming that it will certainly keep you from losing several times as much, by giving the loan providers a concrete incentive to deliver the best loan they really can deliver. From my experience, and that of my clients who have brought me more horror stories than most folks believe, I would judge it unlikely that either loan quote will be as good as the loan the loan provider originally talked about, unless one company or the other guaranteed their quote, but with another loan ready to go, chances are you'll get something a lot closer to what they talked about in the first place. Even if you can find a loan provider who will guarantee their quote, a backup loan is a really good idea, because going to court to force them to deliver is costly and time consuming, and you need that loan now. The existence of the other loan is an excellent reason to actually produce that loan they talked about way back on day one, with the initial Good Faith Estimate or Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement.

Caveat Emptor

Last week, I got a call from a hard money lender, asking what I could to to "rescue" one of his clients by refinancing. He was being about as altruistic as a drowning man. What he really wanted was for me to get someone else (i.e. another lender) to voluntarily hold the bag on his money losing loan.

Unfortunately, this guy already had a Notice of Default filed on that loan. When it comes to new loans, I can still get subprime lenders to sign off on 30, 60, and 90 day lates - but drop a notice of default on the property and even the worst subprime lenders won't touch it any more. Had he just held off on the Notice of Default - or even called me earlier, I could have taken care of it. Nonetheless, I have a method of dealing with even Notices of Default. Unfortunately, the one undeniable requirement for "rescuing" someone in this situation currently is a Loan to Value Ratio below 70 percent. That hard money lender had a loan amount about $350,000, and represented it to me as a $550,000 plus property. Therefore, initial indications were that it could be worked with, and we set up a meeting with the owners.

At that meeting, I found out the address and characteristics of that property. That wasn't a $500,000 property. In fact, it might have been worth $370,000, absolute maximum, in the current market. Three words about the likelihood of any new loan: Absolutely none whatsoever. A paper, Alt A and A minus are certainly not going to touch that loan - even if the Default were to suddenly vanish, the effects on the credit score would have driven the borrowers below their minimums. Even with the ability to document enough income, subprime isn't going to touch a defaulting borrower at 95 percent loan to value ratio in the current market - and that's without rolling one penny of costs or penalty into the new loan. That leaves only other hard money lenders, and if there's one great constant about hard money, it's that they absolutely will not go over 75% loan to value ratio, ever. In fact, their limits are usually 65 to 70.

These folks could not refinance with any lender out there. They can't afford their mortgage - no way. Even had they protested to the contrary (they didn't), they wouldn't have been in foreclosure if they could have come up with the money. Unless they've got a wealthy relative who will save them, they're going to lose the property, and if they had that kind of benefactor, why hasn't he appeared before now? The only mystery about the entire situation is the precise mechanism whereby they're going to lose the property, and precisely how badly they will be hurt.

Now from some of the code phrases that the hard money lender they're already with dropped, I am pretty sure he knows this - he's just hoping for another sucker to volunteer to take his loss by refinancing his loan out. Well, I'm not going to knowingly commit that sort of blunder. Nobody sane is. Do you think even brokers haven't figured out they're going to be liable for bad loans by now?

Furthermore, San Diego is a special case. Because we've been on the leading edge of all of this, we've mostly worked through the worst of it already. There are no longer quite as many foreclosures and defaults for sale. If this clown can hold off foreclosing for a few more months, there's a good chance he might get his money in a sale.

But when I asked him about it, he represented that "I need my money now." Well, that's fine and that is his right. However, if he needs it now, he's not going to get all of it. What he was really trying to do of course, is build a path of least resistance where I hose myself, the new lender, and the owner so that he can walk away with every penny that's technically "his." Like any sane loan officer, I'm going to decline to do that - the money I might make no in no way compensates for what's going to happen later. Questions of ethics and whether the loan should have been made in the first place aside, he willingly undertook that risk when he made that loan, and he was richly rewarded for doing so by an interest rate well into double digits. Even the stock market doesn't return that kind of money over time, and it definitely doesn't do so without risk. But evidently nobody covered that in "Loan sharking 101."

So when I did the logical thing and started talking to the owners about minimizing damage, he freaked out. He said I'd lured him there "under false pretenses," and that was before I had said one word about short sales. Nothing could be further from the truth; he was the one who led me to believe the situation was other than it was, and everything I had said was explicitly predicated upon the representations he made to me over the phone. But he saw his carefully constructed scenario collapsing in front of his eyes, and he didn't want to accept that collapse. Unfortunately, the consumers involved were Spanish speakers, and he spoke much better Spanish than I do. I've written about sharks marketing to a given ethnic group in the past, and this appears to be a prime example. He hustled them out of the room, no doubt intending to look for some other sucker. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for everyone else, the loan officers who were willing to do that in my area have long since been forced out of business, and even the ones who may have gotten away with it in the past are not eager to take new chances in this environment, and I think that's a very good thing.

For several years, the real estate and loan market was not much short of an ATM feeding cash out as quickly as it could. That has now changed, and we're back to something resembling traditional lending standards. Many people who became used to the way the market was working in the last few years still don't understand that it has changed, why it has changed, and why it's not going back to the way things were the last several years. They're still in denial that, having bought all the rope necessary to hang themselves, they're now struggling with that rope around their necks some distance above the ground. It doesn't much matter if that distance is half an inch or several miles - they're in just as much trouble in either case.

The sooner you get out of denial and accept the damage that has already been done, the sooner you will be able to limit future damage - and the damage does keep getting worse, There are alternatives that don't hurt as bad as foreclosure. Furthermore, there are those out there who will claim they can perform miracles, but they are almost always setting you up for a scam.

Here's the bottom line: If you don't make enough money to make your payments and pay your real cost of interest, the best thing that can be said for you is that you're circling the drain. But if you'll make up your mind to get it over with, and deal with the situation based upon the facts, you'll come out with less long term damage. Not to mention more life still in front of you than would be the case otherwise. There really aren't any good reasons not to get past an unsustainable situation as fast as you can.

Caveat Emptor

With Rates having dropped again, many people are looking at refinancing their properties.

With the state of financial education in this country, many people will shop for loans by payment, figuring the lowest payment is the best loan. As counter-evidence to that idea, let us consider the negative amortization loan. I've seen them with minimum payments computed based upon a nominal rate of zero point five percent on forty year amortization. This gives a minimum payment of $1150 for a $500,000 loan - but the actual rate on that loan is eight point two percent, meaning if you were just going to pay the interest, that would be $3417 per month. If you made that minimum payment, you'd owe over $2200 more next month - and you'd be paying interest on it as well. By comparison, principal and interest on a six percent thirty year fixed rate jumbo loan is only $2998 - and there's no prepayment penalty either.

Don't get distracted by payment. Look at the real cost of the money - what you're paying now in interest, versus what any new loan will cost, plus what you'll be paying in interest on it. You do have to be able to make the payment, but once that's covered, look at the real cost of any new loan, both in up-front costs and in interest paid per month. Those are the important numbers.

Let's suppose you were one of those folks who had to settle for a subprime loan a couple of years ago. You had something bad happen, but now you're past it. You've been diligent and careful with your credit these last couple years, so you're now able to qualify "A paper". On the other hand, your current loan has now adjusted to nine percent, and your prepayment penalty has expired, while there are now thirty year fixed rate loans in the mid five percent range. I'm writing this on a Sunday, but as of Friday I could have moved you or anyone else able to qualify A paper into a thirty year fixed rate loan at about 6% for literally zero cost, meaning there is no possible (financial) reason not to do such refinance.

The only real question in such a situation is this: "Is it worth the extra money it takes to get a better rate?", because there is always a tradeoff between rate and cost. For instance, to look at the differences for someone who currently has a $300,000 loan, on Friday two of the choices were six percent for zero cost or five point five for about half a point. Both are thirty year fixed rate loans.

The six percent loan has a balance of $300,000, same as your old balance, and payments of $1798.65. The five point five percent loan carries an initial balance of $304,325, and payments of $1727.90. Lest you not understand, that 5.5% loan cost you $4325 to get done, as opposed to literally zero for the six percent loan. This isn't a matter of "keep searching for the provider who gives you the lower rate for the same cost", as this tradeoff is built into the entire financial structure. Some providers may have higher or lower tradeoffs, but the concept of the tradeoff isn't changing for anything less than a complete and radical rebuild of the financial markets. Not. Gonna. Happen.

However, for spending that money all in a lump sum, you get a lowered cost of interest. You save $105.19 that first month in interest, and this number actually increases for the first few years of the loan. In month 21, you've theoretically broken even, even though your loan balance is still almost $3600 higher, you've gotten the extra money you've paid to get the lower rate back. However, because you still owe $3600 more, if you refinance at this point, you're still going to end up behind as that $3600 you still owe translates to $216 per year at 6%, assuming that's the interest rate on your next loan. Maybe you sold the property and bought something else, maybe you refinanced for cash out. In either case. you owe $3600 more than you would have, which means you're paying interest on it when you get your next loan. But something like thirty percent of all borrowers have sold or refinanced by this point, and when they do, those benefits you paid for stop. Nor do you get any of the money you paid in the first place back.

It isn't until you've kept the loan 124 months - over ten years into the loan - before you are unambiguously better off with the lower rate but more expensive loan. That's how long it takes until the balances are even on the two loans. Of course, by then you have saved about $13,000 in interest - if you actually keep the loan that long. Less than one borrower in 200 does.

Real break-even is likely to be somewhere in year four in this case. After three years, you've saved about $3800 in interest, and if your balance is still that almost much higher with the expensive loan than the cheap one, we're getting to the point where time value of money will keep things in favor of the more expensive upfront costs. Of course, last time I checked Statistical Abstract, decidedly less than half of all borrowers kept their new loans this long. Something to think about, because you don't get the money you spent to get the loan in the first place back. By the end of year four, assuming we keep the loan that long, we've saved $5000 in interest, while the balance is only $2600 higher for the 5.5% loan than for the 6% loan. Even without time value of money and with a ten percent assumed rate of return, that's additional twenty years before the costs of the higher balance catches up with the benefits you've already gotten through lower interest. Considering time value of money, it's really never going to catch up.

So when you're looking at refinancing, don't just consider rate and payment. Consider what it's going to cost you in order to get that new loan, and remember what the costs are of doing nothing (i.e. you've already paid for the costs of that loan). Many people refinance every two years, spending much more than $3400 every time they do, because they'll spend two or three points to get the lowest rate. This, as you can see now, is a recipe for disaster.

Caveat Emptor

Zero Cost Refinances

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Got a question asking if zero cost loans really exist. They do. I've done several dozen myself, for clients who listened to me about the nature of the market.

Let me define what a zero cost loan is. It is a loan with a higher rate deliberately chosen so as to get a high enough rebate, or Yield Spread, to cover not only the loan provider's margin, but all closing costs you would normally have had to pay as well. Prepaid interest is not a cost; it's paying money that you would have owed anyway in a slightly different manner. Ditto an impound account. That is your money, not a cost of the loan. We are talking zero cost here, which is an entirely different thing from paying out some money that you would have had to pay anyway. But no money gets added to your loan balance. You pay the appraisal (if required) when the appraiser comes out, but you get the cost refunded upon funding for a net zero out of pocket. True zero cost. This does entail accepting a higher rate, and therefore higher payments than you might otherwise have gotten, but if you only intend to keep the loan a relatively short period of time, you start ahead by doing this and there is not enough time for the lower payments to break even. For instance, a while back I had a par rate of 6.25% on a thirty year fixed loan, but providing your balance was at least a couple hundred thousand, I could do 6.625% for literally zero cost. If you were planning to sell in two years but your current rate was eight percent, as many people have nowadays, but their credit has improved now to where they qualify A paper, this saves them a lot of money for literally zero cost, so there are no "sunk costs" to "recover"; it's pure profit from day one. I happen to think that with rates as volatile as they have been the last few years, it makes a lot of sense to choose a zero cost loan. If rates go down half a percent six months or a year from now, you can go get a rate that much lower for zero cost then. If you paid two points to get the rate, it's going to cost you the same two points again to benefit by as much. Since it's not likely to get the average person two points of benefit over the average loan holding period, those two points are at least partially wasted.

Now this is not to say that you shouldn't be on your guard when someone talks about a zero cost refinance. What most lenders mean when they say "zero cost" is "No money out of your pocket." But thousands of dollars can still get added to your loan balance, where you not only pay them, you pay interest on them. Many lenders will talk about putting money in your pocket, when what they are doing is adding not only that money but all the costs and all the points to your loan balance, and people who have been doing this every two years wonder why their loan balance is ten times their original purchase price. I call these Stealth Cash Out Loans. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You paid for the cash out; you're going to be paying for the cash out for many years, just the same as you paid for your closing costs in the previous paragraph with a higher rate than you would otherwise have gotten. The difference is that money added to your balance tends to stick around for as long as you own property, whereas a higher rate is over as soon as you sell or refinance that particular property. If you choose a zero cost loan, your balance should transfer straight across; you are continuing to pay it down as soon as you write the first check on the new loan. Whereas if you chose a loan that adds thousands of dollars in closing costs etcetera to your balance, it's going to be years of payments before you're back where you started.

A true zero cost loan not only has no net "out of pocket" expenses, it has literally zero added to your mortgage balance. They do exist, mostly for well-qualified A paper borrowers, despite what certain skeptics might say, and for most people, they are something you should strongly consider, whether you're planning a purchase or a refinance.

Caveat Emptor

Every so often I get questions about loan cosigners. The main borrowers do not qualify on their own, so they get someone - most often mom and dad - to cosign. Now this is a different thing, or so I understand, in the other major credit areas - automobiles, rent, etcetera. But this is about Real Estate.

The only time this usually makes a difference is in credit history. The main borrowers qualify on the basis of income, but don't have enough of a credit history to qualify. Sometimes they just don't have enough open credit to have a credit score. This is rare, but I did have one executive couple who made a habit of paying cash for everything (a good habit, I might add). They had precisely one open line of credit, a credit card they paid off every month, and the major bureaus require two lines in order to report a credit score. No credit score, no loan. It's that simple. Even there, the solution was to walk in to their credit union and apply for another, not to get a cosigner.

When you bring other folks into the loan, you're bringing their credit history, their potentially high payments, and every other negative they have into the loan. Most of the time, the folks who are willing to cosign do not materially aid the qualification process.

Pitfall number one: Lenders designate primary borrower by who makes the most money. If the cosigners make more money than the "real" borrowers, they now become the primary borrower, and it becomes a loan on investment property as far as the lenders are concerned, adding restrictions, raising the trade-off between rate and costs of the loan, and perhaps making the loan require a larger down payment. This does assume they won't live there, but usually if they were going to live there, they would have been on the loan in the first place.

Pitfall number two: The cosigners are overextended also. Sure, they make $10,000 per month, but they have payments of $5000 per month already. There's nothing left over where the bank sees them as having enough money left over to help you out. They may, in fact, have money to spare, particularly if they make a lot of money, but according to the standard ratios, they do not. You can't have the cosigners be stated income or NINA if the main borrowers are full documentation. If you have to downgrade to stated income in order to qualify, that is going to cost a lot of money through higher rate/cost trade-off. Obviously, better that you qualify for a lesser loan than that you don't qualify at all, but you don't want to downgrade if you don't have to.

Pitfall number three: This one hits the cosigners. They are agreeing to be responsible for your payments in the event you don't make them. Suppose they want to borrow money for something else. Especially if it's a large amount of money, as real estate payments tend to be. It really cramps their ability to qualify for other things. This works the other way, also. People come to me for real estate loans who have agreed to be cosigners for a car loan are responsible for the $400 per month for that loan. Many times, this means they don't qualify for the real estate loan. So we have to prove to their prospective lenders that the "true" borrowers are making the payments. This is usually not difficult, but if the cosigners wrote the check for the payment anytime in the last six months to a year, it can be problematic.

Pitfall number four: This also hits the cosigners rather than the main borrowers. Suppose a payment gets made late. It impacts the credit of the cosigners as well as the "real" borrowers. It doesn't matter if you're the "real" borrower or the cosigner, it hurts your credit just as much and for just as long. If you cosign, you want some kind of proof that payment is being made on time, every month. You shouldn't cosign if you don't have the resources to make that payment pretty much indefinitely. Furthermore, should the cosigners decide to cut their losses, it can take months before the monthly hits to the credit stop. If the "real" borrowers don't want to liquidate, the cosigners may have to go to court to get out of it, and the only people who are happy there are the lawyers.

Now suppose the loan being applied for has a Debt to Income Ratio maximum of forty five percent, and the cosigners make $10,000 per month, but they have expenses of $4300. This will mean that they only have $200 per month to contribute towards qualifying for the new loan. If the "real" borrowers weren't fairly close to qualifying without them, they aren't going to qualify with them. If they have expenses of $4600 per month, they have nothing to contribute to the loan qualification. In such cases, the work of asking them to apply is wasted.

Caveat Emptor

Got a search for "mortgage closing documents do not sign changes."

Unfortunately for this person, the documents you get at closing are what legal folks call a contract of adhesion. This means you can either accept it, sign, and adhere to all the terms as presented, or you can walk away. Basically your choice is to take it or leave it, in exactly the form presented.

Now on those rare occasions someone actually has the intelligence and good sense to walk away from a situation where the terms have been changed, the prospective loan provider does have the option of offering you a better deal as incentive to do business with them. Like, say, the loan they originally talked about to get you to sign up with them. Mind you, they don't have to, and the costs of that other loan may mean that they would rather do no loan than that loan.

Now I'm not a lawyer, but the way contracts of adhesion were explained to me is that if there is any legal ambiguity, it will be interpreted in your favor. This doesn't mean you can claim you thought it meant something different than the average person would understand; this means that if there is a legally ambiguous wording that could legitimately be interpreted two different ways, and you and your lender disagree as to the meaning, the courts will generally rule in your favor. Once again, the law is different from place to place and the courts have the final say; check with your lawyer.

Now in the loan world, it is much more common than not to be offered a loan contract at final signing which differs in some material form from the loan terms that were described to you in the beginning. The loan provider will generally offer you a loan of the same type, and usually at the same rate, but most often the costs to get that rate will be significantly higher than were listed on the Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (Equivalent to the Good Faith Estimate for the other 49 states). Neither one of these forms is in any way, shape or form a legal commitment, nor are any of the other forms you get at the beginning of the loan process, such as the Truth In Lending Advisory.

The only thing that means anything is the loan contract, or Note, that you are offered at the end of the process, together with the HUD-1 form, which is the only accounting of the loan required to be correct and complete.

Now the difference between the initial teaser loan they talked about and loan contract they actually got approved is one of the reasons why the less than ethical providers out there often want a cash deposit for the loan, particularly if their rates are not particularly competitive and they know it. If they're nervous someone will come along behind them and offer you a better deal, they want a cash deposit so that they still get something if you pull out, and many folks obsess about the cash deposit to the point where I could offer them a deal that saves them several times the cash deposit, and they still wouldn't switch. This isn't to say not to pay the twenty dollars or whatever it costs them for the credit report, this is to say don't deposit the appraisal fee (several hundred dollars, which should be paid at point of service) or even part of a point "to be refunded if the loan funds" within a certain amount of time. Chances are the loan isn't that great, particularly not the real loan they are really going to offer, and that's why they want to lock you in by having something to hold over you if you don't sign on the dotted line at the end of the process.

Caveat Emptor

Cleanest Lender-Owned Property I've Ever Seen!

General: La Mesa, 3 Bedroom, 1.75 Bathroom


What's Wrong With It: Not wrong, but there is a shingle facade obscuring the stucco, so I can't see whether there are structural issues underneath.

Why It Hasn't Sold: It's listed a little above most other similar size properties in the neighborhood.

Who it's Not Appropriate For: Very large families is about it - not that anyone with six kids is looking for a 3 bedroom.


Selling Points: Quiet street, served by excellent to top notch schools. Polished hardwood floors in most of the house, with modern tile in the kitchen and dining room. The kitchen and dining room are quite large, clean, and remodeled fairly recently. The master suite gets great light, and appears to be pretty new. The back yard is private and reasonably large, with concrete block walls and a covered patio with grill. RV parking is available, and a one car garage.

Who Should be Interested: People with a family looking for a place to raise kids, anybody looking for a clean, quiet place to live.

Why it's a Bargain: The lender may have listed it a little too high, but it's worth at least what the surrounding properties are.


What I think I can get it for: $415,000.

Monthly Payment examples: I've currently got a thirty year fixed rate loan available for qualified buyers at 5.25% for less than one total point.

With no down payment: Fully Amortized Payment $2627 including financing insurance (APR 6.635), dropping to $2292 when you have 20% equity (APR 5.361)

With 20% down: Fully amortized payment of $1833 (APR 5.371).

Other financing options are available, potentially lowering the payments, but I'm quoting real loans that real people can get, that will stay exactly the same until you pay it off.

Investment potential: If you keep it ten years and it averages only 5% annual average appreciation per year: Based upon a purchase price of $415,000 the property would be worth approximately $675,000. If you held it those ten years before selling, you would net about $325,000 in your pocket (not including increased value from updates!), assuming zero down payment. As opposed to renting the $2200 per month most comparable currently available rental and investing the difference at 10% per year tax free, you would be approximately $250,000 ahead of the renter, after the expenses of selling.

To learn more: Agree that you'll use me as a buyer's agent if you buy it. If you don't like it or don't buy it, no obligation is incurred. If you're not working with someone who will go out and find properties like this, maybe you should consider working with me instead!

Contact Information:

Dan Melson, Realtor
Action Realty Inc
9143 Mission Gorge Road, Suite A
Santee, CA 92071
619-449-0723 X 116

Somebody sent me this story via e-mail: Feeling Misled on Home Price, Buyers Sue Agent

Marty Ummel feels she paid too much for her house. So do millions of other people who bought at the peak of the housing boom.

Knowing only this, I would have no sympathy. This is part of the risk you undertake with any investment - that it may decline in value. There are no guarantees that any investment is a good one. I worked hard to inform potential buyer clients about the state of the market when it was in the danger zone, and it cost me a lot of money. Quarter million dollars, absolute minimum. Most of them just went over to other agents who pretended that we could continue to gain 20 percent plus per year indefinitely, or were too ignorant to know better. Not precisely the most ringing endorsement possible, but it was hard to get people to hold off when the market was going crazy. Fear and Greed.

The situation now in my local market (San Diego) is 180 degrees reversed from that. This is the best buying opportunity in at least fifteen years, and probably the best we'll ever have from this point forward. I've done everything except promise free beer to try and get buyers off the sidelines now, but they're looking back at what the market has done, not where it is going. Fear and Greed has another side.

Getting back to the subject at hand, however, here's the deadly piece of information:

Ms. Ummel claims that the agent hid the information that similar homes in the neighborhood were selling for less because he feared she would back out and he would lose his $30,000 commission.

The question I want to ask is did the buyer's agent actively hide it or was he unaware of it? Not that being unaware is any excuse. If you have a fiduciary duty to someone who's buying a property, how can you not check out what sales there have been in the immediate area in the last few months, at least on MLS? This was a million dollar property, for crying out loud, but it would apply just as strongly to a "cheap" condo. If you're not willing to do the work, you shouldn't take the client. If you're never willing to do the work, why are you in the business?

If the agent was aware of these sales but actively hid them, that leaves the realm of negligence and into the realm of active malfeasance. He deserves to lose his license as well as the case, and this would be the wedge that might do it.

Now we get to the crux of the matter:

"We have seen so much misrepresentation over the last five years," he said. "So I appreciate where these buyers might be coming from: 'I'm a lowly consumer, you're certified by the state of California, you didn't do X, you didn't do Y, and I got hurt.' "

This is exactly what an agent is agreeing to when they accept the task of agency, real estate or otherwise. This isn't some pick-up game of softball where you pick your friends. Buyer or seller, you're not just picking someone who's going to get a check for thousands of dollars. If that were the case, real estate agency would have died by now. You're picking someone whom you believe is both capable of everything necessary to guard your interests, and willing to speak up even though it may cost them a commission. I get at least one e-email a week complaining about what a rotten job one agent or another did. When I respond back and ask them how and why they chose that agent, the response is always something along the lines of, "I met him and thought he was a good guy."

This isn't about who you're going to have a good time with at the football game this afternoon, which that means of choosing might suffice for. You're not choosing a date for the ball, you're picking an alleged professional who's supposed to competently guard your interests on a transaction that's probably several years worth of your earnings. Whether you pay for the property with cash or with a loan, it's still the same number of dollars, and you're still going to have to pay that loan off if something goes wrong. Treat buying real estate like what it is: putting enough money on the line to quite literally beggar you for life if you make a mistake.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago titled Which Makes More Difference - Buyer's Agent or Listing Agent? The answer was and is resoundingly that a buyer's agent makes more difference. Yet many people who would never pick a listing agent in such a casual manner will choose somebody they meet at an open house or go without representation, trusting the listing agent to look after their interests. But the listing agent has a contractual obligation to get the seller the highest possible price - not to negotiate it as low as possible. If something is in the seller's interest but against yours, you can bet the seller's interests are going to win. It's a win for listing agents if the buyer doesn't have an agent of their own - for perhaps an hour of extra work, they get paid double, and without taking on any new liability if they're even moderately intelligent.

Picking someone you meet at an open house is nearly as bad. HELLO! Earth to prospective buyer! They're a LISTING AGENT with a contractual obligation on behalf of that seller and who knows how many others. If they're not trying their best to sell you that property, they're violating their contract with the seller - but you want an agent who's not only going to tell you about the problems, but also about what it really means to you. There is an irreconcilable conflict of interest there. A good - by which I mean competent as well as ethical - agent will not put themselves or their clients into that kind of situation. I write it into every contract that I will not represent both sides in the same transaction, and make it clear to prospective listings exactly where the line is. If I bring someone I've contracted to represent as a buyer to one of my own listings, I am breaking that fiduciary duty to one or the other of them - perhaps both. It's one thing if someone calls me out of the blue asking to see a property I have listed. It's something completely different to bring someone I already have a buyer's representation agreement with to that listing with an eye towards possibly buying. The same objection applies if I try and get that prospective buyer who called out of the blue to agree to let me represent them in buying. Who gets less than my best efforts, and is that something you want as a consumer with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line? That's what you're volunteering for when you pick a buyer's agent in either one of these fashions.

It goes back to the illusion of comity. Agents are salespersons, and it's much easier to get a sale, and particularly a better price, if you pretend everybody here is everybody else's friend. In fact, that's pretty much the only way to make Dual Agency fly. Give someone an obvious path of least resistance. But let's consider the nature of the item at issue: A middle of the line detached single family residence is $500,000. How many people would you trust not to try to finagle an extra 2%, when it means they make an extra $10,000 - two months gross wages - whether they are buyer or seller? To very politely and non-confrontationally slip away with an extra ten percent that means $50,000? I've seen people finagled out of forty percent of the purchase price by a sharp or lucky listing agent, and they never did figure it out. I went out and interviewed a few on purpose not too long ago on the subject of their recent purchases. Whether out of ego defense or just sheer ignorance, every single one of them was very happy with the purchase, and they told me they would do the same thing again.

Agents fall into the trap of "go along to get along" as well. It's one thing to be collegial. Two boxers each out to pummel the other into senselessness can be polite. The formality of the old code duello, governing two gentlemen so angry at each other that they're going to shed blood to settle the matter, was faultlessly polite. Often, though, agents go too far and get into you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours mode "You don't beat me up with your buyer, I don't beat you up with mine, and only the buyers get hosed, which we'll make good when they want to sell it with a whole new set of suckers buyers." The whole thing turns into a repeating cycle of suckers who don't know any better.

Well pardon me for not believing that just because you were taken advantage of in the purchase of the property does not entitle you to take advantage of someone else when you sell. Two wrongs still don't make a right, and they never have. The property is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay - if you don't like what is offered, you need to persuade me and them it's worth more - and to do that, you have to risk that I will persuade you it's worth less, because that's what negotiation is. Neither side gets to bully the other, and there are always other properties on the market. The other alternative for the seller is to find a buyer willing to offer more, which brings us back to the illusion of comity again. In this market, that's the real trick, isn't it? It's no coincidence that people find out about issues like this primarily during buyer's markets. When fear and greed are driving prices crazy, a bigger fool is very likely to materialize. When it takes something on the order of a divine command to get someone to be willing to buy, those who are willing to buy have thing much more to their liking.

To give the mass media credit where credit is due, they have managed to cover the basic point that listing agents represent sellers, and have a responsibility to the sellers, not the buyers. Thirty years ago, it's my understanding that Dual Agency was far more common, and the illusion of comity less likely to be dispelled, where now, roughly two-thirds of all transactions at least do have a buyer's agent involved.

But what if that buyer's agent doesn't understand the difference between comity and collegiality? That seems to be the most likely explanation for the situation illustrated in the NY Times article I linked at the beginning of this piece. To be fair, many agents on the listing side suffer this fault as well. The illusion seems to be essentially that as long as we keep it all in the family, nothing will go wrong. Furthermore, the buyers in the article were in exactly the same situation as the ones I interviewed on their overpriced purchases. Fat, dumb, happy - and ignorant, until something went obviously wrong. When prices fell, they went looking for someone else to fix their bad situation upon. And if prices falling was the only concern, neither I nor anyone else should have any sympathy whatsoever for them. But it wasn't just the bad luck of a down market, forseeable or not. This agent not only did a horrible job of discharging his fiduciary duty, he didn't tell his victims about relevant facts which would have made that failure obvious before the transaction was consummated. It's interesting to note that had he admitted his failure, he probably still would have gotten paid, because even if the buyers had moved on, they probably would have kept him - people do the silliest things. However, this was a real estate transaction, where pretty much everything is a matter of public records that are kept forever. The buyers or their lawyer did the work and dug into the records, and predictably, hit paydirt. The agent undertook the duty, should have understood the duty, and basically decided to act like a minimum wage worker with a fax machine despite the fact he was paid $30,000 to guard the buyer's interest. Hello! That commission check is not a reward for a winning personality! Well, I suppose in a market rising 20% per year where it's hard to do anyone lasting damage, it can be, much to the eventual distress of their client. Because no market can sustain that kind of increase over time unless the income of those able to buy the property keeps pace. I don't need to ask for a judge's ruling on that one.

People want their daily routine to be without confrontation, violence, or real argument. It's a temptation to just go along. The little stuff - a dime missing out of your change, having to sit through an extra cycle of the traffic signal - just isn't worth making a big deal out of. It's a path of least resistance thing. But when you accept the responsibility for someone else's interests, it's not your call to make, and we're usually talking months worth of wages, occasionally years. I may advise someone that the deal is about as good as I think we're going to get, but I still have to spell it all out. That's why I make the money I do for the work I do when I'm working on a full service basis - it really is reliably worth several times what I make to my buyer clients. And that's why the agent that just sits in the office with a fax machine can rebate half or two-thirds of that co-operating broker's percentage, and why I am perfectly happy to work on that basis if that's what a particular buyer wants - if my only liability is passing along faxes, I'm making ten times more per hour for less liability. I've written about this before, but pay attention to what you're getting in services as well as what you're spending for them.

The divine only knows how many other people bought property and are now in this situation, and how many lawsuits we're going to see because of it. I have zero sympathy for the agents and brokerages involved. They have richly earned whatever judgments are rendered against them and any license action under taken by the Department of Real Estate. But the consumers involved assisted their own downfall for just taking the obvious, apparently easy path to a transaction, by not taking the time to shop for a good buyer's agent in the first place. If you were getting ready to buy a property, which situation would you rather be in this time next year? Find a dedicated buyer's agent who will guard your interests while explaining what you need to know, or just take the path of least resistance? As of this moment, the folks the New York Times wrote about are out $75,000 in legal fees, and who knows how much in property value, their own time, and the quality of their lives, because they chose the latter path. Nor does anyone know at this point how much of that they're going to get back. But speaking as someone who knows intimately the endpoints and results of both paths, I know which path I'd choose.

Caveat Emptor

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These are actual retail rates at actual costs available to real people with average credit scores! I always guarantee the loan type, rate, and total cost as soon as I have enough information from you to lock the loan (subject to underwriting approval of the loan). I pay any difference, not you. If your loan provider doesn't do this, you need a new loan provider!

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Call me. EZ Home Loans at 619-449-0070, ask for Dan. Or email me: danmelson (at) danmelson (dot) com

Lender Owned Cosmetic Fixer in Quiet Neighborhood!

General: Santee, 3 Bedroom, 1.75 Bathroom


What's Wrong With It: Needs all kinds of minor cosmetic touches, from carpet to paint to fixing a sliding glass door. The living room is a bit on the small side. Former owners put a few large holes in the wall.

Why It Hasn't Sold: Nobody else has found it yet? I spent quite a while looking for a gotcha! and didn't find one.

Who it's Not Appropriate For: People who insist their purchase be beautiful before they see it.


Selling Points: Quiet cul-de-sac in good neighborhood, nice private backyard, solid house with plenty of room for a family. Schools in the area are well above average.

Who Should be Interested: People with a family looking for a place to raise kids.

Why it's a Bargain: The need to do a bit of work is making it unattractive to most potential buyers.


What I think I can get it for: $320,000.

Monthly Payment examples: I've currently got a thirty year fixed rate loan available for qualified buyers at 5.25% for one total point.

With no down payment: Fully Amortized Payment $2034 including financing insurance (APR 6.705), dropping to $1767 when you have 20% equity (APR 5.391)

With 20% down: Fully amortized payment of $1413 (APR 5.404).

Other financing options are available, potentially lowering the payments, but I'm quoting real loans that real people can get, that will stay exactly the same until you pay it off.

Investment potential: If you keep it ten years and it averages only 5% annual average appreciation per year: Based upon a purchase price of $320,000 the property would be worth approximately $520,000. If you held it those ten years before selling, you would net about $290,000 in your pocket (not including increased value from updates!), assuming zero down payment. As opposed to renting the $2100 per month most comparable currently available rental and investing the difference at 10% per year tax free, you would be approximately $240,000 ahead of the renter, after the expenses of selling.

To learn more: Agree that you'll use me as a buyer's agent if you buy it. If you don't like it or don't buy it, no obligation is incurred. If you're not working with someone who will go out and find properties like this, maybe you should consider working with me instead!

Contact Information:

Dan Melson, Realtor
Action Realty Inc
9143 Mission Gorge Road, Suite A
Santee, CA 92071
619-449-0723 X 116

The first piece of advice I have for buyers who want to get a fantastic bargain is to find a good buyer's agent (this guy is one of the best in San Diego County). Nothing else will make as much difference as a good buyer's agent who is dedicated to the idea of getting buyers a bargain. They spot problems before you're stuck with them, keep you from wasting time, bargain hard on your behalf, debunk all the nonsense that sellers and listing agents throw your way, and most importantly, know when and under what conditions it's a good idea to walk away.

The second piece of advice I have for buyers who want to get fantastic bargains is to be willing to zig when everyone else is zagging. The gorgeous property in a high demand area of town, the award winning new development that's selling like hotcakes, and the freshly remodeled high end property are not where you're going to find bargains. Timing is as important as location and condition. It's much harder to find a bargain in the spring and summer, when everyone else is looking to buy, than it is to find a bargain around Christmas, when nobody wants to move that tree. You find bargains by being willing to consider what relatively few others will. A buyer's market is where the buyers have all the power simply because there are so few buyers in proportion to the number of sellers. Seller's markets are the exact opposite, but it's pretty easy to get people to want to buy during seller's markets, and difficult to get people to buy in buyer's markets. The psychology of increasing prices motivates greed on the behalf of buyers, but if you want to make a large profit, buy when nobody else wants to.

This isn't to say that every property or every situation that everybody else is avoiding is a ripe bargain. That is not the case. Sometimes the reason why a given property isn't selling is a sane, rational reason. If it's next to an explosives factory or a maximum security prison, there's a good reason why people are giving it a wide berth. There is a reason to do due diligence on every property.

The third piece of advice I have for bargain hunters is that the beautiful, turn key property where you sign the papers, move your furniture in, and you immediately become the envy of your neighbors is not bargain priced. Those properties don't need to be bargain priced, because they appeal to everyone, and people will line up to pay top dollar for those properties. The owners don't have to negotiate much, because everyone's making offers on these. You find real bargains by being willing and able to consider what other buyers can't or won't. I just found a wonderful potential bargain, but the person who buys is going to need a lot of cash to make it happen. The prospective buyer who cannot or will not sink cash into the property can't touch it. The person who isn't willing to work - or pay to have work done - won't be interested..

This segues into the subject for the fourth piece of advice: Being on solid financial footing is worth gold to buyers - lots of gold. Not being on a solid financial footing may or may not be worth waiting until you can fix it, depending upon your market. That's a question that can only be answered on an individual basis. But people with low credit score, low to zero down payment, and insufficient ability to document income will have substantially fewer properties to choose from, and a lot less bargaining power to boot. These challenges become much more difficult if you've got more than one of them. Any one of these issues can be dealt with easily. 100% financing is very available to those with a credit score not horribly below average and the ability to document enough income. People who can't document enough income can still get good loans provided they can put in a down payment and have a quasi-decent credit score. People with bad credit can still get loans if they can document income and provide a down payment - or even if they can't document income with a larger down payment. But put these items together, and you're very constrained as to which properties you have the opportunity to buy, that is, the ones where the owners are willing and able to "carry back" part of the purchase price. Since sellers want cash, not promissory notes, this means the ones who are able to do so have a huge lever to hold on you. You're likely to end up paying full asking price, if not a little extra.

You have cash, or at least the ability to pay the seller in cash via a loan. The sellers have property and they want cash. Every property is not appropriate for every buyer, and I've yet to find a property that's an exception to this rule - but cash is appropriate for every seller. Your cash, my cash, Uncle Sam's cash - sellers are complete agnostics when it comes to whose cash. That dollar from your pocket is worth exactly the same as the dollar from mine. It all spends, and any seller with any pretense to rationality is going to be the ultimate agnostic about who that cash comes from. So long as they get it, it all spends. Cash is always king - but it never produces more cash just sitting there.

But you have needs and wants for the property, and unless you've got a license to run your own private printing press, you don't have an unlimited budget. You have to know what that budget is, and blowing your budget is the mistake most likely to cause a disastrous failure in the home buying process. One of the things I do that my buyer clients absolutely hate is I force them to sit down with me and have a talk about what's important to them in a property, how important it is, and what's not important. Furthermore, I always want to cover alternatives. If they can have two or three features of lesser importance, are they willing to give up one item that may be highly desirable but extremely expensive? People hate this because they hate any indication that they might have to "settle" for anything less than a dream home, but dream homes turn to nightmares very quickly if you don't stay within a budget you can afford. You can always move up again later, but if you can't really afford it now, you will be better off not buying it. A good buyer's agent should give you a very good idea how well your budget and your desires match up before you look at a single property. Furthermore, when looking at properties, always shop by purchase price, not payment. Never never NEVER choose a house or a loan based upon payment!

All of this reduces to one word: Planning. People hate to plan. A good working definition for human beings is, "an otherwise sentient species known for its unwillingness to plan." Me, too, except where there's something important on the line, and getting my clients a better properties at lower prices is a large part of how I feed my family. Effectively planning your purchase will save you many thousands of dollars. Several tens of thousands, around here; perhaps hundreds of thousands in places like Manhattan. I plan everything about my client's purchases except whether they'll like a particular property. There is no way in the known universe to predict that. I've found people exactly what they told me they wanted, at a price within their budget, only to be told "Show us something else." I've had people immediately fall in love with something that I almost didn't show them. I've had people insist they wanted a property even though I gave them a dozen good reasons not to. They're the boss. I'm just the expert. Push comes to shove, people will buy what they like - it's my job to make certain they know about the warts and have a chance to avoid them. People marry people with warts all the time. Most properties, just like most people, have their warts. It's my job to make sure my clients know about them - not to prevent them from exercising adult judgment on whether it's something they can live with.

About warts: If you're one of those people that cannot accept the fact that everything in real estate is a trade-off, you're not going to do well. If you're only willing to buy a perfect property in the perfect situation at a perfect price, there are three possibilities. One: you pay a lot more than the property is worth. Two: You don't buy anything, either because nothing satisfies you or because someone else gets into escrow first. Three: You are the victim of a con where they pretend to have the perfect property in the perfect situation at a perfect price.

There are properties without metaphorical warts of any kind. They all command a premium in any market. If you want a bargain, there are going to be warts. There's going to be a reason why buyers didn't line up to outbid each other, because that's what happens with premium properties in any market. Location, surroundings, condition, size, floor plan, orientation, structure, commute, missing something it needs or has something it shouldn't. Usually, more than one of these. Some things that are a big deal to most prospective buyers are cheap and easy to fix, while other things that don't seem important at first are expensive or impossible. Some things make a large difference on resale, others don't. Some things are impossible to live with, some things trivial. A good buyer's agent will make all the difference in the property you choose, and it's not just knowledge, but attitude as well.

Penultimate item: Sometimes, there are things that are more important to the seller than some amount of cash, and if they are less important to you than that amount of cash, this is a good way to get a bargain. Sometimes there will be clues in the listing that a good buyer's agent can spot. Sometimes, a seller who wants it all their way will give away this crucial information in negotiations, usually by asking for something other than the way things are normally done in your area. Once again, it's the buyer's agent who is going to spot that and know what it's really worth in the way of other concessions. Everything that's unusual, out of place or out of the ordinary is a possible flag here. This works both ways, so if you don't have a sharp buyer's agent and the seller has a sharp listing agent, you can very easily put your foot in your mouth to the tune of thousands of dollars or even blowing the purchase altogether. Get with your agent and plan how you're going to craft your offer to get from where you are to where you want to be.

The final item, and one of the most important: Always negotiate honestly and in good faith. Never make an offer you're not prepared to have accepted. Never represent yourself as being happy when you're not, or being unhappy when you're trying not to chortle with glee. It's amazing how many people simply do not understand how likely this is to bite you. The purchase contract is not the end of negotiations - even the consummated sale may not always be the end of negotiations, but that's the way to plan. It takes two willing parties, a buyer and a seller, to get from the purchase contract to the consummated sale. One side gets too greedy or too demanding, the other side gets disgruntled and walks out. The net result is no transaction, and you're right back where you started from, except you're out the time and probably a not inconsiderable amount of money. Lose-lose, where a viable transaction is always at least commensal, and symbiotic is better.

None of this is "Buying below market." There is no such thing as "buying below market". Market is whatever the price a willing buyer and a willing seller agree the property is worth. End of discussion. If you don't understand this, don't get involved in buying and selling real estate. You would only get hurt. But it is a collection of ideas and principles that enable savvy buyers to get the real bargains - the sort where you look back in amazed satisfaction at how well you did, and if you don't know any better, you'll think it was dumb luck. And luck does happen, but fortune in real estate favors those who are prepared, who get good advice, and who are prepared to undertake reasonable risks when the probability and magnitude of a payoff more than compensate. Real estate is always a competition, and like every competition, you want to practice, you want to prepare, you want to have the best coach and the best strategy, and you have to be willing to take calculated risks. The prize isn't a gold medal - it's a property where you can be happier than in the property you didn't spend tens of thousands of dollars more for, and resell when the time comes faster and for a higher profit.

Caveat Emptor

Lender Owned Diamond in the Very Rough

General: La Mesa, 4 bedroom, 2.75 bathroom


What's Wrong With It: All torn up on the inside, not inhabitable as it sits. Parking is awful. Lot needs landscaping. Residential Lenders won't touch it without a working bathroom. It will cost about $100,000 to fix all of his.

Why It Hasn't Sold: See the above.

Who it's Not Appropriate For: People without cash for a down payment and fixing it up.


Selling Points: Nice layout, and the person who was working on it had some good ideas. Plenty of room in living room and den, huge kitchen. Master bedroom separated from other bedrooms. Huge lot, over a quarter acre - plenty of room to do just about anything you want in the back yard.

Who Should be Interested: People with some cash looking for a place to move up. People with the ambition to create their own dream home.

Why it's a Bargain: The place is ugly right now. With about $20,000, you can get it inhabitable and then make it your dream home at your leisure. Most buyers can't qualify to buy it because they haven't got the cash.


What I think I can get it for: $240,000.

Monthly Payment examples: I've currently got a thirty year fixed rate loan available for qualified buyers at 5.25% for one total point., but you're going to need a commercial loan in order to buy it.

With no down payment: not applicable

With 20% down: Purchase money loan would depend heavily upon credit score. Once it's inhabitable, fully amortized payment of $1061 (APR 5.425), assuming the same rates as today.

Other financing options are available, potentially lowering the payments, but I'm quoting real loans that real people can get, that will stay exactly the same until you pay it off.

Investment potential: If you keep it ten years and it averages only 5% annual average appreciation per year: Based upon a purchase price of $240,000 the property would be worth approximately $390,000. If you held it those ten years before selling, you would net about $230,000 in your pocket (not including increased value from updates!), assuming zero down payment. As opposed to renting the $2200 per month most comparable currently available rental and investing the difference at 10% per year tax free, you would be approximately $340,000 ahead of the renter, after the expenses of selling.

To learn more: Agree that you'll use me as a buyer's agent if you buy it. If you don't like it or don't buy it, no obligation is incurred. If you're not working with someone who will go out and find properties like this, maybe you should consider working with me instead!

Contact Information:

Dan Melson, Realtor
Action Realty Inc
9143 Mission Gorge Road, Suite A
Santee, CA 92071
619-449-0723 X 116

With rates having dropped in recent weeks, it seemed a good idea to go over the thought process behind a successful refinance. Other than the two issues, of loan to value and whether you're really able to qualify for a traditional mortgage loan, things are pretty similar to other refinancing mini-booms. I've seen some people claiming that you should go up to forty-five day rate locks instead of thirty, but I must disagree. With underwriting times at five days, you should not need longer than a thirty day rate lock (or purchase escrow) if you and your loan officer have your act together. Purchase loans go through different underwriters at most lenders, and they have no right of rescission. Even in summer 2003, when refinance underwriting was at 33 days, purchase loans were still getting turned in no more than four, and funded in two to two and a half weeks. Even refinance loans can still be done in under 30 days - if your loan officer submits a complete clean package to begin with, something there's no reason not to do in the case of a refinance. Furthermore, if you make a habit of submitting nice clean complete packages, underwriters will start cherry-picking yours out of the pile when they don't have enough work time left for a piece of garbage. You can't really control this or count on it, but it sure was nice to have the loans come back approved in three or four days, when the competition was taking four weeks. My median last year was seventeen calendar days from lock to fund - adding five days of underwriting only brings us to twenty-four (Don't forget the weekend), and that's forgetting that underwriting was talking a day or two even then. Longer rate locks are more expensive, so you don't want to pay for what you're not going to need. But you do have to have your ducks in a row from the beginning to make it happen.

There are two component costs of getting a loan done. The first is closing costs. This is what is necessary to pay all of those people that work on your loan. Appraisal, escrow, title, notary, processor - not to mention things like credit report charges and recording fees, and in some states, taxes levied upon mortgages. I knew things were getting cheaper with virtual escrow and flat rate title insurance upon refinances, but it was just a few days ago I really looked at how much this was. It's now running much lower than the $3400 rule of thumb I've been using. I quoted two yesterday, and the higher added up to just over $2800. Of these, the only ones that usually need to be paid in cash are the appraisal and the credit report. There are certainly lenders who offer to pay for the appraisal, but I've gone over the traps there before. The others can be rolled into your loan balance. Unfortunately, you'll be paying interest on it there so it's not something I like to recommend, but it can be done, and if you need to do it, it's part of the calculations on whether you should refinance. Actually, it's a part of that, either way.

The second part of the costs are in the points. Actually, this separates into origination and discount, where origination is more properly a closing cost, but most providers (including me!) quote origination and discount together in points verbally, but points of origination is computed exactly the same as points of discount, and when they're disclosed in writing on the paperwork, they add up to the number quoted, at least for the more ethical providers. Note that unless that quote is backed up with something like a Loan Quote Guarantee, these numbers don't mean anything you can hold the lender accountable for, so signing up for a backup loan is a really good idea.

If you choose a higher rate, the lender might not only not charge points, they might cover part or all of your closing costs.

There are other potential costs as well. If your current loan has a prepayment penalty, you can figure you're going to end up paying it in order to refinance. There are only four ways to get out of paying a prepayment penalty, and the two best are not having one or waiting for it to expire. The standard pre-payment penalty is six months interest, so if you've got a $200,000 loan at 6%, you can figure paying that penalty is going to cost $6000. Some penalties are only 80% of that amount, but either way this can entirely change the computation as to whether it's worthwhile to re-finance, and I can think of half a dozen instances off the top of my head where the client swore that they didn't have a pre-payment penalty - but they did. Sometimes this is a rude awakening as to whether the loan officer who got you that loan however long ago really did as good a job as you thought they did. In the illustrated case, it also adds $6000 to the cost of refinancing until it expires. This isn't the fault of your new loan officer - unless they're also the one who did your current loan, they had nothing to do with it. People have gotten angry at me to no good purpose any number of times on this point, when that pre-payment penalty had nothing to do with me. I didn't put them into that loan, I didn't put the loan contract with a pre-payment penalty in front of them, I didn't sign the contract without understanding it, and I certainly didn't get paid for doing that loan. Kind of like trying to blame your neighbor for the crimes of Attila the Hun.

There are other things that need or might need to get paid. Every refinance loan has thirty days interest attached to it. But this isn't a cost; it's only money you would have paid anyway. Some lenders will roll it into the loan and tell you that you "skip" a payment. This may be technically true, but is nonetheless incredibly dishonest. It's much more correct to say "you made one mortgage payment a little earlier." You never really skipped a payment, you only keep the money in your checking account because you added the amount of the payment to your balance. And of course, there's the impound account if you want one, to pay your taxes and homeowner's insurance. Avoid rolling this into your balance if you can.

Just because rates are lower now doesn't mean it's necessarily worthwhile to refinance. Let's work with an example. Let's say the property is valued at four hundred thousand - that's what the current appraisal will come in at. Current loans sum to $260,000, at six percent. No pre-payment penalty, the clients don't want an impound account (be thankful for the one thing the California legislature has done right in the last twenty years). Total closing costs, $2800. Plus whatever cost in points or minus whatever rebate you can get.

Here are some options available a couple days ago (Rates actually dropped again today), all retail rates for thirty year fixed rate loans:

at 6.125, a rebate of 7/10ths of a point or $1820, cutting closing costs to about $1000. But there's no benefit whatsoever to doing that. Not only does the cost of interest go up if they get this loan, they've spent $1000, and the cost of interest goes up to $1332.19 per month from $1300 even, assuming you roll it that $1000 into your balance, but even if you don't, you're not cutting your cost of interest. Unless you're in some kind of loan that's going to somehow get worse, like if the current loan is adjustable, there's no reason to do that. There's no benefit whatsoever, even though the overall tradeoff between rate and costs is now lower.

5.875% was retail par, no rebate but no points to get it either. Total cost $2800. Let's assume you pay it out of pocket, so your balance stays the same and you actually cut your cost of interest by $27.08 per month. Would you pay $2800 in order to save $27.08 per month on your mortgage? I wouldn't. Even without considering the time value of money, it takes 103 months - over 8.5 years - to break even. Most folks don't keep their loans three years, let alone eight, and if you haven't broken even by the time you sell or refinance, you're just out the money.

at 5.625%, you would have paid half a point. Assuming you pay it out of pocket, that's $1300. Added to $2800, that's $4100. You cut your cost of interest to $1218.75, so you're saving $81.25 per month, but when you divide it out into $4100, that works out to 50 months, not counting time value of money. I probably wouldn't invest $4100 for that, but some rational people with a long record of keeping loans ten years or longer might think it was a good investment.

At 5.375%, you would have paid 1.5 points - roughly $3900. Added to $2800, that's $5700. If paid out of pocket, it cuts your cost of interest per month by $135.42, which divides out to a breakeven of 42 months - three and a half years. It's not that good if you roll it into your balance - cutting your monthly interest savings to slightly less that $110, and your breakeven is moved back to essentially 52 months, still not considering time value of money. I wouldn't do that, but it doesn't mean there aren't rational people who would.

Notice that all of these rates but one are lower that what these people have now, but in no case have I been enthusiastic about the refinance from the client point of view.

You may have noticed I haven't used payment to compute any of this. That's because payment is much less important than most people seem to believe. Yes, you need to be able to make the payment, but with that said, You should never choose a loan based upon payment. Even if you were paying off other debt with payments of hundreds of dollars per month, you shouldn't choose your new loan based upon payment. Focus on the real costs of money - what money you need to spend to make the change, the difference it makes to the monthly interest. Even if you have a real cash flow problem you need to solve because you are barely able to make your current payments, you'll go a lot less wrong by focusing on cost of interest.

However, let's see what happens if these folks have forty-five thousand dollars at an average of eleven percent in consumer debt they want to pay off. True that the monthly payments are $800 and it's really crimping them. They're just barely making all the payments every month, and if anything happens like, say, a car repair bill, they'd be completely hosed. That is another reason for doing something, but it's not a reason to focus on payment, but only to make certain that the new payment falls within the range of what they can really pay. As it sits, their real ongoing cost of that money is $1300 plus $412.50, or $1712.50 per month. Many people will tell them that consolidating that debt moves it from non-deductible to deductible, but a strict reading of the tax code says that is not the case (deductible interest is based upon purchase price, normally amortized). I'm not going to tell you that people haven't gotten away with this deduction, but the IRS has had their eye on enforcing it of late, so I'm not going to assume you're getting a deduction out of it, and in fact, I'm going to assume the deductibility issue is a wash.

We haven't changed the basic rates, which are the sum up to the conforming loan limit (currently $417,000). Paying off consumer debt makes it into a "cash out" loan, and a balance that includes paying $305,000 of debts puts you over a seventy percent Loan to Value Ratio, possibly over eighty if you choose a high cost loan and or roll impound accounts into your balance as well. The lender whose sheet I got this from has a
adjustment - an additional charge for risk - of half a point for cash out loans between seventy and eighty percent of value, 3/4 of a point for 80% and over. So all of the above rates have their costs increased by half a point.

So 6.125% now only carries a rebate of two tenths of a point. The moderately good news is that this is on a larger amount of money, and the closing costs are the same (I deliberately picked these numbers so that the cost for the lender's policy of title insurance stayed the same on a refinance, but it usually won't) But I'm also going to presume that you don't have the money to pay these cash out of pocket - you have no choice but to roll loan costs into your balance. After all, if you had thousands of dollars sitting around cash why do you have all of these consumer debts? I'll still have you paying prepaid interest out of your pocket instead pf pretending to "skip" a payment, and no impound account, but you don't have the cash to pay everything out of pocket.

At 6.125, your closing costs are still $2800, and the slightly over $600 rebate you got means that the balance only increased to about $307,185. Total cost, of refinancing to you, $2185. Monthly interest charge is now about $1567.93 - so you're saving $144.57 in real money per month, never mind that the payment is going to have a much larger difference. Would you spend $2185 to make $145 per month, potentially for thirty years? I sure would! Your breakeven is just over fifteen months, and most folks keep the loan significantly longer than that! Every month you keep the loan over 15, you're $144.57 further ahead of where you would have been without refinancing.

At 5.875%, the loan costs half a point now. Your new loan balance would be $309,346.73 and change, which in the real world gets rounded to $309,350 and putting the difference of $3 plus loose change back into your pocket somehow, but I'm going to deal with the non-rounded number. You paid $4346.73 to get that loan done, and your monthly cost of interest goes to $1514.51. You're saving $197.99 per month, but you spent about twice as much to make it happen. Breakeven is not quite 22 months as opposed to your current situation, but longer than that as opposed to the competing loan, which is over $1000 to the good by the time this loan breaks even. Indeed, this loan won't catch its 6.125 competitor for 44 months or thereabouts. In the absence of other choices, I'd be willing to spend this money for this benefit for myself, but over three and a half years is a longer than median time to refinance. I'd rather have the 6.125 loan in this instance. You will get more benefit out of this loan in the long term if you keep it, but most people won't keep it long enough.

At 5.625%, this loan now costs one full point, and your new balance would be $310,909.09. Like it or not, you spent $5909 to get that loan. Your monthly cost of interest drops to $1457.39, saving you $255.11 per month. Breakeven: A little over 23 months. Everything that I said before about the 5.875% loan is also true for this one, except that because the monthly benefit is larger, it catches the 6.125 loan that is your best alternative thus far faster - a little over another ten months, or between 33 and 34 months until it's the best alternative thus far, and once it's in first place, it pulls away from the others quickly.

At 5.375%, this loan now costs two full points, and your new balance would be $314,081.63 if you chose it. You spent $9081.63 to get it, while your monthly cost of interest drops to $1406.82, saving you $305.68 per month. You break even after 29.7 months. If it were the only alternative other than "do nothing", I'd still be willing to do this for myself, but since it takes longer to catch up to some of its competitors, it wouldn't be my first choice from among the presented options. Mind you, if you kept it for the full 30 years, it would be the best possible alternative, but most folks don't keep their loan even three years, let along thirty. By the time this has broken even, the 5.625% loan is about seventeen hundred dollars to the good, and at $50.57 per month lower interest, you're looking at over 32 more months until this is the best alternative. 62 months is over five years. I'd rather do 5.625 for me in most circumstances, thank you very much.

Circumstances alter cases. If you have some knowledge about the future of the situation, any of these can be the best possible loan. For instance, if you know you're going to have to move and sell in two years, or if you're retiring (but staying put!) and it's going to be difficult to get loans from here on out, those would each alter which decision I'd recommend. If loan rates are expected to continue declining or even to be volatile in about this range, I'd choose a cheaper alternative trying to get as close to a True zero cost loan, while if all the top analysts are saying that rates aren't going to be this low for another ten years, I'd strongly consider paying the points to get the low rate.

There is more to the decision of refinancing than just rates, and choosing a mortgage loan by payment is one of the best ways I know of to waste large amounts of money. Unless rates nose-dive even further than this, like they did in 2003 (It sure was nice telling people I could get them 5.375% for literally zero cost when most of them were around 7%), for most people there probably isn't a choice that both saves you money and has you ahead of the game right away - and even so, that may not be the best choice in your situation. Calling loan officers to demand "What's your lowest rate?" isn't going to help anyone - especially not you. You need to have some good conversations with several loan officers

Caveat Emptor

With rates having nose-dived in recent weeks, we're experiencing a refinancing mini-boom. Now that rates have fallen by about a full percent from where they were most of the last year, people are waking up to the fact that refinancing now can save them some serious money. Things finally got low enough a couple days ago that I sent out individual e-mails to most of my clients for the past two years. Underwriting times are up to five business days - a full week. Mind you, refinancing booms are not going to save the lenders' who are in trouble, and 90 percent plus of the refinance dollars are just lenders feeding off each other. But the choice for any available lender is to offer the lower rates and compete for clients, or don't and lose them. It's not like people are settling for free toasters any more.

Unlike all of the recent refinancing booms, this time a lot more people have a couple extra issues.

The lesser one, measured by number of people who have this issue, is being able to qualify for a loan. A year ago, while make believe loans were still happening. people were being qualified for loans on the basis of being able to detectably fog a mirror. Loans for 100% of the value of the property were being done on a Stated Income basis by even A paper lenders. Forty and Fifty Year Loans, interest only, and even negative amortization loans - unsustainable loans were over half of all purchase loans locally. Anything to make it look like the payment was affordable, even if it wasn't. But if that's the only way the people were going to qualify for a loan, what happens when they're not available any longer? That's right - they're stuck with what they've got until they can qualify for something more traditional. Lower rates may help a few around the margins, but most of these folks who signed up for Make Believe loans are going to have to sell before they're going to get their lives back on track.

The other issue, that loan officers mostly haven't really had to deal with for years, is impacted Loan to Value ratios. When prices fall, as they have locally, that's a problem. Locally, the average properties are down about 25%, but that's an average only. So properties that people bought at the peak of the market might be 75% of the value they paid, and unless they put at least a 25% down payment into the property, they're "upside down", and owe more than the property is currently worth. Being upside-down is no big deal if you have a sustainable loan. You keep on keeping on, and eventually things will go back to normal. You pay the balance down, values will go back to at least where they were, and all will be right with the world. But if rates drop while you're upside down, you're not really in a position to take advantage of them. I've written an article on how you might be able to refinance if you're upside down, but those steps are not going to get you the great rates people who have more traditional loan situations will get. Even people who have been in their properties for much longer are finding out that they don't have anything like the amount of equity they had two years ago. Even if they bought a decade ago, if they've taken cash out, they may quite likely be in a situation where don't have twenty percent equity. When this happens, people are going to either split their new loan into two pieces or pay PMI. Since holders of second trust deeds are not currently willing to go above ninety percent of the value of the property, if you're above that threshold, it's PMI or no loan. I've talked to any number of people in the past week who don't want to pay PMI, and that's fine, if they don't mind not getting the loan. It's not like you're shopping for produce at the market, and can pick and choose what you want. PMI goes with all first mortgages over eighty percent of value - it's banking regulations. Regulated lenders cannot lend on those conditions without it. Some lenders may camouflage it with lender-paid mortgage insurance, but you're still going to pay it. Lenders don't have to tell you about it at sign-up, either, and they don't have to disclose the fact that lender paid mortgage insurance is built into the rate they quote. But don't let fear of PMI control you - just add the additional costs into the computations of whether a particular loan is better than another, or worthwhile at all.

Other than these two issues, things are pretty similar otherwise. I've seen some people claiming that you should go up to forty-five day rate locks instead of thirty, but I must disagree. With underwriting times at five days, you should not need longer than a thirty day rate lock (or purchase escrow) if you and your loan officer have your act together. Purchase loans go through different underwriters at most lenders, and they have no right of rescission. Even in summer 2003, when refi underwriting was at 33 days, purchase loans were still getting turned in no more than four, and funded in two to two and a half weeks. Even refinance loans can still be done in under 30 days - if your loan officer submits a complete clean package to begin with, something there's no reason not to do in the case of a refinance. Furthermore, if you make a habit of submitting nice clean complete packages, underwriters will start cherry-picking yours out of the pile when they don't have enough work time left for a piece of garbage. You can't really control this or count on it, but it sure was nice to have the loan come back approved in three or four days, when the competition was taking four weeks. My median last year was seventeen calendar days from lock to fund - adding five days of underwriting only brings us to twenty-four (Don't forget the weekend), and that's forgetting that underwriting was talking a day or two even then. Longer rate locks are more expensive, so you don't want to pay for what you're not going to need. But you do have to have your ducks in a row from the beginning to make it happen.

Caveat Emptor

What is Loan Amortization?

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I keep getting hits for this, so people must want it explained. Loan Amortization is nothing more than the process of paying the loan off by regular payments over time. Leave it to the experts to come up with a fancy word for an everyday process, eh?

A loan which is fully amortized (or fully amortizing) is one which the required payments will pay it off in full by the end of the term of the loan. Fixed rate loans are the classic example of this. A thirty year fixed rate loan has 360 payments of equal amount, at the end of which the loan will be paid off, assuming you have made all the payments on time. The last payment may be somewhat smaller due to the fact that they may round the payment up to the next penny, and over thirty years it makes a difference.

However, most hybrid ARMs are also fully amortizing loans. The difference between these and the fixed rate loan is that the rate, and therefore the payment, is fixed only for the first few years, and after that the rate varies based upon an underlying index. Nonetheless, the loans are still calculated to pay off the entire balance by the end of the loan. You are welcome to keep them after the fixed period if you want to, but few people do.

Balloon loans are partially amortized. Their payments are calculated as if they were a longer loan than they are. Because they amortize based upon a longer loan period, the regular payments do not pay the loan off in its entirety by the end of the loan. Unlike the hybrid ARM, these loans are over in a shorter period of time, and you do not have the option of keeping them. You must either pay the loan off, whether by paying it or by refinancing, or sell the property.

I don't see it in a federally approved list of loan terms, but I have heard interest only loans called delayed amortization. These loans, whether fixed rate or hybrid ARM, have interest only payments for a given time, and then amortize over the remainder of the loan. For instance, a five year interest only loan is then paid off (amortized) over the remaining twenty five years of the loan. Note that when they start to amortize, they will then have payments that are higher than the equivalent fully amortized loan, because the balance is paid off over a shorter period. They will also typically carry a higher interest rate (most subprime lenders charge 1/4 percent higher interest rate for an interest only loan, and there are additional limitations on availability).

If there were such a thing as an interest only loan that stays interest only until you refinance, it would be an unamortized loan. Years ago, I was invited by a company to take a seminar because they offered these to financial planners clients. Fortunately, when I checked NASD regulations, I found out that what they were trying to sell was prohibited. The interest rates they were talking about were very high as well. The reason I said "fortunately" about finding out NASD regulations prohibited what they were doing is that I later found out that they were a scam and shut down by the regulators. I might have found out had I done all my due diligence, or it's possible I might not have. Either way, I'm glad I didn't have any clients with them.

Finally, there is the negative amortization loan, where if you make the minimum payment your loan balance actually increases, effectively digging yourself deeper into whatever hole it was that motivated you to do it. There are circumstances where they are the best thing to do given the situation, but in my opinion, (at least for owner occupied property) it should be a temporary solution of last resort.

Caveat Emptor

Not too long ago on a property I was selling I called an agent up on the day a transaction was supposed to close. He asked me the question, "Well who says it has to close today?"

"The contract that both of our clients agreed to," I told him, "I'll be bringing over a notice to perform later today."

He got all huffy and defensive and tried to talk me out of it, of course. His client was having difficulty finalizing the loan. He offered to fax me over a loan commitment, and it wasn't even in compliance with the purchase contract. The other agent didn't have a clue, being unwilling to take the few minutes to figure out what it said. Buyer's market or no buyer's market, he got the notice to perform as fast as I could take it to him. I didn't fax it; that could have been claimed to go astray. I hand carried it over. My client kept the deposit.

The issue at stake, most critical to sellers, but important for buyers also as well as costly to borrowers, is time. That seller can only have one escrow transaction on their property in the works at one time. If this buyer cannot perform in a timely fashion, they are spending money they would not otherwise have spent because of it. In most cases they are paying for an extra place to live while this joker of a buyer, or more precisely their agent or loan officer, bumbles about and wastes time. Around here, that's usually thousands of dollars per month. It has gotten to the point where one of the options I always consider is asking for an explicit "per day" escrow extension penalty for my client right in the purchase contract. That way, the buyer had better know right up front there is a deadline and will not treat it in some lackadaisical fashion, and if their agent does, well that's between them. Of course, in a buyer's market like this one, it scares a lot of buyers away, so discretion is advised.

Another way to cut unnecessary expense to my listing clients is a leaseback clause. What this means is that they can stay in the property, paying only appropriate daily rental on an equivalent property, for 30 to 60 days after the transaction records. That way, they don't have to arrange for new housing ahead of time; they can wait until the transaction is actually finalized, and. Of course, this means the buyer doesn't get possession right away, which many of them don't like, to say the least. They've gone to all this trouble to qualify for the property, scrimped and saved and now they're paying a mortgage and don't have the property. Nonetheless, it's a viable alternative to penalty clauses and sits a lot better at the beginning of the process when many of them are nervous about qualifying. As one final note to this idea, in order to get "owner occupied" loan rates as opposed to higher "investment property" rates, most lenders have a requirement to move in within 30 days, and this can, theoretically, create a conflict for the buyer.

On the flip side, suppose the seller is unable to perform? Cannot deliver good title, cannot get the clearances and inspections done, cannot get their lender to approve a Short Payoff, any one of a number of issues? Now the buyer is sitting here with an approved loan, and the clock is ticking on their rate lock. I always want a rate lock that will cover the entire contracted escrow period, but I don't want my clients to pay for a longer lock than they have to. So now the contracted escrow period is up and my client's loan is ready to go and the documents have been signed and it's ready to fund and for the entire transaction to record, but the seller is sitting over there with their thumb metaphorically you-know-where and the rate extensions are costing my client a tenth of a point for five days or a quarter point for fifteen (depending upon the lender), always charged in full on the first day of the extension. On a $500,000 loan, a tenth of a point is about $500, and a quarter is about $1250. In a buyer's market, like this one, it may be a good idea to pre-negotiate a "seller unable to perform" penalty.

Of course, in most transactions, it's not the buyer and seller who are really at fault. It's the agent or the loan officer. They are getting paid for getting it done on time, among other things, and they are dropping the ball, either due to a "manana mindset" or because they are responsible for too many transactions or because they don't want to tell their client they have to spend some money, or because they're just an incompetent flake.

For loan officers, add "they promised a loan they couldn't deliver" to the list. It happens disturbingly often, as the incentives are in place to promise the moon in order to get you to sign up, then play the "wait and hope" game of waiting and hoping the market drops far enough that they can deliver something that at least looks similar to what they promised. There are no loan extension fees in this case, or at least there shouldn't be, because to lock your loan would defeat the entire purpose of "wait and hope." On the other hand, in those situations the market has a distinct tendency to rise, and when it does, you pay the new rates that are even higher than what was really available at the time and that you could have had if you has listened to the guy who told you that rate really wasn't available. If the rate is locked and the rates go up, I don't care and neither does my client. If the rate is locked and the rates go down, a broker can offer a lender a choice between losing the loan and giving their client the better rates, and resubmit it elsewhere if they take the former choice. If the rate is not locked, you are stuck with whatever happens in the market. Period.

The point of this article is that it is likely to save you money to get everything done right away, and even if the other side in the transaction doesn't, it puts you in a much stronger position from the point of view of negotiating, or from the a legal perspective if the whole transaction goes down in flames. Yes, an appraisal is somewhere between $300 and $500. Yes, a building inspection is about the same. Yes, the other reports run into some significant money, as well. But delaying will cost you more, which may be measured in terms of small percentages of the overall transaction, but when you do the math, it works out to thousands of dollars, not mere hundreds.

Don't wait for the deadlines. Definitely don't wait until after the deadlines. They are there for a reason, and they will cost you money. Get it done right now, and if your agent or loan provider will not or can not, document it. Loan providers you can drop any time until you sign the documents and often afterward, but you typically are stuck with agents once the transaction begins, at least until it finishes. Nonetheless, wouldn't you really rather that agent (or their insurance) was liable to cover your losses plus the cost of recovery? Document their failures to indemnify yourself.

Caveat Emptor.

Unpermitted additions are popular in California because of property tax implications. You see, due to Proposition 13 back in 1978, taxable assessments are based upon purchase price plus no more than 2% per year since acquisition (although if you bought prior to 1975, it's based upon the taxable basis in 1975). Let me say that this is a very good thing, because someone who buys property today has a reasonable assurance they won't be taxed out of their property, something you could not say prior to the passage of Prop. 13, where the legislature had more than tripled property taxes in the three years before it passed. Indeed, Prop. 13 has been one of the background factors leading to the elevated values today. If you bought a property for $40,000 in 1975, your taxable assessment 33 years later would be a little shy of $77,000. In the open market, it would probably be about a $500,000 property, perhaps even $600,000, even with the market having taken its recent tumble. People who bought in the early nineties are sitting around $200,000 assessments for the same property, and even those who bought back around the time of 9/11 have assessed values of perhaps $300,000.

However, one exception to Proposition 13 is if you build an addition. New additions are assessed based upon the value it adds to the property when it is built. So in the case of the person who bought in 1975, expanding the living room or putting in a new bedroom could double the owner's property taxes. A new master suite could go much further than that. Building a second story to add multiple rooms could make your tax bill resemble a new purchase.

But if the county never finds out about it, and never updates their records, they don't make the new assessment, and the property taxes don't go up.

The way the county keeps track of all of this is via building permits. The theory is that anyone making an addition is going to get the proper permits, have all the inspections done, and happily pay their newly increased taxes.

Yes, I'll wait until you're done laughing, but it works out to be the intelligent thing to do, as we'll discover.

This is aside from all the usual headaches of dealing with your self-interested bureaucracy. Predictably, a lot of people decide that they will do anything they can to keep the county from finding out about that addition. No permits, no plans, no inspections, no bureaucracy, just do the work and enjoy the results.

Well, not quite. Licensed, insured contractors have legal and insurance based requirements to make certain any work they're involved in has all the necessary permits, inspections, etcetera. Go to Bureaucracy, Go Straight to Bureaucracy, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect your nice little tax evasion. So this also encourages the use of unlicensed contractors, who as a group aren't precisely known for their unswerving dedication to high standards of construction and repair. Their work may or may not adhere to code, it may or may not do what it was supposed to, it may not continue to do so even if it does initially, and it may or may not even be structurally safe. Not to mention you're going to need Divine Intervention if someone gets hurt building it, or even on that portion of the property at a later time. Homeowner's Insurance companies have been known to be sticky about such details, and for excellent reason.

But if the county finds out about it, you've got all the issues you were trying to dodge right back at you with penalties and compound interest. I said if, but it's really more a matter of when.

You see, most folks want to sell the property at some point in time. When they sell it, they want to get a price appropriate for the property. They've got a 4 bedroom 2000 square foot property now, so the owners want the price 4 bedroom 2000 square foot properties are bringing in the market, not a 3 bedroom 1400 square foot price. When that happens, somebody usually notices that what they're trying to sell doesn't match county records for the property. It's one click on MLS to find out. The Era of Transparency bites everyone with something to hide. An agent I know told me he once asked someone in the assessor's office how they found out about cheaters. The answer? Mostly Real Estate Agents, but the context and way he told the story leads me to believe that the real answer is more properly "people unhappy with some other party to a transaction that may or may not have come off." It doesn't take much. Given even an anonymous tip, there isn't a judge in the world that's going to deny the assessor the right to investigate, especially given that you're on record trying to claim it had something more in order to sell it for a higher price. It's not like MLS records are private, or that the county assessor doesn't subscribe. Unless you've got some trick to make the extra room vanish when the tax man knocks on the door, they're going to find out the truth.

If the addition happens to be to code - current code that is - you can get a retroactive permit. The process isn't too horribly much worse than if you'd done everything legal in the first place. But you're still going to pay all those back taxes, plus penalties and interest.

However, it's rarely to current code. Building codes get updated all the time, and when you get a permit legally and dot all the i's and cross the t's, you almost always get grandfathered into any code updates along with everyone else. It was fine and to code when you built it, so unless it has somehow become unsafe, you're still cool as far as the code goes. I see stuff every time I go looking at property which couldn't get approved now, but because the permits were obtained, the work was done, and everything was legally signed off forty years ago, it's still legal today.

Grandfathering doesn't apply, though, if you didn't do things the legal way. It's the code now that's important, and if it's not to code now, they can and will make you bring it up to current code standards. This often entails completely demolishing it and starting over, or simply putting things back to the way they were originally, if anyone can figure out what that was. Whatever happens, you're going to have the county inspectors looking over your shoulder every minute until the situation is resolved, and the licensed contractor you're going to have to retain isn't going to have much sympathy for what you did to yourself without paying a member of his brotherhood (most contractors are male). Upshot: It's going to be a lot more expensive and time-consuming than if you did it correctly in the first place.

It can be, and often is, worse than that. If the addition is unsafe, if you don't bring it to code within a specified period of time, they can make you demolish it. Actually, they can make you demolish the entire structure if it's bad enough. Suppose there's other stuff done there that was legal at the time, but there were no permits needed then? Nobody believes liars and cheats, and that's you at this point.

Sometimes, the additions are not compatible with zoning, set back regulations, etcetera. In that case, they're coming out, end of story, and the entire structure may be condemned. Granny flats are one common issue that often impacts setbacks and or zoning. I may not like it, but it's not like I've been elected dictator for life. We've got to deal with the law as it is, not how we would like it to be. We can work to change it, but in the meantime, it is what it is.

Now, about buying such a property: Are you really comfortable plonking down your hard earned cash for a property where part or all of it may be at risk of being demolished, when (not if) the county finds out? Particularly the same price the your new neighbor paid for his fully permitted property? I don't think that's likely. Not many inmates of insane asylums are purchasing real estate, and when they do, they need to get their trustee involved. I can't see any trustee agreeing to it either.

There is one potential loophole: If you can show the property was as it is when you bought it, then the addition will be treated as part of the sales price, and you can potentially get forgiveness as an innocent purchaser, but it's still got to be to current code. See above for issues with that. There's a also time limit on this, usually two years is my understanding. The issue is this can be difficult to show without the cooperation of the former owner, who's going to be assessed for the difference, plus penalties and interest, and is therefore unlikely to cooperate! I understand there are other limits upon this loophole, but these are the most important ones.
Even if you manage to unload one of these white elephants upon some unsuspecting fool, you're not in the clear. It can come back to bite you. I heard about one case not too long ago where the seller bought in 1986 and sold in 1999, and they swore it was like that when they bought, that they had no reason to suspect it was unpermitted. All to no avail. The judgment was rendered against them, and they're going to have to find the people who sold it to them to get any satisfaction in return. Good luck with that, especially if they're dead.

One final issue: In the era of make believe loans, anything went, but lenders are once again balking at lending at properties with unpermitted additions. In particular, they're not willing to lend based upon the current configuration, but based upon what's in county records if at all. As one lender fairly close to my office found out when they tried to sell their 1500 square foot lender owned property that the county records showed as 640, this can put the kibosh on the vast majority of potential sales. How good of a price do you think you're likely to get when the buyer can only get a loan for about fifty percent of value, and the lender wants to treat that as 100 percent financing? Result: It sat for eight months until a buyer came along with the resources to deal with it, and that buyer got a fantastic deal.

(Question: How many "get rich quick in real estate" seminars mention that most of the very best deals happen for buyers willing and able to sink a lot of cash into the property for the time it takes to deal with the issue that's preventing everyone else from buying it?)

in short, unpermitted additions are a landmine waiting only some random event to explode, and it can do so years after you thought it was no longer your problem. They can be good news for buyers with the resources to deal with them, but they can cripple your ability to sell the property, particularly for a good price. They can actually cause you to be forced to sell for a price below what you'd get without doing any of the work at all. Looking at the costs, I find it difficult to believe that anyone considering things rationally would willingly do this, but in looking at MLS and visiting 20-30 properties most weeks, I see a lot of hard evidence that not everyone thinks these things through.

Caveat Emptor

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There's really nothing mysterious about this. There are some subsidiary tricks and issues, but the most important thing is obvious. The economic games theory is crystal clear, as is the research into what really happens. But most people don't like what the theory says, and think it somehow doesn't apply to their ego wonderful property.

Price the property correctly in the first place.

Negotiating strategies are variable. In seller's markets, your optimum marketing and negotiation strategies are far different that in buyer's markets such as most of the country has right now. But every optimum strategy, in every market, starts with the same piece of advice. Price the property correctly from the moment it hits market. That price won't be the same price it would have been six months ago, and it won't be the same price it would be six months from now. But just because it changes over time does not mean there isn't an optimum price now, and now is when you're trying to sell it.

A good listing agent can keep you from under-pricing the property, and can keep you from giving away the farm or losing the sale in negotiations. But nobody can reliably get you more than the property is really worth, and the attempt is almost certain to end up costing you lots of money.

Here's how things work if you price the property correctly. You put it on the market, you get people coming by to view it because they can afford it and the basic numbers fit. If middle class properties are priced correctly, you're going to get offers within the first two weeks - probably more than one, even in the buyer's market we have going right now. You all negotiate in good faith, you reach an agreement with one of the prospective buyers, you go through escrow in 30 days or less, and within sixty days the property is sold.

But when you over-price it, here's what happens: When buyers compare your property to the others that are available and competing with yours, yours falls short. Result: They make offers on other properties, not yours. It's as if you wanted to sell a $20 bill for $50. Guess what? It's precisely the same situation with a different commodity.

Time goes on. You spend money on the mortgage, the property taxes, the insurance, and the upkeep. Plus any number of other possibilities, for instance if there are HOA dues. Even if there aren't, let's consider a median sales price in the zip code my office is in: $390,000. Let's say you've got a loan for eighty percent of the value at 6%, pro-rated property taxes at 1.25%, and $100 per month for insurance. You paid $1560 in interest charges for one month. That's cash, right out of your checking account! I don't count the cost of principal because you're paying that to yourself, but pro-rated property taxes would be slightly over $400 per month, and add the $100 per month for insurance and you're well over $2000 that not selling for that month actually cost you, plus the phantom of another couple hundred dollars principal out of your checking account that you're essentially giving the bank to hold for you until the property sells - unless that extra month decreases the eventual sales price, which it will. It's worse than this if your property is highly encumbered, or caught upon the fact that prices are receding in most of the country. That $390,000 property today would have been $500-$520,000 at the peak of the market, and lots of folks were buying then and are discovering now that those prices weren't real. So if your property doesn't sell for 4 months (the average days on market locally), that's nearly $10,000 out of your pocket that you're not getting back. Actually, it's worse than that.

Your period of highest interest is right when the property hits the market. The longer it's on the market, the fewer people will come by. The buyers who already looked have already made their comparison and decided they're not interested. The buyers who are new to the market will see that it's been on the market for thirty, sixty, ninety days or more and wonder "What's wrong with it?" The larger the "Days on Market" counter goes, the less inclined they will be to go view the property. Remember, at this point it's all numbers as far as the buyers are concerned. You can stage the house, paint it, remodel the kitchen, replace the carpet, landscape the yard, and nobody will notice because these don't translate to attention grabbing numbers. The property is what it is, has what it has, and the counter is ticking up, and every day this property sits . The only number you can change to induce people to come back is the asking price, and guess where it has to go? That's right, down. At this point, you have to give them a reason to come back and look that has its root in numbers. If you're now the cheapest property in your class in your area (or more precisely, the lowest asking price), that has a good chance of working. Maybe if you're now the second cheapest, you'll get a smaller amount of interest. But if there are still a significant number of lower prices in your class, this won't work. Nobody comes back to look at the 18th cheapest 3 bedroom home, even if there are 1000 others in the zip code, despite the fact that these numbers say you're in the best 2%. You've got to be priced significantly below the market to drag people back, where you didn't have to be nearly that low if you priced it correctly in the first place. Furthermore, attempting to negotiate the price back upwards is extremely unlikely to work. People came to look and made an offer based upon your implicit representation that the asking price would be an offer you'd be happy to accept, and if that turns out not to be the case, expect them to walk away no matter how hot the seller's market.

Tricks exist to reset Days on Market, of course. The various MLS affiliates are wise to most of them and getting better at catching them. Not to mention that the buyer's agent is going to check back and see if it's been on the market anytime recently, if they don't happen to recognize it off the top of their head. Listing Agents are becoming correspondingly more reluctant to play games to reset that Days on Market because they can lose the ability to place properties in MLS altogether. Buyer's agents are tired of this game, and many of them are perfectly willing to put their competition out of business by bringing their malfeasance to the attention of the MLS operator. I haven't done it yet, but I'm becoming more tempted in a couple of cases.

I see a lot of nonsense put into MLS by owners, and by agents who know better about how high the automatic valuations, CMAs, and appraisals for a given property are. These are all worthless. For one thing, this data can be manipulated, and sellers have just a little motivation to want it manipulated in their favor. More importantly, none of these influence sales price, and representations that they do or should is worthy of ridicule. What influences whether you get any offers, and from that, sales price is how good of a deal prospective buyers think they're getting, which in turn flows from the asking prices for comparable properties, as well as recent sales. If there's only two properties available for sale in the Zip Code that thousands of buyers want, sales prices are going to be increasing rapidly. Reverse this if the opposite situation applies. Incidentally, these are reasons a buyer's agent needs to be a fount of information on both the attractive points and the not-so-attractive ones.

With this information freshly in mind, what does all this say about the competence and ethics of an Agent who accepts the listing at a too-high price "to see if we can get it"? Nothing good. They're deliberately inducing the seller to harm themselves in order to get that listing. It's hard to put a monetary value on hurt feelings of betrayal when the agent starts pressuring them to drop the price the instant they have the signature on the listing agreement, but for a lot of folks, that's even worse than all of the cash it's going to cost them.

Lest anyone mistake me, this is no way relieves the need for an agent, and a good one. How many of the comparable properties that sold in your area in the last few months were you in? How familiar are you with all of the competing comparable properties? Try and put it on the market without that knowledge, and you're basically spinning the roulette wheel as to whether you're in the right ballpark, price-wise, with completely predictable downside if you're not. Who's your target buyer? What are the effective ways to attract their attention to the property? How to convince them they need to make a better offer? I guarantee that buyers don't care about "what you want to get" for the property! If real estate were easy and obvious, anyone could do it about as well as anyone else, and that is definitely not the case. Finding a good agent isn't trivial, and their pay isn't what most people think of as "cheap" but it will more than pay for itself in time and money.

The attitude of the seller is also critical. Sellers that expect to be treated like royalty are royally hosing themselves. If everything has to be convenient for you, you won't get as good a price as if you make everything convenient for the buyer, and in buyers markets, it often makes the difference between a good price and not selling at all. What are you willing to do in order to sell your property, to make it more attractive to buyers with special issues? Especially, what are you willing and able to do if it will get a higher price? Being willing and able to offer things that other sellers are not is an excellent way to appeal to buyers with special needs, perhaps even to the point where they have a choice of your property or none at all, no matter how many properties are "for sale" where the owner can't or won't. Do you think that might induce someone to offer a good price? To use some examples I've encountered recently, are you willing and able to carry back part of the purchase price? That's one way to give yourself an advantage over competing properties in any kind of market. Are you willing to work with someone who has a need for immediate occupancy? Can you carry the property for an extended escrow period if you're properly compensated for it? A good agent can use all of these, and others, as wedges to get the property sold, sooner and for a better price, but they can't do these things for you. You have to be willing and able to do them.

There are a few other things: Have the property ready to show before it hits the market, do what you can to enhance visual attractiveness (it's amazing the difference polishing furniture that's going to leave with you can make!), and especially make showings absolutely as easy as possible. It's a better sales tactic to get the family heirlooms and other valuables out and type, "Just Go!" in the showing instructions than just about anything else (although "5 minutes notice so we can be gone!" is even more effective), and permissive or restrictive showing instructions can make all the difference. If you've got tenants in the property who want 24 hour notice, you're in a world of hurt in a buyer's market, and even in a seller's market you're going to find that your traffic and final sales price will suffer because of it.

The asking price should take all of these factors, and more into account (and almost entirely as subtractions from a theoretically perfect sales situation), but choosing an optimum or near optimum asking price in the first place will make more difference than anything else, because the money a seller ends up with is about the time it takes to sell as well as final sale price.

Caveat Emptor

"Trust Deed Incorrect Legal Description"

There are all kinds of legal descriptions. Lot, Block and Map, or just Lot and Map, are probably the most common. Sectional portions (Portion A of Section B of Township C, Range D) are probably next most common, followed by "metes and bounds", and often the two are mixed. Finally, in some areas of the country (like Southern California) there are remnants of prior systems here and there, like the Ranchos here, parishes in Louisiana, etcetera. What they all have in common is descriptions of the boundaries of the parcel concerned. Condominiums are based upon cubes of airspace exclusively with an undivided common interest in the communal property.

There are technically incorrect legal descriptions, and there are significantly incorrect descriptions. There are three main categories.

1) Descriptions that describe the land with some technical difference. Missing an easement, missing part of a defined lot, something like that. This is by far the most numerous of these errors and basically means nothing. The land the trust deed describes was pledged as security. Practically speaking, these might as well not have the imperfection, and if you fight in court, you're probably wasting your money. If the legal description is missing part of the land, but the whole thing is only one legally zoned lot, they're going to get the whole thing, by and large. If it's out in the country somewhere and not covered by things such as lot regulations, they might split the part that was covered by the description off from what wasn't covered. Obviously, only part of the property was pledged as security, right? But most of the time, the lot cannot legally be subdivided anyway, and the lender is likely to get the whole thing.

2) Descriptions that partially describe the property. There are three main subcategories: a) they describe part of the property, but not the whole thing b) they describe part of the property and part of some more, and c) they describe the entire property and some extra besides. Subcategory a, that describes part of the property but not the whole thing, usually count as the "technical difference" category. In other words, no big deal. Subcategory b, where they describe something extra as well, is only of special note if you owned the other piece of property, also, at the time the Trust Deed was signed. Otherwise, you deeded property you didn't own. Your neighbor may end up defending his title in court and coming after you for his expenses, but you can't deed away what you don't own. It's the part that you own that's important. Subcategory c, like b, is only interesting if you own the extra property as well. Then the lender might get a little extra! Otherwise, you can't deed away what you don't own.

3) Descriptions that describe another property. You can't deed what you don't own, so unless you owned the other piece of property as well, the lender is basically out of luck. It is to be noted that they're still going to do their best to come after you, and your neighbor may come after you for his expenses in defending his title, and the cops may be interested in you if they think you intended fraud.

Of course, the law varies and you should check with your lawyer and it's the court's decisions that are final. Your mileage may vary; these are just some rules of thumb.

Caveat Emptor

It's the same reason the phone company doesn't want to compete, General Motors doesn't want to compete, Wal-Mart doesn't want to compete, Disney doesn't want to compete, and Microsoft will do everything in its power to appear as if it doesn't have to compete. They make less money when they have to compete, and they have to provide a better quality of product.

But people know that all of the above have competitive alternatives. If you don't like one brand of automobile, there are dozens of competing alternatives. Ditto retail outlets. "Kid safe entertainment" is a bit more of a niche market, but there are competitors if you'll look. Finally, we should all be aware that computer OS's are one of the biggest Drazi Wars there are. But there is competition.

But many agents and loan officers make their living by pretending there is no competition, or by actively manipulating consumer choices to preclude the possibility of competition. This takes many forms, from requiring large deposits for loan officers through exclusive agreements with agents. There's nothing fundamentally evil about this - everyone needs to make a living. But there's nothing that says any particular consumer - by which I mean you - has to put up with it. Furthermore, the agent or loan officer who is confident enough to work without these devices is likely to be a better, stronger practitioner. Ask yourself who you'd more easily believe has more on the ball: Someone who tries to keep you from considering the competition, or someone who's happy to compete? If you were interviewing two applicants who want to work for you, who'd be more likely to get the job: The person who walks out as soon as they find out you're considering someone else as well, or the person who gets their act together and out-competes the other applicant? If you were interviewing with two companies who wanted to hire you, which offer would you be inclined towards: The one where you have to hide the other interview, or the one who's willing to compete head-on for your services?

Nobody's going facilitate competition for the job they want. Nonetheless, it is to your advantage to force them to compete. If you don't understand why, consider that for all the griping about various phone companies, the situation is far superior to what it was when there was only one. Here's a particularly poignant reminder of that era.

Here's the facts of the situation: If you're only going to talk to one provider, they can quote you anything they want. There is no check upon the situation. If I were the only loan provider in California, I could charge anything I wanted. I'd auction my services to the highest bidder, work a couple hours, one day a week, make as much money as I wanted and go on to spend the rest of the time having fun with my family. If anybody didn't like the level of service, that would be their problem. But that's not the case. In fact, the further it is from being the case, the harder I have to work, the less money I make per transaction, and the better the service I need to provide. It's also the case on the voluntary level, which is to say if you voluntarily restrict yourself to one potential provider, as well as the involuntary. It doesn't matter how many loan providers and real estate agents there are, what matters is how many you talk to.

People in the real estate business get told all the time that the way to success is to avoid competing, especially to avoid competing based upon price. If ever a week has gone by without some clown wanting to charge me a thousand dollars to learn how to avoid competing on price, or avoid competing, period, I certainly can't remember it. They work, by and large, on two levels - pretending you're the prospect's friend while engendering fear of the competition. "You know I'm your friend, George. You know there are sharks and cutthroats out there who will take your money and leave you high and dry, but you know I won't do that, George." And there are sharks and cutthroats out there. The guy talking to his friend George here is one of them. This is the way he talks George out of checking up on him, comparing his services and prices to either objective standards or to any other provider's. Nor are women any superior - in fact, I've had a report of one of the worst sharks I'm aware of preaching a "female solidarity" line of attack to cut out her competition. Other sharks attack via ethnic or religious solidarity, or even political similarities. What these have in common is that none of them have anything to do with competence at real estate, and they may not have anything to do with conscience. I've seen people preaching the gospel about taking care of your fellow man while extorting thousands of dollars from their client's pockets. Newsflash: The sale of Indulgences went out with the Reformation, and for good reason, too. I'm certain it happens with other religions, as well, it's just that there's fewer members of those religions around.

One of the ways I constantly see this abused is even people who should know better advising their readers to "ask someone you trust for a referral." Well, referrals are great - if the person making the referral knows what they're talking about. If they don't, it's just another goat lined up for sacrifice, willingly led in by the previous victim, If not worse. Here's an article from just a couple days ago (HT: FraudBlogger.com, who always has a relevant example of bad behavior handy). No matter how trusted the source, it still needs to be fully vetted - you need to do your own due diligence, and part of that is comparing them to some other potential service providers.

There just isn't any valid advantage from the consumer's point of view to forking over a large deposit or the originals of any documents to a loan provider. They don't need originals, and the only thing that large deposit does is give them some money to hang onto if you find a better loan. All of the better loan providers I'm aware of work on the basis of "fees at point of service," not requiring a deposit in advance. In fact, a cash deposit can induce people to accept loans that are many times the amount of the cash deposit worse than other, available loans. People understand that check they wrote out of their account is real money, where most of them are a little bit hazy about loan costs paid by rolling them into the loan balance. I saw someone pass by a loan I had that was four thousand dollars cheaper up-front and would have saved them $1000 per year they kept it because another lender already had a $1500 deposit from them. Here are a few more pointers on shopping for a real estate loan.

Admittedly, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that it is in the consumer's interest to list their property for sale via an Exclusive Right to Sell. However, this doesn't mean you're not going to shop extensively. This only means that you're going to make that commitment to one agent once you have done that research. Failing to do so risks locking your property up with an incompetent agent. When you ask "what's so bad about that?" ask yourself if you'd be happy taking ten to twenty percent less for the property (or worse!), after you keep paying the mortgage six more months? Around my area, with the median sale being $423,000 last month, and assuming a loan at six percent on eighty percent of value, not only does signing up with someone who can't get the job done cost you $42,000 on the sale, it'll cost you about $2200 cash for every month that property doesn't sell! Realize it or not, you're risking a lot of money on an agent, and just because you're not writing a check to them directly at sign up in no way changes this. However, I don't advise going with the agent who asks for a short term listing, either. That's an appeal to cowardice - decide by theoretically not deciding, and make no mistake, you are deciding when you sign a listing agreement for any period of time. This isn't to say you can't bargain the time for commitment down if you're willing to take a chance on a less experienced agent - it's just saying don't decide by pretending not to make a decision. That way lies disaster. Here are a few more tips about Shopping for a listing agent.

For buyer's agents, there really isn't a reason for an Exclusive Agency Agreement, except to allow an agent to wrap up your business for whatever period of time. There isn't hardly an excuse. The only place I can see it being an effective alternative for the consumer is if they're working the foreclosure market, and that agent is spending the money for all of the "quick notification" services so that the client doesn't need to. But the vast majority of the time, agents are locking in people who simply don't know any better with an exclusive agency agreement. I've seen listing agents who wouldn't show a property without an exclusive buyer's agency agreement - a clear violation of fiduciary duty to the seller, not to mention a huge Conflict of Interest if they actually want to put an offer in on that property. Non-Exclusive Agency Agreements protect the buyer's agent just fine, but they also give you the right to fire non-performers by just not wasting any more of your time. You can also use them to separate the wheat from the chaff among buyer's agents. Sign any number of Non-Exclusive agreements you want. The good agent will still do their work; while the lesser agents will select themselves out. While we're at it, here's a few more tricks to finding a good buyer's agent.

Agents and Loan Officers don't like this. It means they might not get the business when they're exposed for the buffoons that some of them are, and it means they might not make as much money for the time they put in. Nor is exercising your choices as an informed consumer simple - far from it. You also need to consider what agent services are worth how much to you. But considering the average price of real estate around here, and the cost of the loans that most people need in order to buy, doing proper diligence beforehand will save most people more money than they make in a month - perhaps more than they make in a year, possibly more. When you consider the differences in that light, the hourly pay for doing your due diligence about agents and loan officers and forcing them to compete is absurdly high.

Caveat Emptor

This is a nationwide program for first time home buyers that helps them qualify for the loan by saving them even more money on their tax bill. With that said, however, the state of California accounts for more than 50 percent of all MCC Certificates.

Each individual area has its own administrator. Within the County of San Diego, for instance, there are three individual programs, although one company administers two of them. You must submit your paperwork to the correct authority, under the correct program. Each program has its own allocation of money, and if you submit to the wrong program, the application will not be approved, wasting your money.

Now, before I go through all the rigamarole of the program, what does it do for you? Simply put, it boosts the value of the mortgage interest deduction.

Here's how it works. During the escrow period, the time between the purchase contract being agreed to and the consummation of the transaction, you apply for a Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) through the originating lender. This means the people who take the loan application. This program is emphatically open to loan brokers. If the broker participates, it does not matter whether the funding lender participates, because it is not required that the funding lender participate, only that the originating lender participate. There is a nonrefundable upfront fee involved. This fee is paid to the authority administering the program. Some brokers may front this money on your behalf, but they will expect to be paid back several times over upon funding. Remember: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Your lender submits the application and the fee, and receives an approval from the authority on your behalf. This approval is good for up to 120 days, and in most cases, it may be transferred to another property conditions if this escrow falls apart.

What does it actually do for you? It converts part of your mortgage interest tax deduction into a direct tax credit. 20% of your mortgage interest, to be precise. This applies to both first and second mortgages on which interest is being paid and payments are being made. It does not apply, however, to first time buyer assistance loans on which there are no payments, or only nominal payments.

Let's do some math! Let's say you're buying a property for $400,000, using 100% financing. Of that, $320,000 is a first mortgage at 6%, and $80,000 is a second mortgage at 10%. Let us examine the situation you should be familiar with, the normal mortgage interest deduction, first. This is the situation without MCC:















blended 6.8%


You also have property taxes of $5000 per year (California rule of thumb. Yours may vary), which are deductible. Total: $32,200. The amount over this is deducted from your income before computing tax. The net benefit to you is based upon what exceeds the standard deduction you'd get anyway. For married couples, this will be $10,300 in 2006. $21,900, at a 28% tax bracket, sees a net benefit of $6132. This shaves a $511 per month off of your federal tax bill.

Now let's look at the situation with MCC:

6.8 blended

So you get a $21760 deduction and a direct tax credit of $5440. Your deductions total $26,760 with property taxes, using the same numbers from the first scenario. Les $10,300, your real deduction is $16,460, times 28% tax bracket is $4608.80. That's the reduction you see on your taxes due to the deduction. You'll also see a tax reduction due to the credit of another $5440, for a total of $10,048.80 tax benefit, or $837.40 per month. That's over sixty percent more you save off of your federal taxes. What's more, is because the credit is a known number, not subject to alteration as to your deduction status or other tax situation, it can be used to help you qualify for the loan. That $5440 credit works out to $453.33 per month that can be used to help you qualify for the loan. I just took the training for this program, and I know I'll have some interesting arguments with nonparticipating lender underwriters, but I'm going to have the documentation on my side. They say, "Show me on paper," and I show them on paper. United States Government paper. IRS Tax code citations. Anybody want to bet how that turns out? One more thing before I change the subject: This only applies to federal income taxes, not state. For state income taxes, if any, the situation with and without MCC is identical.

Participation in this program is not universal. There are fees to be paid, and some cities can't or won't. Many entire states do not participate. In other cities, there is no qualifying housing. For instance, within the county of San Diego, the City of La Mesa is not currently participating, although they have stated an intent to return to the program. The Cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach also do not participate, due to the complete lack of qualifying housing within those two cities.

There are basically three qualifications, in addition to submitting your request to the correct regional program and buying a property in a participating area. First, you cannot make more than the appropriate income limits. In San Diego County, this is currently $82,800 per year for a household of one or two persons, $96,600 for a household of 3 or more persons. Qualifying income adjusts annually. Second, this is valid for owner occupied dwellings only. You must occupy the home, or intend to occupy it as soon as the purchase is finalized, and then you must actually occupy it. Therefore, only single family occupancy properties are eligible; no duplexes, apartment buildings, or other properties with more than one living unit. Condominiums are fine, as are manufactured homes on owned land, as these are both single family dwellings. If you move out, you will lose the benefits of this MCC. As a side note, any tenants displaced by this program are entitled to compensation from the program, so if the current owner is renting to someone other than the prospective buyers, expect the application to be refused. It must be vacant, owner occupied, or rented by the prospective purchasers. Third, and finally, the property must be within the maximum limits for size of the purchase. In San Diego County, these limits are currently $503,700 for a resale property, $490,000 for a newly built property being sold by a developer. In some "targeted" census tracts, specifically designated due to their low income, the qualifying limits for the purchase are higher: Currently $615,700 for resale, $598,900 for brand new properties. About these census tracts, more very soon.

Now, what is a first time buyer for purposes of this program? A buyer qualifies if they have not owned their primary residence for three years or more. This is proven via federal income tax returns. You may own another property off far away somewhere else, too far away from your job to commute, at least according to the interpretations I heard.

There is a way for people who are not first time home buyers under this definition to take advantage of this program. Remember those "targeted" census tracts I talked about two paragraphs ago? If you buy in one of those "targeted" census tracts, it does not matter if you're a first time home buyer or not. As long as you meet the other criteria, most particularly including owner occupancy, you are eligible. These targeted tracts change with every decennial census. We're in the middle of such a period now, so no changes are anticipated soon, but they do change from time to time.

Now, there are some financing limitations on this program. It is aimed at people who really can afford the loans they are getting, and so these loans must be done full documentation. Stated income loans or NINA/No Ratio loans are not eligible. In other words, you must prove you make enough money to justify the loan. Furthermore, the emphasis is on being able to afford the loan. Negative amortization loans are not allowed with this program, nor are ARMs or hybrid ARMs with an initial fixed period of less than three years. Interest only loans are allowed, but they must be both fixed rate and interest only for at least five years. Finally, because the money comes from the same place as the CalHFA and Cal-Vet loan, it cannot be done in conjunction with those loans. I think it's a better program for the vast majority of buyers anyway. For instance, the MCC can be layered with a local purchase assistance program, which those cannot.

There are two major flies in the ointment. The first is refinancing. The MCC dies when you refinance, unless you get it reissued. This involves another fee, and getting an RMCC (for Reissued Mortgage Credit Certificate), and doing so within a deadline. There are no income restrictions once you have the MCC on getting an RMCC, but if your property has ballooned in value 200% and you do a "cash-out" refinance, the RMCC will apply only to that portion of your loan that relates to your original loan amount.

The second fly is the possibility of paying recapture taxes. This program was originally established under President Reagan, and people were selling the properties for high profit in short time frames. This caused it to be de-funded, as it was painted as causing windfalls for folks. But it proved popular enough that they brought it back, albeit with the recapture provisions. If you actually sell, as opposed to merely moving out and renting, within nine years of purchase, there's a formula for whether you'll have to pay taxes on the gain or not. But the maximum possible tax is half the gain, and the money they get helps them keep the program going. It has to do with how much your income was versus the guideline you qualified under, plus a yearly five percent adjustment for inflation and people earning more later in life. This is based upon the maximum qualifying income guideline, not what you actually made when you qualifies. Furthermore, it is waived in cases of death or divorce. In general, avoid selling in years you get a major windfall. It is to be noted that the competing programs have this recapture feature as well.

When you weigh the advantages of the MCC against those of the competing programs, as well as against doing without such a thing, the value of this program to the middle income home buyer becomes clear. Indeed, this national program is probably the broadest brush, easiest to obtain home buyer assistance program there is. Funding is not unlimited, so there can be points where it may waste your money to apply, as there is no money available in your area right now. Furthermore, a lot of lenders seem to sign up to lure first time home buyers in, and then direct them to loans that are not eligible for MCC; this is a major part of what motivated me to undertake the training myself. Furthermore, it's not free. But if you fulfill the requirements, the payoff is enormously better, at a cheaper price, than anything else of which I am aware.

Caveat Emptor

what happens when house doesn't appraise?
I presume this question meant "for the necessary value according to the lender's guidelines".

Lenders base their evaluation of a property upon the standard accountant's "Lower of Cost or Market." This is intentionally a conservative system, because the lender is betting (usually) hundreds of thousands of dollars upon a particular evaluation, and if something goes wrong, they want to know that they'll be able to get their money back.

When you're buying, purchase price is cost. When you're refinancing, there is no cost basis, we're working off of purely market concerns, except that for the first year after purchase, most lenders will not allow for a price over ten percent increase on an annualized basis. Six months, no more than five percent. Three months, about two and a half. Mind you, if you turn around and sell for a twenty percent profit three months later, the new lender is going to be just fine with the purchase price, as long as the appraisal comes in high enough.

But as far as a lender is concerned, you can see that no matter what the appraisal, the property is never worth more than purchase price on a purchase money loan. There is a transaction between willing buyer and willing seller on the books and getting ready to happen. It doesn't matter if the appraisal says $500,000 and you're buying it for $400,000. The lender will base the loan parameters upon a value of $400,000.

But what happens if the appraisal comes in lower than the agreed purchase price? For example, $380,000 instead of $400,000? Then the lender considers the value of the property to be $380,000, no matter that you're willing to go $20,000 higher. You want to put $20,000 of your own money (or $20,000 more) to make up the difference, that's no skin off the lender's nose. Matter of fact, they are happy, because it means they still have a loan, where they would not otherwise.

Keeping the situation intact, if you planned to put $20,000 down (5%) on the original $400,000 purchase price, the loan is probably still doable, albeit as a 100% loan to value transaction instead of a 95% one, which means it will be priced as riskier and the payments on the loan(s) will doubtless be higher than originally thought. The same applies if you were going to put $40,000 (10% of the original purchase contract) down, except that the final loan will be priced as a 95% loan ($360,000 divided by $380,000 is 94.74 percent, and loans always go to the next higher category).

Suppose you don't have the money, or won't qualify for the loan under the new terms? That's why the standard purchase contract in California has a seventeen day period where it's contingent upon the loan (many sellers agents will attempt to override this clause by specific negotiation). If you get the appraisal done quickly, you have a choice. You can attempt to renegotiate the price downwards. How successful you will be depends upon several factors. But if you're still within the seventeen days, the seller should, at worst, allow the deposit to go back to you, and you go your merry way with no harm and no foul, except you're out the appraisal fee. This is not to say that the seller or the escrow company has to give the deposit back; they don't. You may have to go to court to try and get it back, depending upon the contract. The escrow company is not responsible for dispute resolution. If the two sides cannot agree, they will do nothing without orders from a court. If the seller wants to be a problem personality, you can't really stop them without going through whatever mediation, arbitration, and judicial remedies are appropriate.

Suppose the appraisal comes in low on a refinance? Well, that's a little more forgiving in most cases around here, at least with rate/term refinances where you're just doing it to get a better loan. If you have a $300,000 loan and you thought the property was worth $600,000 but it's only worth $500,000, that just doesn't make a difference to most loans. Your loan to value ratio is still only sixty percent, and it probably won't make a difference to residential loan pricing (commercial is a different story, and if you have a low credit score it might also make a real difference). On a cash out loan, it can mean you have to choose between less favorable terms and less cash out, however, especially above seventy to eighty percent. There are ways to prevent wasting money on an appraisal, but once it comes in, it is what it is. If the underwriter sees one appraisal that's too low, they're going to go off that value, and if you bring another appraiser in, the underwriter will usually average the two values, so even if the second appraiser says $400,000, the underwriter who has seen a $380,000 property will value it at $390,000 (not to mention you pay for two appraisals). And a low appraisal can mean that the reason you were refinancing becomes impossible, so you're better off walking away.

Caveat Emptor

Loan Quote Guarantees

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Because most loan providers will not guarantee their Federal Good Faith Estimates or California MLDS forms, I've been telling folks that the best suggestion (other than doing their loans myself, of course!) that I can give them is apply for a back up loan. But some mortgage loan providers will guarantee their quotes, and this article is about those guarantees, their limitations, and what to watch out for.

Loan officers are not the only ones who play games in the mortgage world. Borrowers do it. A lot of borrowers do it. Some are actually intending fraud, some just want a better loan and don't see anything wrong with painting their financial picture a little rosier than it is. Furthermore, there are reasons that lenders will decline loans that are not obvious. It has happened to me that I couldn't do a loan at all because of fairly obscure points that the borrowers weren't trying to conceal, they just didn't know they were important, and I didn't think to ask.

Keeping this in mind, loan providers are leery of offering guarantees, and indeed, since only an underwriter you will never meet or talk to can authorize the loan, for a loan provider to make a guarantee that there will be a loan is nonsense. The most they can say is, "Based upon my experience, I see no reason why this would not be approved," or, better, "Subject to underwriter approval, your terms will be this." That's a key phrase. Keep in mind that loan provider guarantees are few and far between, and as a result, there is no standard terminology to use. I, as a loan officer, cannot promise the loan. I can promise, however, that if the loan is approved as submitted, it will be on a given set of terms.

Now it happens that loan officers can manipulate you by submitting a loan that they know will not be approved. This is a lot of work and often "poisons the well" at that particular lender, but then they can tell you sorry, you do not qualify for that loan, but there's another one over here that you do qualify for, and now that you've already selected them, they are no longer competing on price, and they build a much higher margin into the newly proposed loan, secure in the knowledge that you're unlikely to be shopping other lenders at this point.

You can counter that by asking what the guidelines are for the loan they are submitting. What is the maximum debt to income ratio? How much income do you need to qualify? Ask them to compute it out for you, and watch what numbers they use. What loan to value ratio is the rate predicated upon? What does the property need to appraise for in order to make that happen? (This can also help you spot hidden fees, albeit rarely. Comparatively few loan officers will tell you how much it's really going to take to get the loan done.) How much time in the same line of work is required? Here's a whole list of questions you should ask prospective loan providers.

Now, as to the form the guarantee should take: It should include the type of loan, to include an industry standard name for that loan type, so other loan officers you shop with know right away what they are talking about. It should also include the cost to get that loan. How many points of origination, if any, and how many discount points, if any? How much in total closing costs? How long of a lock is included?

You should beware the term, "thirty year loan," unless the words "fixed rate" are in there. A thirty year fixed rate loan is the standard loan that most folks aspire to, but it's usually the highest rate out there. The words "Thirty year loan" describe an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM), or a hybrid ARM. A few loan officers will even describe hybrid ARMs as "thirty year fixed rate mortgages," because they are fixed for an initial period. So ask them "how long is that fixed rate fixed for?" here is an example of one way to disclose it right. So you always want to ask, "How long is it fixed for?" if they do not volunteer the information.

If it's a balloon loan, that means you have to refinance or pay it off before the end of the loan. Mandatory, required, there is no more loan after that point. If it's an ARM or hybrid ARM, you also want the margin once it does start adjusting and the name of the underlying index to become part of the guarantee. You don't have to refinance hybrid ARMs, and you're welcome to keep them as long as you like what they adjust to, but most people refinance before the end of the fixed period or very shortly thereafter.

Finally, you most especially want whether or not there is a pre-payment penalty to be part of your guarantee, and if yes, the nature of that penalty. A loan with a prepayment penalty should be a much cheaper loan than one without, as you are looking at agreeing to pay about $12,000 around here if you refinance and likely if you sell. The phrase, "What would that be without the prepayment penalty?: is one of my favorites. But you have a right to know, and a loan with a prepayment penalty is likely not as good a loan as one a quarter to a half percent higher for the same cost, without a prepayment penalty. If you already know you're going to need to sell before it expires, it needs to be more than that. So make sure you find out, is there a prepayment penalty, yes or no? If Yes, how long is it for? Is it a hard penalty or a soft one, and does it strike from the first extra dollar or only after you pay down more than twenty percent in a year? These all make a difference, and you should be aware of their nature, and it should be honestly disclosed to you when you are shopping for a loan.

Caveat Emptor

"buyers agent refuses to make offer" was a search hit I got recently. This is yet another reason not to sign exclusive buyer's agent agreements.

My guess is that the CBB is lower than the agent would like. The CBB is the "cooperating brokers" payment - that share of the selling agent's commission that will be paid to another agent who brings in the buyer.

Now, to repeat what I've said before, the listing agreement gives the entire commission to the listing agent if they bring in the buyer themselves, or if the buyer has no agent. But if they want buyer's agents to bring their buyers to this property, or if they want it to sell quickly, they'll make certain the buyer's agents have a good reason to bring the buyers by - in the form of a high CBB. Three percent seems to be average around here now, up from 2.5 about a year ago, and properties that want to sell go higher. Even the discount brokers that will settle for 1% to list (or a flat fee) will tell you to offer at least three to a prospective buyer's agent. It's not mandatory, of course. But it does work to sell the property.

Now, the default buyer's agent contracts (exclusive and non-exclusive) in my area specify a 2% commission from the buyer to the agent but state that any commission paid by the seller is to be used to offset this first. What this means is that as long as the agent finds you a property paying at least 2 percent to buyer's agents (CBB) the buyer pays zero. See Buyer's Agents: What Do They Do? for more information. (If they don't find you a property, no commission or other obligation is incurred)

Now my attitude is that as long as my buyer isn't going to have to come up with cash out of pocket for my commission, I want to move from "looking" to "negotiation". Because my contract with the buyer is non-exclusive, they are free to look elsewhere, and with other agents, cutting me out of the process entirely if I don't perform. Therefore, my motivation is to find them the property they want, and get the transaction moving. This isn't particularly virtuous on my part; That's where the incentives are. I haven't seen a CBB lower than 2 percent ever, that I can recall, except for a few greedy, almost always drastically overpriced FSBOs.

Suppose, however, Joe Realtor has your signature on an exclusive buyer's agreement. Now he's got your business locked up for six months or a year, no matter what. You can't buy anything without Joe getting paid. This creates a different incentive. Now Joe can pick and choose what properties he wants you to see, what properties he wants you to make an offer on. If you don't like his work, you are still stuck with him until the agreement runs out. If you go elsewhere and buy a property, Joe still gets paid, without really doing anything. If Joe gets two and The Other Guy gets two, and the CBB is only three, that's one percent you've got to pay out of your pocket at a minimum. Maybe two percent, because The Other Guy is going to take the viewpoint that he did the work for that property, and is entitled to the full commission. When lawyers get involved, you never know how it'll end up. My only advice to to heed Sancho Panza's words of wisdom, "Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it's going to be bad for the pitcher." The legal system makes a pretty good substitute for the stone.

So Joe Realtor thinks he's got your transaction locked up with an exclusive agreement. So he's thinking of this transaction as being in the bag, and he wants to make it as large as possible in his favor. So if the CBB is listed as 2.5, or even 2, he isn't interested. He wants three at least, more if he can swing it. He also wants the transaction to be as large as possible, by the way, and if he can think of a way to talk you into a property where the only way you can qualify is a stated income negative amortization loan, boy has Joe got a paycheck coming!

Now it happens that flatly refusing to make an offer is one of the ways to potentially break an exclusive agency agreement (the relevant legal stuff varies). On the other hand, Joe's not going to let you go willingly. By the time you've spent fourteen months in court and thousands of dollars for your lawyer, you will probably wish you hadn't, particularly when it turns out that your claim is a "he said this, the other guy said that," case, as you have no documentation. Better to just wait until any claim Joe may have is moot. Better still not to sign the exclusive agreement in the first place.

Now, if you're a seller wanting to make the best possible profit, you might want a listing contract which gives more than half of the overall commission to the buyer's agent. The larger their commission, the more buyer's agents you attract, and therefore, the more buyers. It's a "catch more flies with honey" sort of thing. Mind you, the listing agents will resist this, but until you sign their contract (which has to be exclusive, by the nature of things, at least for a given property), you are the one who holds the power to control the transaction by walking out. Don't stint the listing agent, as they're the professionals who you're counting on to help you out in marketing and negotiation. But giving incentives for buyer's agents to bring buyers to your property, instead of the one two streets over, is typically money better spent in all but the strongest of seller's markets.

Caveat Emptor

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Dissecting the "Lending Game"

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(This was written some time ago, when rates were higher, but the principles involved are the same)

Right now X is offering me a loan that looks something like this:

80/20 No down payment
On the /80: 6.5% FIXED interest for 30 years, interest-only payment option for 15 years
On the /20: 8.75% FIXED interest for 25 years (amortized to 30) 6-month lock for 1-point ($3800) refundable fee with float-down option

My response:

Devil is in the details.

Is there a pre-payment penalty?

They want 1 point to lock for 6 months? Cash, I presume? Quite frankly, the usual cost for locking in six months out is about three points. Nor is X usually that cheap on the lock (they have some excellent rates, but what they're quoting you is a market current quote for a 30 day lock. Long term rates are expected to rise, and long lock periods aren't free. There's something they are not telling you.)

What are the discount/origination on the underlying loan? How much are they going to charge in closing costs to get it done?

Will they guarantee their quoted costs (as in they eat the difference if there is one, not you)? You might want to ask them all of the questions here

A developer's condo sell out is not the most difficult loan, but it's a long way from the easiest, as well. There are a lot of lenders that will not do them. Furthermore, what's being presented to you looks much cheaper than is likely to be true. If you insist on going with it, call me thirty days before the place will be done, and I'll do a back up loan, because I don't think what they're offering you is real.

he did get back to me as to what lender X's response was:

Is there any pre-payment penalty on this loan? NO.....

What is the total refundable cost for the 6-month lock? YOU PAY 1% UP FRONT AND IT IS REFUNDABLE IF YOU CLOSE WITHIN 6 MONTHS (emphasis mine)

How much will the closing costs be to get this loan done? I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOUR ESCROW AND TITLE COSTS WILL BE. YOUR LENDERS COSTS WILL BE APPROXIMATELY $1,200. (emphasis mine)

Is the rate being quoted based upon full documentation, stated income, NINA or EZ Doc? 100% FINANCING IS FULL DOC....

Do I have to pay any discount points, points of origination, or any other points to get the quoted rates? NO POINTS NOR ORIGINATION FEE (ONLY THE 1% LOCK IN FEE OF WHICH WE SPOKE) (I prefer no points)

Regarding third party costs, can you tell me, or will the papers you send me make clear, the following third party costs:

- Total title charges: ??????????

- Escrow fee: ???????????

The builder has already assigned an escrow and title company for the property — may I use this company with the Wells Fargo loan? YES!

How much, total, will I be expected to pay X upfront, out of my pocket, to get this loan? THE $400 FOR THE APPRAISAL AND THE 1% TO LOCK IN....

How much, total, if any, will be added to my mortgage balance on top of what is quoted? ????????????????? NOTHING IS ADDED TO YOUR MORTGAGE.

If I agree to this loan after reviewing the papers, are the rate and closing costs guaranteed, and will X cover the difference (if any) between the quote and the actual final cost? WE'VE BEEN IN BUSINESS SINCE X. WE CONTINUE TO STAND BY OUR COMMITMENTS. (emphasis mine)

Now for the emphasis points, last first

-This question of is the rate guaranteed requires a simple yes/no response. This evasive reply tells you the answer is no, but that they don't want to admit it. If this answer is not yes, none of the other stuff is written in anything more permanent than beach sand somewhere below the high tide line. It's funny they mention commitments. Neither a Good Faith Estimate nor a Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (the California equivalent) is a loan commitment, or any kind of commitment at all. Regulations leave so much room for the unethical to manouever without running afoul of the law that either one of those forms is nothing more than the loan officer or company wants it to be. A few are right on, and those companies will typically guarantee their quote. More are somewhere in the ballpark, amazingly enough usually noticeably on the low side. And quite a large fraction are nothing more than an exercise in creative writing. He didn't guarantee his quote. Tell me this: Two companies are bidding on doing building work for you. Both are large firms. The first company asks you all sorts of questions about specifications, and guarantees they'll get it done for $5000, and if there's a problem on their end, they will fix it for no additional money. The second says they think they can do it for $4500. Which would you feel more comfortable with? If you know anything about building contractors, the latter is a joke compared to the former. Lenders and estimates on the initial paperwork to get you to sign up are, if anything, worse.

-I do business with this lender. Their costs are $1295 not including the appraisal to brokers, who perform some of the services they charge their clients for performing. By the time you've added escrow and title, you're roughly at the $3400 mark.

-It's easy to talk a good game to most folks who aren't experienced with how the game is played. The point of this particular game is trying to lock you in with that 1 percent cash upfront payment, so that when clients discover that he's not going to be able to deliver what he's talking about, they'll be thinking about recovering/losing that money, rather than focusing your attention on getting the best loan. This is called creating a distraction, and is in accordance with the tell you anything to get you to sign up school of thought.

When it comes time to close, he'd be licking his chops due to the fact that the client paid $3500 (or whatever one point comes to) cash upfront, and when he delivered something different, the client believes they have no choice but to agree in order to save their money. I've offered people in that situation a loan that was more than 1 point better, and they still went with the guy who had rooked them out of the 1% upfront, because they're worried about that cash when they should be worried about the rate/cost tradeoff.

He also went to the builder's lender

If I'm interested in getting my monthly payments down lower and I consider getting a 5/1 ARM loan to do so, is that a completely horrible idea, or could I refinance into another 5/1 ARM after the first five years to continue getting a pretty good rate, if for example the 30-year fixed rates have gone up a bunch in 5 years?

That's precisely what I've been doing for the past fifteen years. On the other hand, with the difference in rate/cost tradeoff being so narrow right now between a thirty fixed and a 5/1 (roughly a quarter of a percent interest rate wise), there's a strong argument to be made for the loan you never have to wonder about. Where I thought I would never have a thirty year fixed rate mortgage, I'd consider it if I were going to buy or refi right now. Don't know if I'd do it, but I'd think about it.

80/20 No-down 5/1 ARM No pre-payment penalty Total loan amount: $379,900

80%, $303,000: 5.25% fixed & interest-only for 5 years, payment: $1329.65
20%, $78,000: 9.5% fixed for 5 years, interest-only for 15 years, payment: $601.50

Total monthly payment: $1931.15

Aside from the fact that the putative loans total $381,000, which is likely picking nits, I don't believe that loan exists, as 5/1 ARMS are running up around 6.25% at "par" right now. I couldn't find a lender that is even offering 5.25, no matter how many points you paid, and that's wholesale. He attached some GFEs which show $4180 in points charges (plus $875 in pure junk fees and about $150 in well padded costs on the first loan and shorted the likely interest, in addition to all the real stuff), adds $5000 that he's evidently already paid to the closing costs, requires another $3200 plus at closing, and still comes up with final first loan of $303,920.

On the second, the loan required another $1140 in fees but a loan amount of only $75980, thereby balancing the 80/20 requirement correctly, at least, thereby negating the nitpick in the previous paragraph.

(I'd also shoot his agent for not negotiating any givebacks, given the current market, except I'm prepared to bet he didn't have one. I've covered some of these issues, precisely as they relate to this particular situation, at the end of this article), of which which I'll reproduce the relevant section here

Unfortunately, you've already (probably) put a deposit down and you said in subsequent email that the home has appreciated while it was being built, so the developer has incentive to throw roadblocks in your path. Your transaction falls through and not only do they get to keep your deposit but they can turn around and sell the home for more. Preventing this kind of nonsense is what buyer's agents are for (it also gives you someone easy to sue if something goes wrong!). Unfortunately, most developers will not cooperate by paying a commission to buyer's agents for precisely this reason, which means that the average buyer will decline to pay an agent out of their own pocket and try to do the transaction on their own, which leads to situations like this.

Now the market is falling, but it looks like to me the guy paid full asking price (since he's local to me, I can look), and the market is incredibly squishy on prices.

Now getting back to the loans, this is how lenders Play The Game of getting you to sign up. They are looking for you to build what salesfolk call commitment to a loan before they tell you the whole truth - usually by springing it on you at closing. They make it look better than it is for a while. They can do this because the only form that has to have correct accounting is the HUD 1, which comes at the very end of the process (It's usually prepared by the escrow officer. You should get a provisional when you sign loan documents and a final within 30 days of the end of the transaction). In the case of a purchase, this is usually at the last possible instant, which means that if you haven't prepared a back-up loan there is no time to get one before the deal goes south, which means your choices are limited to sign or lose the property, the deposit, and all that time and aggravation. This is providing that you even notice. Industry statistics say that somewhere around half the folks won't, and even on refinancing, where people can almost always just keep the loan they have without bad consequences, eighty-five percent or so of those who do notice will cave in and sign.

Caveat Emptor

Expertise and attitude, not control of an informational chokepoint, is the way that things are going.

Let's analyze this from both sides of the problem. The current owner looking to sell really needs a marketer. For better or worse, most of their choices have been made; their main dilemma reducing to how to get rid of the result of those choices in the most effective manner. If I were Ambrose Bierce, I'd say their problem was how to convert their mistakes into cash, because they have that property, and they want is the person willing to pay largest amount of cash possible as quickly as possible. It's worth what it's worth; mistakes and omissions can cost them a huge percentage of what the property might have sold for but it's unlikely that even the best marketing program is going to sell the property for more than it's worth. Here's a beautiful explanation why.

It's the buyer that has more need of an all-around expert on housing. They have cash or the ability to get it via a loan, and the want the property that best meets their needs for the lowest possible price. Note that nobody has an unlimited budget; despite all the attempts to pretend otherwise in the era of Make Believe Loans. Even if you're wealthier than Midas (Which many of the wealthy are, if you really think about it. Gold just sits there - it doesn't produce more wealth), you have to accept some constraints upon the property you decide to purchase, and knowledge of how those constraints compare to each other and how they work out down the road can keep you from being in the situation I joked about above, of needing to convert your mistakes to cash, later on.

But the current business models are all built around listing agency. Especially, the large nationwide chains and huge brokerages. Ridiculous as it may seem upon sober reflection, people do approach listing agents about buying property, especially the ones they have listed. I've written more than one article covering how Dual Agency is an invitation for disaster, especially for buyers, as have others, but still it happens. It's not like it's risk free for sellers, either. Some agents do get listings primarily for "buyer bait" and lose their best bait when the listing actually sells, and that's fairly benign compared to some other things that really do happen. The entire current model of agency is built around listing, with only minor exceptions around the edges, and it's mostly oriented on the big name national chains with ongoing advertising campaigns. Those chains control pretty much everybody from the NAR on down, and through the NAR's ownership of MLS. Due to the way the business is structured, It's very hard to succeed in real estate without listings, and it's much harder for independents to get listings than it is for the major chains. This is going to change, at least to a degree and possibly completely.

This whole set-up is a holdover from days when agents and brokerages could control access to market information. I shouldn't need to say this era is over, and the agent (or brokerage) that pretends they are entitled to three (or six) percent commission for access to the market is doomed, but the NAR seems to be leading the charge off the cliff, most recently with the move towards requiring agents to have hardware "dongles" in addition to a user ID and password to access the various local MLS services. They justify it as security, but what they're really trying to do is "protect agents from themselves" by making it difficult to share their MLS access with outsiders - attempting to control information. Where 99% of the information needs no access to MLS in order to obtain, this is ridiculous. Note to NAR: Most real estate information is public record, and can be obtained these days by visiting the appropriate county website. A lot of it can be retrieved automatically, via what we called "batch file" thirty years ago. There are dozens if not hundreds of places to obtain information on properties for sale, and a goodly percentage of them do not have their sources in MLS. Therefore, trying to justify what you make by creating an artificial information chokepoint is not going to succeed - all you're going to do is succeed in encouraging alternate pathways to the information.

There is no reason why any given local MLS can't have competition. The NAR doesn't own the concept - only the name. There's no reason why some smart techies can't set up their own service in competition, national or local, supported by whatever mechanism they can get to pay their bills. Furthermore, agents (Realtor or not) will line up to submit their properties to any competing service - it's fiduciary duty, after all. It's only the non-existent policing efforts of most such sites that have prevented them from taking more market share from official MLS affiliates. When this changes, so that a member of the general public can read a listing advertisement on competitor A and have some confidence that it represents a real listing, these competitors will lose most of their handicap. If I had a dollar for every time a client called me asking why I hadn't shown them this wonderful bargain they found on a non-policed site, I could pay my office rent for a couple of months at least out of it (Buyer's agent recording 2201: "Because it's not a real listing - it's someone chumming for leads, and to avoid wasting your time with salespeople advertising things they haven't got is a very small part of why you hired me"). It is only this lack of policing that is holding the competition back now. But sooner or later, those that are trying to be destination sites will figure it out. When they do, you can kiss MLS' dominance goodbye, and with it any illusions as to holding an information chokepoint.

Eventually, people will be able to put their properties on the market by going to a website and entering the information, or calling a toll free number if they're luddites. They'll need to show they are authorized to do so, but that will be the essential nature of the process. Buyers will be able to access the information for some very nominal price, like putting up with advertising or paying some nominal fee. That's where we're heading; the only items in doubt are how long to get there and what the exact pathway will be. Agents are in no way mandatory to this process of putting a property for sale on the internet or finding out which properties are for sale on the internet. The only way to survive and prosper as a profession will be to provide expertise that the average person has little to no opportunity to acquire. In other words, really learn things such that buyers and sellers of real estate can make a profit (or avoid a loss) by paying you, and make a living selling that expertise, not access to the system. Question 1: In the general economy, are there fewer expert consultants today than thirty years ago, or more? Question 2: Do the good ones among them command lower fees (even adjusting for inflation) or higher?

The issue lies in convincing people your advice really is that good. Holding an information chokepoint won't do it, and the chokepoint is going away within the next few years. But knowing what to make of that information is an expertise for which well-informed clients will pay and pay well, knowing that they'll be passing along those costs (along with a hefty markup) to those too stupid to pay. In other words, we've got to demonstrate and emphasize the fact that our compensation is an investment that returns more than it costs.

I'm not going to be saying listing is easy - it isn't. I learn more about the listing game, and how much more there is to learn, with every one I list, and not infrequently, I learn something important about listing from working the buyer's side (and vice versa, as well). As I have said in the past, I figure I'll have it completely down sometime in the next century or so. That said, the future of the listing game is easy enough to predict: How to make this property stand out amongst all the others, and how to attract the attention of the buyer who is suited to the property. Every property is unique; but for the vast majority of all buyers, there is a substantial list of properties that will serve their needs about as well. If you're any kind of a decent listing agent, you're going to be able to answer the questions of why this property is worth more to that buyer than the alternatives that are cheaper, and why the alternatives that are more expensive aren't worth the extra, secure in the knowledge that if they don't agree, they aren't the right buyers for this property and another set will be along shortly who are. If you're a top-of-the-line listing agent, you can do this without ever meeting prospective buyers. The seller's problem reduces to how to attract those suitable buyers, and the value of the listing agent to sellers lies in getting them a better offer sooner (Hint for those consumers reading this: It's not agreeing to list the property for a higher price! That's actually counter-productive on both counts).

That said, everything the listing agent needs to know pales beside what a good buyer's agent needs to take into account. I doubt I or anyone else will ever have the buyer's game completely down. It isn't that I know everything or will ever be some sort of shining exemplar of buyer's agents; I'm simply one of the best that happens to be available. I look at between 20 and 30 properties most weeks, every week of the year - 1000 to 1500 properties per year - and I learn new things pretty much every time I go looking. I learn things about the clients needs and desires by listening, and keep on listening. The future of the buyer's agent side is making sense of the information overload, debunking bogus information which lazy sellers and listing agents insist upon proliferating, and sorting better alternatives from those not so good, including knowing how to spot a Vampire Property. This starts at learning what a given buyer's priorities and needs are, and figuring out what areas they may be happy in and can best afford, and going from there to making comparisons between available alternatives.

In neither of these alternatives is simply having your real estate license and NAR membership certificate up on the wall going to help you extract an agent concession, particularly a larger one as opposed to a smaller. That license may get you in the door at the dance, but it's not going to fill your dance card. For that, you've got to bring something real to the situation, and the one thing clients are after, and always are going to be after, is expertise. Access, they're going to be able to get anywhere, but someone who really understands what's going on in this hugely complex transaction involving debt that most people are going to be paying for the rest of their life, and distills the specifics into something these clients can understand. Furthermore, agents relying upon chain affiliations to bring walk-ins to their door? The days of that happening are numbered, and the number is no more than the number of days until someone puts their ducks in the row to really compete with the MLS.

You're also going to need the right attitude. People are getting better and better at identifying shills. Even if you've got an exclusive contract, which are going to become more scarce, even those aren't forever and the chances of an agent being able to enforce it in spite of whether they helped an actual transaction or not are shrinking faster than Lily Tomlin ever did. Whether agents like it or not, it's becoming easier all the time for consumers to walk out on contracts with losers who conned them into exclusive contracts. If you want people to keep working with you, you need to demonstrate that this client's good is the most important thing in your world, and that's not something anybody can fake for very long. If they understand this and the expertise you're bringing to the table, they'll stick with you by choice unless they're con artists or agents themselves. I had one client in last year who admitted they'd been planning to ditch me for a part-time relative and decided not to because I was providing things they knew the relative wouldn't. The non-exclusive contract which is all I ask for is plenty to discourage that, while leaving them feeling free to ditch me if I don't get the job done - so I'm motivated to get the job done, and they can know they're getting my best efforts risk free for them, not to mention that it would be entirely pointless for me to try and hold them to an exclusive contract they wanted out of. It's both pointless legally and bad business - so why ask for an exclusive in the first place?

However, the real estate profession has made a horrible botch out of stressing expertise and education thus far, which is one reason why discounters have thrived by offering nothing for less. The reason for this is that it would interfere with the profits of those national chains that control NAR. They can't hire newly licensed agents that used to work fast food fresh out of the local shake and half-bake real estate school, dress them up in a suit, and expect them to bring commissions into the brokerages if it's easy for consumers to sort out who has real expertise and who doesn't. The licensing exams themselves are pathetic, and intentionally so, in order for the brokerages to have a steady supply of inexperienced shake and half-bake licensees. No math more complex than a four function calculator, and you can use a four function calculator on the test in California (which is supposedly one of the harder exams). How can it be acceptable for someone who hasn't even been tested on the ability to set up a mortgage calculation on a calculator or spreadsheet to have a real estate license? It'd be bad enough if that license didn't include the ability to originate loans, but it does. There are a couple of questions on "what is this type of structure called?" but none on usages, advantages, disadvantages or weaknesses! I understand there's only so much that can be covered in 150 questions, but the NASD has 250 questions on their series 7 exam covering a far more limited expanse of material. There is no good reason why the real estate exam should not be a minimum of three full days, and requiring all previously licensed agents to take the new exam as well. No reason except that would constrict the supply of naive freshly licensed shake and bakes (For that matter, the most important knowledge for agents can't be tested, because it's both local and changes too quickly with time. It makes no sense to ask me about the neighborhoods and market in at the other end of the state - I not only don't know, I can't take the time to learn without forfeiting the time to create and maintain the requisite market knowledge for the area I do work). Alternatively, the state can do away with licensing altogether in favor of simple registration, and let the market develop informational resources as to the competence of a given agent. Consumers would demand it, and they'd be willing to pay for it. Finally, don't get me started about all the "designations" NAR has cooked up that amount to a way to impress the ignorant and gullible ("Sell the agents the right to put some meaningless initials after their name to impress the marks!")

Above all, however, the future of real estate agency is going to be about accountability. If the industry won't develop real and reasonable performance metrics for individual agents, somebody else will. That's living in the age of transparency for you. Furthermore, you can't stand up and say you're the expert in their corner unless you're willing to defend your performance later in a court of law. Brokerages have a proliferation of forms that add nothing to the process except to make it more difficult for them to be successfully sued and distract clients from what is really important. But you can't tell the client you're an expert worthy of hiring, that's going to get paid however many thousands of dollars from their point of view, if you're going to ask them to sign fifty forms that say you're not responsible for the results of your work. Well, I guess some slick salespeople could and do, but it's hardly the sort of thing to inspire confidence in any rational client. We're neither inspectors nor appraisers, and especially not lawyers, but that doesn't absolve us of trying to solve those issues before members of those professions get involved, and do our best to help the clients understand and interpret when and if those professions do get involved. In my admittedly somewhat limited experience, ninety percent of inspector issues and ninety-nine percent of appraisal issues should be solved by the agent before there's an offer, and about the same percentage of legal problems can be prevented by agent diligence beforehand. Especially the major ones. But if you make clients sign forms that say you're not responsible for this, what are they really getting in the way of an expert they can hold accountable? And if you can't be held accountable, what are you really selling besides your winning personality? They can get a better stand up set for forty bucks down at the local comedy outlet. Why should agents make a hundred times that if they can't be held accountable for performance later? The short answer is that we've got to make this confusing process that kills a dozen mature redwoods for pulp understandable and transparent, we've got to perform by making certain our clients can show a profit on the money spent hiring us (at least in the aggregate), and if we're not to be held accountable, what real assurance does the client have that what we have represented is true? Everything we add to the process that doesn't further one of these client goals is either obstructionism or distraction from what's really important, and a counter-balancing reason not to do business with us.

Caveat Emptor

I have said repeatedly that buyer's markets, particularly a buyer's market as strong as this one, is not the time to be selling a property if you have any choice.

There is one exception: People looking to turn around and buy a more expensive property.

It's still better if their budget will stretch to hanging onto the current property while buying the new one, because when the market turns they'll still be able to sell the first property for more than they can now. Nonetheless, it's still a good idea to move up in a buyer's market if you can.

Let's do some math! I'm going to use a local example. Let's say you bought a condominium ten years ago for $150,000. At peak of the seller's market, it was probably worth about $330,000. Now it might be worth $260,000. Even if you bought with 100% financing, as long as you haven't taken cash out, you only owe roughly $130,000. Less 8% cost of selling, you're netting about $110,000 from the sale. Less roughly $10,000 for closing costs, and you're looking at having a 20% down payment for a $500,000 property, and you're still a conforming loan. In my favorite zip code that buys a really nice 4 bedroom 2000 square foot detached home with a panoramic view of the city and no Homeowner's Association! Not to mention the commute is pretty darned friendly for most folks and the public schools are top notch. Total monthly outlay, for loan, taxes, and insurance: just under $3000 per month ($2987). Income to qualify: Just under $6650 per month, and that's with a thirty year fixed rate loan that I could lock right now without any points to the borrower, so the closing costs for the loan and property would be well under $10,000. About half that, in point of fact.

Now, let's say you wait for the market to recover. Let's say everything is a straight linear computation, even though it won't be - I'll bet you money that the more expensive home goes up further, faster, not to mention relative bargaining positions of a condominium owner versus a detached property owner. Let's say the loan rates stay exactly the same as today, which they won't, because in a period of high demand and increasing prices, there's more competition for money and therefore, higher rates. If you wait for that condo to be worth $330,000 again, that property you can get for $500,000 today becomes a $635,000 property. Straight line proportionality. You net roughly $173,000, again less $10,000 for closing costs on the new property. Now you do have slightly better than 20% down payment, to be sure, but you've still got to borrow $471,000. You can either do so with a Jumbo loan, or via a conforming first with a Home Equity Loan on top of that. Even using the full $10,000 for closing costs, your rate ends up higher. Equivalent cost per month that way: $3760. Income to qualify: a little over $8350. For making the exact same exchange, under conditions that I'll bet money are going to be less favorable than this.

If you decide to go the route of the conforming first with an equity loan on top, it's a little more favorable: Assuming a 720 credit score, you can have a rate of 8.25% on a fixed rate 30 due in 15, giving you a total of just over $3650, saving you about $100 per month and cutting your income to qualify to about $8120, as opposed to the $6650 you'll need to document to make this exact exchange right now. Some people can work a little harder or longer hours, charge more for their services, etcetera, but most people make what they make. The one is less than a standard deviation over area median income; the other is almost two and a half. That's an awfully large number of people priced out. Assuming a normal distribution of incomes and given San Diego's median and standard deviations, (via Hyperstat) we're talking about the difference between 20.46 percent of the population and 1.30 percent of the population, a factor or 15 decrease. The difference between more than one family in five and less than one in 75 being able to afford said property, holding assumptions constant.

It is to be admitted that market constraints in the latter case might keep the prices down somewhat, but that's only as a counter-weight to all of the other forces, and it is quite easy for a mathematician or economist to prove that the actual equilibrium point will still be significantly less affordable than the current state of affairs. Don't worry, I'm not going to drag you through that. Nor are we talking properties that the average family can afford with this particular example, but the principle applies to every affordability range, from a bottom of the market condo to the top of the line. Nor does it take any great mathematical skill to tell you that the affordability of a good that everybody is trying to buy right now is less than that of the same good when large numbers of people are trying to sell and very few people want to buy. Think any number of hot tech gadgets or "must have" Christmas toys. Real estate isn't that much different, economically, but people can have perfectly great financial futures without the latest tech gadget. It's unlikely they will have an equally bright future without owning at least the property they live in. Right now, property is affordable because lots of people want to sell and very few want to buy, leading to a huge disparity between the number of people who could afford a given property if they wanted, and the number of people actually willing to buy, and thence to greater affordability. When a larger number of people are ready and willing to buy, the affordability will decrease. It's all a matter of simple supply and demand.

Caveat Emptor

Fear and Greed Counterpoint

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Quite some time ago, I wrote Fear and Greed, or How Did The Housing Bubble Get So Big?. I re-ran it just a few days ago, to once again illustrate what went wrong.

But Fear and Greed can keep the market down as well as send it up.

Right now, rates are pretty darned good. They're not going to shatter any records, but 5.875% on a thirty year fixed rate loan for less than one point retail is nothing to sneeze at. With a 20% down payment, a family making San Diego Area Median Income of 69,400 per year can afford monthly payments of $2600, which works out to about $433,000 for a single family detached property. That's full on PITI payment. With no down payment at all, this same median income family can afford a condo costing about $301,000, and that's with association dues and PMI included as well. Keep in mind this is the median income family, where half the population makes more, half less, no tricks, no government assistance, no stated income, no negative amortization - just a thirty year fixed rate loan where nothing changes (except in a good way, when PMI gets canceled if they have it) until and unless the consumer decides to change it. If you don't know where to find perfectly good homes meeting this criteria, and in areas with great schools and convenient commutes as well as convenient shopping, give me a call because I do. They won't be billionaire's homes in Rancho Santa Fe, but your family will be perfectly happy there. I've been lazy of late, but I have a whole category for bargain properties. As of the time I'm writing this, the most recent posting was Nov 12, 2007, and there isn't a property in the last dozen that one of the families above couldn't buy. A lot of the ones I've posted on are still on the market, though. Why? Partially because most agents have forgotten how to sell the property that fits in a budget (if they ever knew), but mostly because the media keeps telling everybody how bad things are. Hello! These are the same bozos that were telling you real estate can't miss as even a short term investment in late 2005, and running specials on "What's a fair margin for a negative amortization loan?" right up until the day Business Week ended the party by calling them "Nightmare Mortgages," and in some cases, after. Media makes their money by convincing people who don't know any better to pay attention to them so they can sell advertising space. They are not about Truth. They're about getting people to pay attention to them, and Fear and Greed $&euro££ pap€r$ and indu¢&euro p€op£&euro to pa¥ att€ntion. The cold hard fact is that prices, at least in my usual stomping grounds, are affordable for average families - more affordable than they've been for years.

It's not like there's any shortage of people that want to live here in San Diego. Nor are people packing up and leaving in droves, like they did in the early 1990s. Land itself is expensive here, the total amount available is sharply limited, and almost all of the places than can be built upon, have been. Nor are any of the municipal governments doing anything to encourage higher density so more people can be accommodated. The one city government that hasn't been completely hijacked by the "keep housing scarce so we can make a big profit when we sell" lobby is El Cajon, which even has a few older detached single family homes in decent areas below $300k, and a development of brand new 1800 square foot townhomes being sold out at an asking price of about $350,000. That same price buys about 1100 square feet right next door in La Mesa, while in the suburb on the other side or El Cajon, Santee, the best equivalent is about 1700 square feet with an asking price of about $380k. Nor do I expect the grip of the "we've got ours!" lobby (even if they do pretend it's all concern for the environment) to weaken any time soon. It's all the same to me, professionally, but folks hoping their children can afford to live here so they can see their grandchildren grow up might want to reconsider voting to restrict development next time it comes up.

Those who are counting upon the rental market to stay the way it is should rethink. The last ten years rents have stayed almost constant due to people wanting to keep the places rented, in order to have some of the mortgage offset, lest their tenants (who are usually focused upon cash flow) go buy something. Especially considering the easy credit that was available in the era of Make-Believe Loans. However, the rental vacancy factor is only 2.6%, and there are now an awful lot of people who have ruined their credit and do not have the option of buying for at least two years. Add in the fact that (as I warned almost two years ago) landlords are not seeing the huge capital gains that motivated them to keep rents low, and we're starting to see rising rents. High demand, low supply, and a significant captive market. What would you expect to happen to rents?

But until inventory starts dropping and people wake up to the high demand low supply situation we have here, it's a buyer's opportunity. Actually, I've seen considerable evidence that the high end market has already begun the process of recovery. Executives, entrepreneurs, and highly paid professionals - properties with an asking price of a million or more have an average 118 days on market, as opposed to 103 for all properties, when it's usually at least forty to fifty percent higher, not a mere fifteen. Of the properties that have sold in the last six months, the average days on market was 81 for sales prices in excess of a million, as opposed to 71 overall, again a 15% differential, and the percentage of listings over a million ask that sold was within 1% of the overall figure, which is highly unusual, because the people that make enough money to qualify are a very small part of the population. Nor can they get 100% financing - it doesn't exist right now for those properties. I've got lenders that'll go up to three million residential, but even full documentation they want to see a minimum of 10% down right now once you get over a million dollar loan, no matter how good the credit. (Loans under the conforming limit, it's still pretty easy to get 100% financing done, so long as you're full documentation of income)

My point is this: The only thing holding the local market back right now is mass psychology. Fear and Greed being fed by the mass media, just as they were being fed when the market was rising thirty percent per year. There are more people that want to buy than there are properties available - particularly properties below half a million dollars. It's just Fear of losing some money, albeit temporarily and only on paper, and Greed for an even better price, that is keeping people on the sidelines. Meanwhile, those sidelines are getting more and more crowded all the time with people "waiting until the price is right." When Fear and Greed stop holding people back, it's quite likely going to look like the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

Unlike the Oklahoma Land Rush, nobody's going to shoot "Sooners" this time. Actually, I'd expect them to welcome you the same way potential buyers have been welcomed these past two years, with low prices and a lot of seller cooperation, because until the both the market turns and the average seller realizes it, buyers have all the power in negotiations. And there really isn't a reason other than Fear and Greed to be hanging out on the sidelines. We've all seen how Fear and Greed can hurt when the market is rising. If you wait until it has become obvious that the price fall has reversed itself, well, you're not going to get directly hurt, but you will have missed what may be the period of lowest prices from this point going forward for the rest of most people's lives.

Caveat Emptor

I got an email raising a lot of issues. Some I'm going to deal with very quickly, others I'm going to spend some effort on, but nothing as in depth as a full article would have. I'm going to keep referring to material found in Credit Reports: What They Are and How They Work

I'm going to take the email in chunks:

Turns out I made the Two-Loan choice myself, independent of your article, a couple years ago. I was motivated to get a conforming first loan (~$322K @ 5.75%), and put the other ~$45K of a prior mortgage into a HELOC (besides, the HELOC rate was lower than the 30-yr fixed at the time!).

Well, times (and HELOC rates) have changed, and I now have ~$65K on my HELOC, and relatively tight budget.

That was 2003. considering that I had 30 year fixed rate loans at 5.375 percent or lower without any points for months and 5.25 for literally zero total cost for about one, you likely paid more than you needed to. There was a period in late August when rates spiked up, but I was calling the same clients back in December and into 2004, asking if they wanted to cut their rate for free. No prepayment penalty, no points. Those would have lowered the rate further.

HELOCs (Home Equity Lines Of Credit) have the disadvantage that they are month to month variable, based upon a rate that is controlled by the bank. On the downside, you're somewhat at their mercy. On the upside, the rate is based upon that lender's Prime Rate plus a margin fixed in your loan papers. They can't change your rate without changing everyone else's also. There is absolutely no legal reason I'm aware of why they can't set prime at twenty-four percent. There are plenty of economic reasons. Unfortunately, given the high demand low supply of money currently, the banks are competing for new business with a better margin, not a lower prime. They didn't cut rates every time Greenspan's Fed did, but they have religiously boosted prime every time the overnight rate has gone up since the Fed started raising it. Banks are making a killing in real historical terms right now with variable rate lending.

Fortunately, in most cases it's pretty easy to refinance a HELOC. Credit Unions are a great place for this; variable rate consumer credit is where they shine. There are some internet based lenders where you can obtain no cost, easy documentation HELOCs at rates right around prime, or even a bit below if you have the credit. Most HELOCs also have interest only options for five or ten years. Brokers really don't do a whole lot for HELOCs except keep lenders honest; there is not enough money in them to make them worth chasing and the lenders won't pay for them the same as for first trust deeds; it's too easy to refinance out of them. (Brokers can beat the stuffing out of credit unions on first trust deeds, however).

Unfortunately, your credit score is a problem now:

I have multiple credit card companies offering me low introductory rates (some 0%, some 2%) for short terms (up-to 1 year).

Why would I NOT want to take them up on their offer?

In truth, I've already done this a number of times in the past 12-18 months, always at 0%. So I've learned the "minimum payment" trade-off (and I wish congress hadn't forced CC companies to raise their minimum payment requirements!) [ last year, one fine bank only made me pay $10/month on their loan of ~$10K! Now I'm seeing minimum payments of 1-3 %]

The difference between cash flow and real cost, and the fact that each time you accept a new credit card thus, it is a MAJOR hit on your credit. Let's say you have two credit cards now that you have had for over five years, and get four new ones. Your FICO score modeling goes from over five years to about a year and a half on your length of credit history (the average of your accounts, except that five years is the maximum you get credit for an account). Open four more six months down the line, and now you have ten, with an average time open of just over a year. Furthermore, since most people move as much as they can into the new credit accounts, this gives major credit hits for being essentially maxed out on a card. Thirty to forty points on your FICO score per card, perhaps more. You say you've been doing this a while. Not to mince any words, I wouldn't want to have your FICO right now.

There are always two concerns when you're looking for the best deal. Minimize your costs, of which interest is far an away the largest, and be able to make your payments. I don't know if you have other payments here, but if so I would do everything I could to live cheaply enough, long enough to use the money I save to make a difference on both of those scores. In your position, I'd sell any cars I still have a payment on, just to get out of the payment. This is a concern I've been telling people about since 2003, when the rates on everything were so cheap. There is more than one way to do things, but you have to be prepared for the consequences of the way you chose. I had some clients up in Los Angeles about July of 2003. They wanted to cut their payments. I gave them the option of a conforming loan (like yours) with a HELOC, and they took it. As soon as the loans funded, the wife called me and said I deceived them about the loan, and they wanted me to pay for another loan. Unfortunately for their contention, I had a piece of paper in the file with their signatures saying exactly what I tell everyone else about this situation, that the rate on the HELOC is month to month variable and subject to change, and that they understood this was a risk and they elected to take it. It looks like you went in with your eyes open, but the risk didn't work out as you hoped. I'm trying to think of other strategies to help you out, but other than "live frugally for a while", it's all little stuff around the edges.

Tonight I'm "running the numbers" on whether a 2% rate (nondeductible) is better than an 8% (tax deductible). And according to my simple calculations (I'm an engineer, not a financial advisor!), it's a no-brainer (go for it!). For the $40K currently on the HELOC (other $25K is already temporarily in 0% accounts), the one-time transfer fee ($50-90/transfer) and lower interest amount (~$70/mo) is ~$200/month less than the deductible interest-only (minimum, ~$435, @ 8%) HELOC payment, AFTER adjusting for the tax deductibility (@ 30% [fed + state], ~$130 on $435).

My plan is that in months when my "income"/cash flow cannot cover all the minimum payments, I'll just use a HELOC check to cover the difference. That is, slowly transfer SOME of the debt back to the HELOC. But in the meantime, my theory goes, I'm paying down my principle faster than if I was just making "extra payments" on the HELOC.

Yes, in most cases you will make more progress, faster, this way, but at such a long-term cost as to make it prohibitive, particularly if you have to leave the credit lines open after you transfer the money out six months down the line. Lots of very silly folks do all kinds of weird and non-remunerative things because it's a deduction, but deductions are never dollar for dollar. If that were the only concern, 2% nondeductible beats 8% deductible by a huge factor. Given what's going on in the background, however, kind of a different story. All these newly opened lines of credit are going to drag you down for years. Make certain to pay it off before the adjustment hits; one month at 24% will kill almost all of your savings. Two months at 18% will more than kill it. Given what your score has likely dropped to, I'd bet that it's closer to the former than the latter.

I also finally had a 0% application turned down, due to "too much credit already, for your income level". So I imagine having all these cards may be hurting my credit score? But I'm not going to re-fi my house (or buy a new car?) anytime soon, so I think I don't care.

I imagine you're going to care. FICO scores require care and tending and time to rise back up. Close off any cards you opened for the zero interest period that you have paid off, and that will mitigate the damage. Keep only a few long standing accounts. But a large amount of damage is already done. When Credit Card companies are saying that, your FICO has dropped big time. Without running your credit, from the foregoing information, I'd guess you are below the territory where I can get a 100% loan, these days, even sub-prime (lower 500s). You might be below 500, where only hard money can lend to you.

Another concern is that HELOCs have "draw periods", usually 5 years, and you're about three years into yours. I'd be very certain to move it all back into the HELOC prior to the expiration of the draw period. Your credit card options are already getting worse, meaning that you're not getting the cards or not getting approved for enough to be useful. The HELOC's rate, by comparison, is set by a margin in an unalterable contract, and you're not going to be able to qualify for a new HELOC that's anywhere near as good while those card accounts are open. Move the money back in at least a couple months before the draw period expires and close the credit cards, and you might be able to get a new HELOC on decent terms.

Your credit is always vitally important. Guarding a very high credit score is something worth stressing about. You never know when you might need to apply for credit. Most credit cards, nowadays, can alter your rate if your score drops or if you make one late payment anywhere, not just on that card. A good credit score saves you money everywhere, from borrowing to insurance. In your situation, I'd be stocking up on pasta and Hamburger Helper while seeing what I could do to increase my income, so I could live cheap enough to pay my bills down enough that I'm not squeezed. It's your life, but that's the way I see it.

Caveat Emptor

(For full disclosure, the original email is below in a body).

Hi Dan,

While using Google to seek the wisdom of others regarding my current financial situation, I came upon an article of yours, and have now read at least a handful of others. In particular, "One Loan Versus Two Loans" caught my attention.

Turns out I made the Two-Loan choice myself, independent of your article, a couple years ago. I was motivated to get a conforming first loan (~$322K @ 5.75%), and put the other ~$45K of a prior mortgage into a HELOC (besides, the HELOC rate was lower than the 30-yr fixed at the time!).

Well, times (and HELOC rates) have changed, and I now have ~$65K on my HELOC, and relatively tight budget.

I have multiple credit card companies offering me low introductory rates (some 0%, some 2%) for short terms (up-to 1 year).

Why would I NOT want to take them up on their offer?

In truth, I've already done this a number of times in the past 12-18 months, always at 0%. So I've learned the "minimum payment" tradeoff (and I wish congress hadn't forced CC companies to raise their minimum payment requirements!) [ last year, one fine bank only made me pay $10/month on their loan of ~$10K! Now I'm seeing minimum payments of 1-3 %]

Tonight I'm "running the numbers" on whether a 2% rate (non-deductible) is better than an 8% (tax deductible). And according to my simple calculations (I'm an engineer, not a financial advisor!), it's a no-brainer (go for it!). For the $40K currently on the HELOC (other $25K is already temporarily in 0% accounts), the one-time transfer fee ($50-90/transfer) and lower interest amount (~$70/mo) is ~$200/month less than the deductible interest-only (minimum, ~$435, @ 8%) HELOC payment, AFTER adjusting for the tax deductibility (@ 30% [fed + state], ~$130 on $435).

My plan is that in months when my "income"/cash flow cannot cover all the minimum payments, I'll just use a HELOC check to cover the difference. That is, slowly transfer SOME of the debt back to the HELOC. But in the meantime, my theory goes, I'm paying down my principle faster than if I was just making "extra payments" on the HELOC.

Seems so obvious when I look at the numbers, that I cannot figure out why more people aren't doing it, or at least talking about it!

Why does a thorough website like yours not say anything about this (that I could find anyway)? Is it just to keep those low-rate credit offers coming? Am I missing something? I am really the only person to ever think of doing this? I also finally had a 0% application turned down, due to "too much credit already, for your income level". So I imagine having all these cards may be hurting my credit score? But I'm not going to re-fi my house (or buy a new car?) anytime soon, so I think I don't care.

Thanks for reading this far. If you post an article on this topic rather than replying, will I get a least a pointer to it in reply?

Again, thanks for considering a comment on my situation!

Identity withheld pending correspondence approval

Most days I get loan wholesalers coming into my office. I'm always happy to talk with them, providing they want to talk about what I want to talk about. They usually want to talk about this gimmick and that gimmick and the other gimmick. They feed me lines about service and fast turn around and quick approvals and loan commitments. Ladies and gentlemen, these are all things that every lender should be capable of, and if someone hoses one of my clients, I'm no longer interested in doing business with them. Now, everybody makes mistakes, it's how they deal with mistakes that I am interested in. I'm very forgiving if they make their mistake good, completely unforgiving if they do not.

What I want to talk about is two things. The first is loan programs nobody else has, or that nobody else has in that category. Suppose a lender has a program to deal with people in default just like everyone else with only a small penalty. I'm all ears, and I make certain that goes into my database. I expect the rates for the underlying program to be higher, but that's cool. I'll price loans with them anyway, and if they're the best I can do for the client, I'll use them. Next time I have somebody in default, though, they get my first call, because they've got something nobody else does, or very few do.

The second thing I want to talk about is price. A loan with given terms is the same loan no matter who is carrying it. So long as they are both legal, my client sees no difference between National Well-Known Megabank and Unknown Lender from Nowhere. The loan is the same. If the rate is the same, what's important to my client is how much they have to pay in order to get it. This comes back to The Trade-off Between Rate and Cost. If one lender's par pricing is a little bit lower, I can either get the client the same rate cheaper, or I can get the client a lower rate for the same price. There is otherwise no difference between standard loan terms for the standard loan types. I can get the client a lower rate if they'll accept a prepayment penalty. If they want a true zero cost loan, the rate will be higher. How much higher or lower? That varies with time and the lender involved. But except for the rate printed on the contract and the cost to get that rate, these loans are the same.

Now wholesalers don't want to talk about price, and they don't want to compete on price. If they're competing on price, they're making less money in the secondary market. Less money for the same work. I can't blame them. Suppose I walked into your office and proposed cutting your pay by somewhere between twenty and fifty percent? Somehow, I don't think most of you would appreciate it. But now turn that around, because you're in my office now, shopping for a loan, and you want the loan with the terms you want at the best price possible. If I get a lower price from the lender, I can pass it on to you. I can maybe even make a little more money while still saving you some money. Aren't you entitled to a bonus when you make money for your company or their clients? Ask yourself this: If I saved you $1000 and $20 per month over the next best quote, would it break your heart if I made an extra couple hundred? When I'm out shopping, it doesn't bother me at all. By delivering the item on better terms to me, that company has earned whatever money they make.

This doesn't mean I necessarily look for the lowest price. Many times I'll buy something that is close to the top of the line? Why? Because it has something worth more than extra money to me. What is worth extra money in real estate? Getting you a better bargain. You spend three percent instead of one, but your $500,000 home sells for $25,000 more, or it sells when it perhaps would not sell under a less aggressive marketing plan. $25,000 minus 2% of $500k ($10,000) is $15,000 in your pocket because your agent can afford to market and negotiate more aggressively on your behalf, never mind the difference between selling and not selling. Can a full service agent guarantee a better result? No. But I can tell you through personal experience that I find it much easier to get a better bargain for my clients who are buyers from someone who listed with a discount brokerage or flat fee place, and my clients are probably going to think I'm superman before the deal is done. But note that the difference in price does have to be justified. A loan is a loan is a loan, as long as it's on the same terms.

A couple days ago, I got an email calling my attention to someone calling me an "alarmist", and furthering that with an accusation that I was trying to paint everyone else as a crook. Nope. There are a large number of basically honest practitioners out there, and a significant number of scrupulously honest ones. But there are also a fair number of people out there who, like my loan wholesalers, don't want to compete on price. Do I blame them? In most cases, no. As I said the day I launched, this is the way they were trained and they don't know a better way is possible. Plus they want a larger amount of money for the same work rather than a smaller. Many of them resist changes for the better for the consumer because it means they will make less money for the same work. Seems like every day there's a seminar advertising that they'll teach agents and loan officers how to attract clients without competing on price.

Well, suppose someone makes enough money per transaction to be happy, even though they are competing on price? Then what they want to do is attract more business, which is a part of what I'm trying to do here. More importantly, I'm trying to give you, my readers, the tools necessary to get yourself the best possible bargain. Nor am I trying to tell you that I'm purer than the driven snow, and I don't think I ever have. That is for you to judge with the tools I put out, and there's no way to know for sure unless and until I do a transaction for you.

How far you want to go with these tools is up to you. Real Estate transactions are the biggest transactions most folks undertake in their lives, and as a consequence, small percentages tend to be a lot of money by the standards of lesser transactions. If you only want to do a few easy things, they should save you some money. If you want to do the work for the whole nine yards, they should save you a lot more. But when you have the tools, you are better armed consumers, more likely to get bargains that are better for you, given your situation. Like all tools, they are to be evaluated on the basis of how well they do the job. If they are used properly and nonetheless fail you, you are right to fault them. If there are tools that do a better job, you are right to use those instead. But to say, essentially, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" is not the optimal response to the issue. Through issues clients and potential clients have brought me, I have encountered every single issue I raise here. There not only is a man behind the curtain, you need to keep your eyes on him and you need to learn how best to deal with him. That is what this site is about.

Caveat Emptor

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but lots of people will pretend there is.

It seems to me that many people consider compensation earned by real estate agents as paying some kind of toll. They think of it as admission to the world of MLS, to showings and writing offers. Kind of like a tollbooth on a road somewhere. If there's another place just down the road that offers the same access cheaper, it makes sense to pay your access fee there.

If you think of what an agent or loan officer makes as a toll, just a cost of getting into the arena, it makes sense to go cheap. If you think of it as a payment for knowledge, expertise, service, someone who not only helps you CYA and prevents major mistakes, but makes a positive difference to the result, a different dynamic emerges.

There are existing offices modeled after every level of service from zip on up. It costs them nothing to say "Full service for a discount price," but that doesn't make it true. Like a certain ex-president who "did not have sex with that woman!" you have to consider what definition they're using in making that claim. If sitting in their office with MLS access and a fax machine is "full service" for them, by their lights they are providing "full service for a discount price." Remember how in my loan article Questions You Should Ask Prospective Loan Providers, I listed a whole bunch of questions the intent of which was to nail down how much of the truth they were telling you, and whether they intend to Guarantee their quote, you want to ask prospective agents what services their fees cover. Among other things, this exposes the "full service for a discount price" claim to be yet another Great Lie on the level of "I gave at the office," "The check is in the mail," or "Yes, I'll respect you in the morning."

The bottom-most level is essentially a fax machine and MLS access. I've met some where the fax machine was purely a service that converted email to and from from fax. I've even met some where I suspect they didn't have MLS access and were working off one of the free public real estate sites. They never leave the office; all they are about is access. This level might be good for you if you know as much as a good agent, like say, you were a good agent but lost your renewal application in the mail. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for an experience like my first purchase.

Above that is the level of service that actually help you with paperwork. They still never leave the office, but at least they've got access to WinForms and some kind of checklist for paperwork. They're still not helping you with your investigations or marketing, but at least you might get some kind of more or less complete list of the disclosures you're required to make as a seller, while as a buyer you're going to be quite firmly told to get an inspection. Not that they're going to be there for the inspection, or help you interpret it, or help you figure out if maybe you need something more. They may or may not be aware of a large percentage of traps for the unwary that lie in these documents and the inspection, but at least they help you with the most basic level of CYA.

Assistance in negotiation may or may not become an option at this level. Since the ones at this level never go out and look at property, they can't have any real clue as to its virtues and faults, especially as compared to whatever else has sold in the area in the last few months, but at least they have may have enough of a clue as to general market conditions to keep you from making or accepting the wrong kind of offer. This is the level of the CMA, or comparative market analysis, which takes somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes and about the intelligence of Mongo from Blazing Saddles. At least you shouldn't make an offer or accept an offer that is completely and totally off base for your type of property in your area. The higher up the ladder of service you go and the more involved with the specifics of your market and your property the agent is, the more valuable this service becomes. Top agents that know enough about the property and the "comparables" can potentially negotiate the other side ten to fifteen percent (or more, in a market that favors you) from the numbers that someone using a lesser agent might be stuck with. I know because I've seen it happen - I've made it happen or not happen, and in one case, seen the next buyer pay more than fifty thousand dollars more than the contracted price I negotiated for one buyer who suffered an attack of insanity at closing.

At the next level above paperwork, you've got the agent who may go out and visit the property. For a listing, they're going to measure your property, take some notes for the listing, and maybe give some advice as to how to stage it or put you in touch with a stager. For a buyer, they're more or less willing to open the front door on properties you've told them you want to view. Both sorts will make the effort to sell the property, the listing party more than the door opener. The listing agent's client is only happy when the property sells while most buyers bristle at more than a certain level of sales talk. In both cases, however, they're trying to get that buyer to sign up with them, preferably (from their point of view) with an Exclusive Buyer's Agency Agreement, so the pressure won't be real high in either case. This is also the level at which open houses become something that agents really want to do, in order to snare buyers' business. It is to be noted that there are a lot of agents who think they really are providing as much service as any other agent with this level of service. They aren't. They're still clueless or nearly clueless as to how it compares with everything else on the market in the area, or that was on the market, because they haven't gone and visited any on their own.

Somewhere along about this level of service and above, the agents may actually be willing to get out of the office to meet the inspectors and appraiser. After all, they've now got a negotiated agreement and it's in their interest to further the transaction so that they can get paid. They may also help you interpret what all of these reports say. Not necessarily; but at least it starts being a possibility, rather than pushing all of this off onto the clients or the other agent. This is where a lot of lawsuits start, so many brokerages actually prohibit their agents from being present at inspections - at most they can open the door and leave. I'm not a lawyer, but if I'm presenting myself as being an expert at real estate, not being present for the inspection seems to be evidence of gross negligence, just on the face of it. On the other hand, if the clients are representing themselves as being competent in this area in order to receive discounted service, that's fine with me. I actually make more per hour of my time with less legal liability.

Above this level of service, the services provided by good listing agents and good buyer's agents diverge dramatically. So much so that they cannot even be meaningfully discussed at the same time. Since a listing agent is essentially a marketer while a buyer's agent is charged with analysis and comparison among alternatives, this shouldn't surprise anyone. They are different functions at the heart, and many agents who are very good at one are considerably less proficient at the other. Fact. I can point to great listing agents who are putrid on the buyer's side, and vice versa. Often, it's as simple as attitude. Some listing agents can't stop thinking like listing agents, while some buyer's agents can't stop thinking like buyer's agents, and they are completely different thought processes. It took me a while to learn this, and I can point to a lot of agents whom the evidence indicates have not yet done so.

For the listing agent, the question largely resolves to pricing, plus what degree of staging and precisely how much marketing they are going to do. Note that even the most exhaustive marketing campaign is not likely to get more than the property is worth, but it can mean you get top dollar instead of significantly less, particularly if you price it correctly and have the property ready for the market when it hits the market. Pricing too high to begin with "to see if you can get it," is the mark of an inferior agent "buying" the listing, as you won't be likely to get the higher price and it will almost certainly reduce the final sales price by more than any lucky windfall might be. Particularly in the buyer's market most of the country has right now. These are all obvious things of value - when that agent spends time and money marketing your property, they're spending their own resources, not yours. How to word an advertisement, when to run it, where to run it - all of these are expertise. Go check out how much marketers with far lower sales who don't use their own resources and who draw a salary get paid make in the corporate world before you make a snap judgment as to whether it is or is not worth the money. Here's one example, and keep in mind that this is only a part of what a good listing agent does.

On the buyer's agent side, the question is more singular: How much property scouting are they going to do? Are they going to wait until the client asks to check out a property or are they going to go check out every possibility in the market? Are they going to go out on their own to eliminate definite turkeys before telling you about the cream? Still more important is are they going to tell you about good and bad, reasons why it's good and why it may be deficient, on every property, but that's something you can only observe in action. This is the paramount and unanswerable reason why you shouldn't sign any exclusive buyer's representation agreements unless you are so certain of this agent that your spouse can tear your arm off and beat you to death with it if you're wrong. They need to cover what the property has and what it doesn't, and what it's going to take to bring it up to an acceptable level where it is deficient. Structural flaws, basic amenities, floor plan, lot layout, etcetera, not to mention location location location. Not just now, but for any future sale that you might later decide to make. This whole thing is so time intensive it can't profitably be done on any basis other than the complete combo package of buyer's agent services, and it requires a level of expertise and market knowledge that cannot be acquired on the fly, and aren't cost effective to learn for one transaction. You'd make maybe thirty cents per hour. I might believe fifty or even seventy-five cents per hour in a high cost area like San Diego. However, if you have an agent with this knowledge and the right attitude, there's nothing else that will make nearly so much difference, both in terms of price and in terms of final satisfaction with your purchase.

If you don't want "the full package", that's fine with me and every other agent I know of who's capable of the full package. As I said, we make more per hour with the lesser packages even if we get paid less. But we can also work with a lot more buyers wanting less intensive service, or a lot more sellers, and make more money overall. Furthermore, it's a lot easier for someone who makes a regular habit of doing "the full package" to perform lesser services than it is for someone who doesn't to perform greater. That market knowledge we get from the other clients we have? It doesn't magically disappear because this client isn't paying me to run around scouting properties. Usually I'm working with multiple clients in my area and while one wants the whole nine yards, another doesn't. Just because I'm not scouting for you doesn't mean I'm forgetting about all the stuff I scouted for someone else. But someone who doesn't make a habit of it is working from the same zero base I'd be working from outside San Diego County.

Somebody once asked me about Hourly pay instead of commission for agents. Just as you'd expect, agents can charge less if the client is going to pay an hourly rate for their time regardless of whether there is a transaction. That's called transaction risk, and is a real risk of this business - the chance that, if you're paid on commission, you can spend dozens to hundreds of hours with someone, as well as lots of money, and not make a thing. If the client chooses to bear the transaction risk, that's fine with me, and they'll at least have the opportunity to pay me less for a successful transaction - although they'll still pay the cash if there's not. As I just wrote, that's the risk they are choosing or not choosing to take. Neither agents nor clients can have it both ways. The cash alternative is potentially a lot less expensive, but I haven't met a whole lot of people who like the idea of writing me a check for actual dollars they earned and saved without any certainty of a happy outcome for them. When you get right down to it, most clients do not want to assume transaction risk. But neither agents nor clients can have it both ways.

Some agents have huge lists of what they do, specifying point by point all the services they provide, splitting the services up into the largest number describable to make it seem like more. Others lump them together by more general categories, and may do anything that belongs within the due diligence and responsibilities they agreed to, where the "splitter" figures since it wasn't covered, they aren't doing it. Nonetheless, either way is basically valid. A written representation that they perform specifically named services obligates them to do so, but there is rarely a significant difference between someone who does that and someone who lumps them into more generic categories. I suppose it's all a matter of whether you want someone with a detailed checklist and someone who goes around looking for something they might have missed even though it may not to be on a checklist - but it applies to your transaction.

You may have noticed that I haven't attached any specific numbers to any of this. That's because it's both variable by market and negotiable within a market. The more services you want, the more money the agent will want to make. Ditto with resources, both time and money, you ask them to invest. If you're determined to get the best bargain you can, you need to shop agents and compare their competence and their attitude as well as their price. If you want to negotiate pay with a professional negotiator, well I've got admiration for your chutzpah. Plus I have to admit that it's a fair test of those abilities. Even if those negotiations turn out bad for you, imagine where OJ Simpson would be today if he had a cheap lawyer. Or Britney Spears. Or Bill Gates, the massiveness of whose fortune lies in one legal victory over IBM, as well as his lawyers outlasting the government anti-trust lawyers at a later date.

My service bundle is 100% negotiable, and not being a slave to NAR or the brokerage oligarchy that controls it, I'll fight any effort to change this. My understanding is that any such effort is doomed under California law (at least), but I am not a lawyer and I'll defer to other expertise there if it wants to chime in.

But I do think it reasonable that agents and brokerages be forced to specify what services they do and do not offer, and what they are and are not responsible for in a given transaction, at least by category. Good full service agents do this now. The next dedicated discounter I see who does this will be the first. The very services which are most time consuming and lead to the largest liability are the very ones that dedicated discounters will not fulfill and will do their darnedest to pretend don't exist. But they're also the ones that make the most difference for most clients, and would rank as most important for those clients if they were asked to rank them.

Caveat Emptor

One of the most common things I'm seeing as I roam about the East County looking for bargains: Agents not doing their jobs.

Now single family detached homes that are priced appropriately are selling, and for appropriate prices, even at forty plus sellers per buyer. Condominiums aren't moving unless they are brand new with lots of glitter, but appropriately priced detached homes are selling. I can find all of the evidence of this you would care to see, because I've already seen it. Willing buyers and willing sellers. It's just that what an appropriate price is has shifted.

Let's change mental gears here for a moment. Here's the real differences between sellers markets and buyers market: Competition. Specifically, which side of the sale is competing. In seller's markets, which is the mindset most sellers and most listing agents are still in, buyers are competing to buy the properties that are for sale. Because of this it is the buyers who have to compete to look attractive - highest offer, quickest offer, fewest contingencies. They have to offer more money or a bigger deposit or something else that the seller needs and nobody else wants to do. With the buyers market we have now, it's the sellers who have to compete, and most of them are not doing it very well.

I want to make very clear that sellers are always competing against other sellers, even in the strongest seller's market possible. But in a buyer's market, it's not enough to have your property "out there." In a seller's market, the prices will often catch up to unrealistic asking prices, given time. In a buyer's market, prices are not increasing, and in this strong of a buyer's market, they are going down. In other words, the longer it takes, the worse you look. You have to have some stand out aspect to your property. It can be physical attractiveness, or it can be low price. Price will get buyers in the door, but it takes a strong agent to sell a fixer to the average buyer, no matter how attractively priced, because the scumbag with the office down the street will show them something a more attractive that they really cannot afford, but with a negative amortization loan, done stated income, they can make it look like they can afford the payments, and a buyer who hasn't had this explained to them ahead of time will think they've just gotten the Taj Mahal for the price of a dirt floor shack, except of course, they haven't. And the other way to stand out is to be priced the same, but more attractive. Don't tell buyers you'll give them a carpet allowance, replace the carpet. Don't tell buyers that all they have to do is spend two months and $20,000 fixing it and they'll have a property worth $20,000 more. That won't wash in a buyer's market, if it ever does. The party who does the work, even of engaging a contractor, gets the payoff. Why should your buyers take the risk and do all that work and spend $20,000 cash that most buyers don't have (and cannot be part of the purchase money loan) when they can go down the street and find all of that work already done for maybe $10,000 more - or even the same price? I assure you it's happening all over San Diego County right now. Some seller just out-competed you for that buyer's business. The only good news for sellers is that most of your competition isn't trying very hard yet, so small bits of competition can look very attractive.

Even lenders are still in denial for their owned properties, and they are the ones with the hardest issues of all. They must get rid of the property. They don't have any choice. Even if it was in the same shape as surrounding properties - which it rarely is - they have a deadline to get rid of that property, and everyone knows it. They also have other constraints that other sellers do not. These make the property worth less, as they rule out certain buyers and make others less willing. In a buyer's market, every buyer counts. I had two clients putting in offers on different lender owned fixers in the last two weeks. One might comp out at the asking price of $450,000 if it wasn't lender owned - which automatically makes it worth about ten percent less than the comps. Add the fact that it's an ugly fixer that would be worth maybe $400,000 at most if it wasn't lender owned, and they will be extremely lucky to see $360,000 out of it. Not supposition, not guesswork, fact. The fact is that there's a beautiful owner occupied comparable on the same block asking $459,000. It's even a bit larger. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the beautiful comparable would take $450,000. Actually, I just checked again and the beautiful comparable is in escrow now. One owner that competed well, one that is not competing well. I told the agent for the lender's fixer this, and she said, "I've been in this business forty years and I know what I can get for that property!" I offered to bet her $10 she couldn't close escrow on it within ninety days for over $390,000 net - essentially a zero risk bet from my point of view. From hers also, if she thought the property was really worth more. She wouldn't take me up on it. Furthermore, she's violating her fiduciary duty by not explaining this to her client. Doesn't matter how long she's been in the business. What matters is whether she reacts well to this market.

About five miles away, another lender owned fixer asking $480,000 because that's what the lender is on the hook for. And you know, it is a better neighborhood. Unfortunately for them, just because you were silly enough to lend them that much two years ago when the market was peaking doesn't mean someone else will pay you that much for it now when the market is in the tank. What matters is the comparable properties, and there's one just around the corner that anyone would rather have listing for $470,000. Above par house for a below par price. Hasn't gone into escrow yet, but it will go fairly soon, unless someone else lists a better property cheaper, and they might even get a little bit of a bidding feud on it, despite the strong buyer's market. This lender owned fixer is in rotten shape and has several issues that turn the average buyer off. I initially thought my client's offer was lower than it should have been, but the more I thought about, the more I think my client came closer to the mark than I did initially. Horrible floor plan, necessitating major work to make it attractive. Yard not suitable for children, despite the fact that there's a school on the same block that the agent is using as a "come-on". These people will be lucky to get anything over $350,000 for it, but the agent sent me a blanket, "Anything less than $400,000 will be rejected without counter," despite the fact that I explained how much work it will be to bring it up to the neighborhood standard. I left her some messages, and she didn't respond. The implication to me was clear: She is in denial, and doesn't want to hear plain facts explained. She's got dozens of REO listings - maybe because she was a great bargainer in seller's markets, maybe because she knows someone, maybe some other unknown factor. She's not dealing well with this market. I don't know if she doesn't know market conditions or just acts like she doesn't. If nobody puts an offer in good enough to get past the blanket rejection, it doesn't make much difference, does it?

This the times when good listing agents really earn their money, as the gentleman listing the $470,000 comparable is. It may not be the great publicity of getting the highest price ever in the neighborhood, but getting it sold quick and for something like asking price in this market is a real achievement. Especially with as many distress situations as are out there - people that have to sell, for one reason or another. (I'm doing very well for my buyer clients, but it's depth-charging fish in a barrel. You really find out how good someone is when the market favors the other side of the transaction.) There are dozens of FSBO and discounter listed properties in the neighborhood, sitting on the market for months. The last six months of Canceled, Withdrawn, and especially the Expired sections of MLS have all that and more, but that one property is going to sell quickly, and sell for a good price. That agent has already earned every penny he will get paid, and it isn't even in escrow yet.

The person who "buys" listings, telling the people that they can get them more money than anyone else, more money than the market will support, had a nice long run. When prices are moving up strongly and there aren't many houses to be had and everyone wants one, well a monkey could sell that house at that price given enough time, because given a few months the market will catch up to all but the most egregious of overpricing.

That is not the way things are now. Buyers have all the power, and they know it, because buyer's specialists like me have told them if nothing else. Inventory is over nine months worth of sales at the current pace, more properties are coming on the market and the worst time of year for sales is approaching. Given these facts, What do you think is going to happen? Where do you think the market is headed, at least in the short term?

(and incidentally, what kind of bargains do you think those few buyers willing to get off the sidelines can drive?)

The longer listing agents wait to talk some sense into their sellers, the worse it's going to be. The more days on market, the further the market falls, the more the sellers will have to move to meet it - and the more unhappy they will be with their listing agents. The agents I respect will refuse a listing rather than ask for a price they aren't going to get except by freak coincidence. They get the same no transaction either way, but if they refuse the listing, they haven't created unreasonable expectations, they haven't failed to live up to those expectations, and neither party has wasted months finding out what that agent should have known in the first place.

Now, I've seen agents telling people that because interest rates have stabilized or even moved down, that will revive the market. This is complete and utter nonsense. I initially wrote something stronger, but my internal censor really wants to keep this family friendly. Yes, payments drive the market - when it's a seller's market. Buyer's markets are driven by the bottom line, because there are lots of sellers and only a few buyers and if this seller won't cut them a deal, the one down the block who is a little more motivated will. When every listing gets three offers within a week and buyers are getting desperate, they'll bite off on another $1000, $5000, or $10000 because "It's only $10 (or $50 or $100) more on the payment. They shouldn't, but they will. When buyers have the power and they know it, they'll tell the sellers to pay that $10 per month, because they're not paying the extra in the first place. It is the sign of someone who does not understand supply and demand to think otherwise, and I certainly wouldn't want that sort of numbwit as my agent. Your agent is your expert. If they are not an expert, why are you hiring them?

Now, looking forward. What's going to break the logjam and get the market moving? Well, absent sudden 25% inflation or something else equally unlikely, the current market has the effect of adding to inventory while those who can afford not to sell drop off. We've had over a year of this now, and a lot of would be sellers have discovered that they don't have to sell. They can stay in the home, or they can rent it out or let some family members use it. The ones left are looking an awful lot like a listing interview I helped another agent with today. Negative Amortization loan, darned near a $4500 real monthly cash flow requirement, equity all gone, and they comparable rentals are all around $1800 per month. There is no way on earth these people are coming away with any money, and the longer it goes the worse it will get, but he said another agent told him they could get an amount that's at least $60,000 over market, just by comparable listing prices, never mind what they're actually going to get an offer for. No, he didn't sign up with us, quite predictably. He's been told what he wants to believe, and this other agent is going to put him another $10,000 or $20,000 in the hole, and nobody would be happier than me if that other agent had a liability for what they're going to do to this client.

So with more people that have stronger reasons to sell, very large inventory with more coming onto the market, and buyers quite aware that they have a level of power they haven't seen in over a decade, what's going to have to happen in order to change this? Basically, that inventory is going to have to clear. It can go one of three ways: the owner finds an acceptable alternative (increasingly unlikely), the owner decides to get serious about competing for a buyer's business, or the lender takes it over. I've mentioned that the lenders are evidently still in denial, but they have legal requirements to dispose of those properties within a certain amount of time. The closer they get to that time expiring, the more desperate they'll get. Once the regulators climb onto that lender's back, they don't climb off cheaply, nor easily. Quite frankly, if I were a major lender, I'd take the entire thing as a write off if someone offered me a dollar any time in the last week, and I think some lender's listing agents are going to have rude awakenings before this is all over. I'm strongly considering sending my agent's resume out to some lenders. But my real point is this: Sellers can compete on the individual level any time they want to, and the sooner they want to, the better off that individual is likely to be. Eventually, the seller's aggregate is going to have to compete much harder for the business of the buyers that are out there, and for the buyers they want to lure off the sidelines. It took a long time to sink in, but the fact has sunken in to prospective buyers that the market got overextended. You can ameliorate your expectations and come out as well as possible, you can hope for the bigger fool of a bygone day, or you can take it off the market, if you have a sustainable situation. There aren't a lot of sellers with sustainable situations out there right now.

Now, one word about rapacious buyers before I go. I know I've said you've got the power. But if you or your agent has done your homework, when you settle upon a property that you're going to make an offer on, that usually means it's more attractive to you for the money than anything else. There is a strong temptation, given the current market, to low-ball just a little too hard. Don't do it. Everything I've said about unrealistic sellers ending up with no transaction applies to you also, albeit less strongly. There is a point below which every seller out there will tell you to take a hike, no matter how desperate they are. If they owe $350,000 altogether on a $450,000 property, sure, they could it to you and be out from under at $350,000, but the vast majority of folks will see that you want every last penny of the equity they thought they had, and they're going to tell you to do something rude, vulgar, and otherwise unprintable in a family friendly format. They will lose the house outright, and take major long term hits to their credit, before they do that. In this case, you end up with what the unrealistic seller gets: Nothing. Exactly how much should you bid? Ah, that's part of the Art of Buyer's Agent-Fu. In other words, it varies, and it takes more information - sometimes a lot more information - before I can give a good answer in a specific situation. The answer is never guaranteed, which is why it's an art, not a science. But I can guarantee you'll find out about the downsides of poisoning the well in this fashion if you step over that ill-defined line.

Caveat Emptor

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

Over the course of the last few months, I've gotten mass messages from basically every lender I do business with, saying it's time to "get back to basics". About a week ago, my favorite A paper lender became the last to do so. This is a company that to the best of my knowledge, never offered a negative amortization loan, never had a stated income loan for 100% of value, and was steadfast about avoiding all the problem loans that the rest of the industry dived headfirst into. As a result, not only could they offer beautifully clean underwriting and rates that varied from pretty darned good to absolutely unbeatable, but they're sitting pretty today, their loss rate being not significantly higher than it was five years ago, and what little difference there is being attributable to declining values that are a background to the industry rather than loose loan practices.

My response to each and every one of these messages, however, has been, "What do you mean, back to basics?"

The dynamics of how to create a happy customer never changed. Oh, you can make them happy right now by getting them into the beautiful McMansion they have no prayer of really affording. But debt to income ratio isn't just for the lender's protection. If you use one of the many tricks available to circumvent it, you can video-record them jumping up and down with excitement and crying for joy on move-in day, but they'll also remember you all through the long process of losing the property, and by the time it comes to move-out day, they'll know that you failed to do your real job. What do you think the prospects of referrals and repeat business are? Well, maybe referrals to attorneys and repeat business from the FBI fraud unit, but those aren't things most of us want.

Many people, sometimes surprisingly sophisticated people who should have known better, were ignoring critical factors about personal finance and economics because after six to ten years of the housing markets going crazy, it must have seemed as if the laws of economics had been somehow repealed. Nope. Not ever going to happen. They're a bit more complex than physics such as gravity, and they are subject to distortion through mass psychology in the short run, but the bottom of that canyon is still waiting, no matter when Wile E. Coyote looks down. You'd think people would learn something through experience after a few repetitions.

Yes, most people want the huge mansion on 64,000 acres. People want hot and cold running servants and manna from heaven, too, but very few people get it. But there are reasons things like that are beyond the means of the average person, particularly in high demand urban areas where all the jobs are. Most of us have budgets that won't stretch to any of the above, and we're better off understanding this fact from the get go. As real estate agents and loan officers, it's part of that fiduciary duty we learn about getting licensed to make them aware of these facts as they pertain to real estate and mortgage loans, not encourage them to stretch beyond their means for a property and a loan they can't really afford.

During the era of make-believe loans, it became possible to pretend that somebody could afford a bigger, more expensive home than they really could. Many alleged professionals, both agent and loan officer, became aware that they could make the easy sale and a much higher commission check by fudging a number here and a key fact there. They made quite a good living by doing so, rationalizing that if they didn't, somebody else would. Those agents and loan officers who stayed on the right side of things lost a lot of business to people who didn't. And it's always possible to talk a bigger better deal, and the last few years have taught those of us who don't how to deal with those miscreants. But whether you believe in karma or not, stuff like that will come back around to bite you. It's one of those laws of economics that can't be repealed by the legislature. One way or another, their time of reckoning is coming. We all know what happens to those hogs at the trough.

So it's not "back to basics." Basics have always been there. Basics has always been the way to make the clients happy, not only on move-in day, but for the rest of their lives - long after the neighbor who didn't pay attention to basics has lost their home and their financial future to the foreclosure process. Basics, and explaining how they benefit the client, is how you build a real book of business, instead of one-time scores that are going to have you fighting lawsuits from jail. This has never changed, and it never will. Basics are the world we all live in, and when you understand them, you understand why.

Caveat Emptor


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