Dan Melson: March 2008 Archives

Beautiful House, Country Feel, City Close!

General: La Mesa, 3 Bedroom, 1.75 Bathroom


What's Wrong With It: Dividers between kitchen, living room and dining room. You get some traffic noise outside. Facade needs paint.

Why It Hasn't Sold: It's out of the way.

Who it's Not Appropriate For: Fixers and Flippers, because there's really not much left to do.


Selling Points: There's so many trees on the street that they almost block the view. Large lot with back yard deck and garden - perfect for parties. Detached two car garage, semi-circular driveway with enough room for at least four cars. Inside is beautiful, too. Hardwood floors and lots of light!

Who Should be Interested: This would be a great place to live! Good schools for families!

Why it's a Bargain: I would expect a property like this to have an asking price eighty to a hundred thousand dollars higher than it is.


What I think I can get it for: $460,000.

Monthly Payment examples: I've currently got a thirty year fixed rate loan available for qualified buyers at 5.625% with one point!

With no down payment: VA 30 year fixed rate loan at 5.625% one point (FHA 97% financing) payment $2648, (APR 5.753)

With 20% down: Fully amortized payment of $2118 (APR 5.762).

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 $460,000 the property would be worth approximately $750,000. If you held it those ten years before selling, you would net about $360,000 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, Buyer's Agent
Action Realty Inc
9143 Mission Gorge Road, Suite A
Santee, CA 92071
619-449-0723 X 116

One of the things that sticks out about buyer's markets is that there are two sorts of listings: Those who are willing to do whatever it takes, anything it takes, to get the property sold, and the other who apparently just likes having the property in MLS.

Many listing agents have made a habit of telling people that they can get more for the property than the next person over. Well, some can. But there really is no secret as to how they do it. They have the discussion to price the property correctly in the first place, and if the listing price isn't appropriate, they will not take the listing. I don't list many, but if someone is insistent upon a listing price that is too high for the market, I am better off not being part of that listing. Even if it does sell after two major price reductions for less than I likely would have gotten straight off, that client is going to be angry, not happy, and tell everyone it's my fault.

Indeed, if there ever is a market where listing agents can reliably get more than the value of the property, something I am pretty sure doesn't exist, the buyer's market is the furthest thing from it. What a good listing agent can get you is the full value of the property, but that's a very different value, and a very different mindset, in a buyer's market than it is in the seller's market San Diego had for most of the last decade.

Now, you need to ask yourself, "Why is this a buyer's market?" The answer is as simple as supply and demand. High supply and Low demand. Many people who want to sell, not very many at all who want to buy. Result: Those few buyers who are willing to be out there have all of the power. If this particular seller won't take the offer they make, the next one over, or the one after that, will.

Now most sellers would agree that this is a challenge. Buyers think it's great. This last week, sellers still outnumbered buyers almost thirty to one. Inventory is off from peak and buyer numbers are up, but the statistics are still not favorable to sellers.

What's a seller to do about this? Quite simply, ask yourself if you have to sell or if you have other options. If you have to sell, make up your mind that you are going to do whatever is required to make a transaction happen. This can be a lot: cleaning your house up, making it attractive, pricing it better than the competition, and not kidding yourself. The offer you are going to get still won't be anything like what you might have gotten three years ago, but three years ago the ratio of sellers to buyers was about three to one, often less. You will be much more likely to get an offer, and remember, you decided that you need to sell.

Lest you think you aren't competing with other sellers, go find a real expert in your area to help you right now. In the entire history of the United States real estate market, no buyer ever bought a property because it was that seller's "turn." You are always competing against other sellers, but this market makes it far more obvious. Buyers make offers on your property because something is attractive to them where other properties are not. This can be features, this can be location, this can be willingness to do what other sellers are not, or this can be price. Usually it's a mixture. In this current market - remember that ratio of sellers to buyers - it's likely to be all four in great heaping gobs.

If you don't need to sell, get it off the market! If you are not going to accept a much lower price than it might have gotten even eighteen months ago, you are wasting your time. Those few buyers who are willing to get off the sidelines are bottom feeding and bargain hunting. If you have a better choice than feeding the bargain hunting and bottom feeding buyers, take it. If your property sits on the market, then when the market does turn back, the fact it sat on the market is going to count heavily against you. The agents in the area know that it sat, believe me.

If you are not willing to do what it takes to sell, get it off the market. Not only are you sabotaging your own future plans, you are adding to all of the excess inventory that's out there as a glut on the market. Indeed, for every additional property for sale in the neighborhood, people who are willing to do what it takes to sell the property are going to have to do a little bit more. Most often, this means "settle for a lower price than they might have gotten otherwise." Just the fact that there are 238 three bedroom houses listed in the same zip code gives buyers substantially more leverage than if there were fifty, or twenty. This drops the market that you are hoping you can use to sell the property two or five years from now, and gives it further to come back, which means that the pricing level will be lower when you go to sell yours for real. Individually, they may not make much of a difference, but collectively, they certainly do.

If you do need to sell, get all traces of the seller's market we had for most of the last ten years out of your head. This isn't about pride, this isn't about profit, this isn't even about breaking even or paying off the lender completely. This is about stopping the damage. We have established that if you do not need to sell, you shouldn't have your property on the market in this environment. But you do need to sell, which makes the alternative of taking less than you think the property might be worth better than the alternative of losing it completely. And make no mistake, for as long as this market lasts, that is the attitude I (or any good buyer's agent) am cultivating in my buyer clients. If you won't sell, I'll talk to your lender after the foreclosure - if someone else has not already sold to me by then. Right now in San Diego, the only power sellers really have is the power to say, "no," and if your alternative is losing the property to foreclosure, a rational, informed person will pay thousands of dollars out of their own pocket instead, accepting offers way below what they owe on the property. And if that or something similar is not your alternative, then why in the heck is your property on the market? Why are you contributing to the apparent glut of supply to no good purpose?

Caveat Emptor

>broker incurred 19 inquires in 1 week dropping my score.


I'd go the full Penn and Teller on this one if I wasn't trying to stay family friendly. The law is clear on this one, and practice is fully compliant with the law. I've seen thousands of credit reports, sometimes with dozens of recent mortgage inquiries. It could be 1, 19 or 19,000 inquiries. As long as they are all mortgage inquiries, all inquiries within thirty days count as one one inquiry. And the credit reporters and credit modelers I'm familiar with all comply.

Now, the best and the worst loan officers are brokers, who shop your loan around to multiple lenders. But you don't even have to stick with one broker, and you are silly to do so. Shop your loan with half a dozen at least, and apply for two or more. As long as you control the appraisal, the most you'll pay is a retyping fee, and you can play them off one against the other to see which delivers the most of what you want the fastest.

This used to be a real issue. Years ago, there would be a game as each inquiry was a hit to your credit, so prospective mortgage providers would run your credit again and again, until they drove your score under some noteworthy creditworthiness break-point. They could still use their original report, but since anybody who ran your report after that would see a 678 instead of a 686, or a 572 instead of 588, it would be unlikely that they could provide as good a loan.

However, a few years ago the National Association of Mortgage Brokers sponsored legislation in Congress to change this. It was hardly altruistic of them, people not having their score hurt by multiple inquiries means that they are more willing to allow brokers a chance to compete. Nonetheless, this was a major benefit for anyone who wants to be able to shop around for a mortgage like they might want to for any major purchase, and mortgages are the second biggest purchases most people make in their lifetime (the biggest being the property the mortgage loan secures!). No matter how selfish the motive, however, they still did you a major favor, as someone who might want to have a mortgage someday even if you don't now. Tell your mortgage broker thank you for that.

Now there is a limitation to this, and ironically it affects credit reports run at banks and credit unions, although not brokers. Because in order to qualify for this, the inquiry has to be run under a provider code that says, "inquiry for mortgage." Mortgage broker inquiry codes all say "inquiry for mortgage," because that's the only type of credit they've got. But banks and credit unions give loans for other purposes also, so they have a minimum of two inquiry codes, one that says "mortgage inquiry," and one that says, "general inquiry." If you are talking to a loan officer at a bank, who does car loans and credit cards also, sometimes they use the wrong inquiry code, and it counts as another inquiry. Talk to four banks, potentially four inquiries. Talk to four brokers, unless you space them out by 30 days or more, it's never more than one inquiry.

So anybody who tells you not to let other mortgage providers run your credit because they might drive your score down is either unaware of the law, or simply trying to scare you because they are frightened of having to compete. Incompetent or a liar, one or the other - maybe both. When you get right down to it, they are really telling you that their loans aren't very good. Because so long as they are done within a few days, the fact is that any number of mortgage inquiries all count as precisely one inquiry.

Caveat Emptor

Pro-rated Property Taxes

| | Comments (0)
my prorated property taxes came were paid at closing but now I'm getting a delinquent tax bill

You mean they were supposed to be paid at closing.

There are two major possibilities:<

1) They were not, in fact, paid

2) They were paid, but were miscredited, or they were properly credited, but your county goofed anyway.

Look at your HUD 1 form. Lines 106 and 107 are for buyers reimbursing sellers for taxes. Lines 210 and 211 are for tax liabilities incurred but not yet paid. Line 1004 is taxes and assessment reserves, and I've also seen extra lines in section 900 used. If it is listed as paid, contact your escrow company to determine if it was paid in truth. Sometimes the escrow company messes up. If the escrow company tells you that taxes were paid, double check with the county. Sometimes the payment was misapplied to the wrong parcel, sometimes it was correctly credited, but due to the fact that government bureaucrats get paid the same whether the job is correctly done or not, they just aren't up to date. Sometimes time will repair the problem, but it's not something to count on. Get a statement from the escrow officer that it was paid, receipt number this or in conjunction with escrow number so and so, thus and such date, in the amount of $X. In some cases, you may have to get a copy of the canceled check to prove that it was paid to the county's satisfaction.

Do not allow this problem to sit. It will only get worse, and you could find yourself facing tax liens, tax foreclosure, or a situation where the lender then pays the taxes to protect their interest, and follows up by presenting a bill to you. They'll charge you interest for any amount they pay in defense of your interests and theirs, plus a fee for the trouble they were put to. I've never had it happen to me or a client, so I don't know how high the interest is, but it's not cheap.

Property tax liens take first priority over basically everything. It takes a while - potentially years in California - before they can condemn the property for unpaid property taxes, but once they do start the process, all of the protections you have against lender foreclosure are much weaker against property tax foreclosures. Lenders are therefore understandably nervous about delinquent property taxes, and they typically want to take action pretty quickly. Don't let it get to that stage. If you have to, you're better off paying them a second time and applying for a refund than letting it get to the point where the lender feels obliged to step in to protect their interests.

Caveat Emptor

Older Cosmetic Fixer!

General: La Mesa, 2 Bedroom, 1.75 Bathroom, 1 optional room


What's Wrong With It: Everything is at least 25 years old. The kitchen is basically original.

Why It Hasn't Sold: Ugly surfaces everywhere. Needs lots of cosmetic work.

Who it's Not Appropriate For: People who want something turn-key.


Selling Points: Great neighborhood, easy freeway access, kids have easy walk to elementary schools. Backyard is large enough that I almost missed the pool! Plenty of room to expand the structure if you desire.

Who Should be Interested: Smaller families, particularly with young children. Long term investors.

Why it's a Bargain: Same old story: People want stuff that's already brand new and beautiful. If you're willing to be the one who creates beautiful, that's an opportunity.


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 5.625% with one point!

With no down payment: VA 30 year fixed rate loan at 5.625% one point (FHA 97% financing) payment $1842, (APR 5.769)

With 20% down: Fully amortized payment of $1474 (APR 5.782).

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 $250,000 in your pocket (not including increased value from updates!), assuming zero down payment. As opposed to renting the $1800 per month most comparable currently available rental and investing the difference at 10% per year tax free, you would be approximately $230,000 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, Buyer's Agent
Action Realty Inc
9143 Mission Gorge Road, Suite A
Santee, CA 92071
619-449-0723 X 116

The Best Loans Right NOW

5.625% 30 Year fixed rate loan, with one total point to the consumer and NO PREPAYMENT PENALTIES!. Assuming a $400,000 loan, Payment $2303, APR 5.759! 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 percent even!

Best 5/1 ARM: They're more expensive than 30 year fixed rate loans for the same cost this morning, but they do go down to lower rates if you absolutely have to have it. 5/1 ARM rates 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

Don Henley has a fun song off his second solo album called "Driving With Your Eyes Closed". I can't find a video performance, but here's an MP3. It's got a chorus that ends with the line, "You're gonna hit something /but that's the way it goes."

A lot of what I read about the real estate markets reminds me of that song. Mostly, people are looking in a rear view mirror myopically, and think that's going to tell them where the market is going. Not so.

Let me tell you the most important "secret" about the real estate market - or any other market. Short term results are mostly about mass psychology. People are so into what is happening right now that they will react to it the same way as everyone else without thinking, whether it's fear and greed driving the market up or fear and greed driving it down. The short term, in real estate, is this year, next year, and maybe the year after. But the actual real estate transaction is expensive. It can cost you a couple percent just for the transaction to buy real estate, seven to ten percent to sell, so you've got to clear ten to fifteen percent higher price just to break even on the costs. Those costs will more than pay for themselves, but they are there. An average year in my market is about 5% up, and 20% up in one year is one of the best years local real estate has ever had. Short term flippers work by different parameters than most consumers, but these are the market factors most people have to deal with. It takes about three average years to break even on the costs you have to pay for the transaction.

This is enough to take the majority real estate investing out of the frame of the short term market, controlled by mass psychology, and into the realm of the medium to long term market, where psychology is a factor, but as time goes on, more and more of your investment results are controlled by pure economics. Supply versus demand. What people who want housing make. What the interest rate environment is like. Oh, and don't forget the effects of government and public policy. When somebody says, "The market has dropped in the last three months, therefore it's going lower" that is no more correct than the opposite which we had four or five years ago: "The market has been going up - five percent in the last three months alone! Therefore it's going to keep going up!" In either case, making this sort of claim is functionally equivalent to blacking out your windshield and driving by the rear view mirror. "You're gonna hit something, but that's the way it goes!"

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a national market for real estate. It does not exist, and anybody who claims it does is either so clueless as to the nature of real estate markets that you should pat them on the head and say, "That's nice dear. Now run along and play with your Duplos&trade," or they are actively lying. There are factors such as the interest rate environment that influence real estate markets nationally, but there is no national real estate market. In order for a given area to be considered one market, the properties within them must be functionally equivalent for the residents as to location. Let's look at the City of San Diego: No way is San Ysidro, right by the Mexican border, functionally equivalent to Del Mar Heights, thirty-five miles away along the coast on Interstate 5 just north of all the corporate buildings in the Golden Triangle, and neither is equivalent to Rancho Bernardo, which is about that same distance north inland along I-15. All three are part of the City of San Diego, and we haven't even gotten to the suburbs yet, they are three very different markets, with different demographics, different lifestyles, different building styles and all that that implies. For my real estate work, I specialize in and around the City of La Mesa, which borders San Diego on the east, and is different from all three previously described areas, and there are areas of La Mesa which are decidedly different from other areas of La Mesa. These markets are close enough physically to have market interactions, but different enough to constitute different markets - never mind Idaho, Georgia, or Vermont, which are not part of the local commuting area. Talking about a unified countywide market is occasionally a useful fiction, as there are interactions. People are able to commute from home to work and back again, no matter their respective locations within the county. Talking of a national real estate market is blatant nonsense. At most you can talk about a national amalgamation of local markets - a statistical hash of what is going on in all of the individual markets. Even right now with real estate markets in the tank in all the headlines, though, there are local real estate markets that are doing very well, and others that are poised to do so.

You can talk about national factors influencing all of the local real estate environments. Interest rates, lender requirements, legislation in Congress, federal rule-making in general, all of these have a national influence. The markets themselves remain local.

For longer term analysis, you've got to talk about the economics of an area. Current supply versus demand, and where that ratio is going. What do people in the area make? What is the regulatory environment? How difficult is it to build more housing? What are the population trends? What is the economy of the area doing? What are the factors influencing rental price and availability? How likely is any of this to change in the future? It doesn't matter whether people are getting "priced out" or even how many people are getting "priced out." People have been priced out of Manhattan for decades; it hasn't stopped Manhattan real estate from rising in value. What does matter is whether enough people with the economic ability to pay the current prices are available to buy up the new inventory that hits the market. It doesn't matter that people who bought twenty years ago could not afford to buy their properties at current prices. What does matter is that enough people who can afford it will buy to more than balance out the people who want to sell at current prices.

So while you can talk about national trends, any given property sits in a particular local market, and any discussion of whether to buy a given property has to be rooted in the local market situation. National trends may have an influence upon its value. If interest rates go to eight percent, people can only afford about seventy percent of the loan they can afford if interest rates go to five percent, so falling interest rates are a time of rising prices, other things being equal. Of course, we've had falling interest rates the first three months of 2008, and that's not the case. The explanation is that there are stronger factors at work.

Nonetheless, if a million people want to own property in an area (say, La Jolla) and only 40,000 people can, then the price will be determined by the 40,000 people willing and able to pay the most. If twenty million people want to live in San Diego County and only three million can, the prices will be determined by the three million people willing and to pay the highest prices. End of discussion. Not all properties in all locations are equally valuable of course, but the mix will be determined by what prospective buyers are willing to pay the most for. Note that not all costs are in dollars. Sometimes it's opportunity cost, sometimes it's any number of other costs, such as the risk of earthquake, the heat when the Santa Anas roll in, etcetera. Some people absolutely require living in a six bedroom 3000 square foot house, and if they can't afford the prices those command here, they'll go elsewhere despite the fact that they could easily afford something less expensive. Others will put up with living in a broom closet so long as they can go surfing every day.

Analysis focusing on a market's short term results are largely a study in mob psychology. Three years ago when property was overpriced locally, I couldn't slow people eager to follow the other lemmings with a locomotive. The last year or so, with available property prices well below historical trendlines locally, it's taken entire battalions of wild horses to pull people off the sidelines due to media coverage. But mob psychology is a changeable thing. A co-worker and I were talking about modifying an old T shirt the other day. The original version has two vultures sitting on a tree limb, discussing the negative utility of patience: "Patience MY ASS! I'm going to KILL something!" (pardon the vulgarity.) We're going to change the second line to "I'm going to BUY SOMETHING!" That's the mood of the market we're encountering now. The people who have been holding off seem to have realized that this is about as good as things are going to get for them. Maybe they're tired of waiting. Maybe they've realized things are more affordable for them now than they were in 2000, let alone 2004. Maybe they got "priced out" during the bubble and want to move before it happens again. Once you buy, it's not like the seller can come back and ask you for more money later because it turned out to be such a wonderful bargain - you're locking in your cost of housing. Putting it under your own control forever. The vultures are starting to swoop.

Analysis on a local market's longer term prognosis have to ignore mob psychology. It's unpredictable on that scale, and nobody ever knows just when it will turn, or how. But there's only so long mob psychology can trump practical economics, which is the norm that any particular market will follow ever more closely the longer you run the experiment. With the recent decline in values, San Diego has dropped significantly below long term value trends. This means that considering current supply and regulatory barriers to increasing it, demand of people who want to live here, the values that those people can afford to pay, and increasing demand for housing in San Diego, not to mention the changing dynamics of the rental situation (be prepared for rapid increases in rental rates), right now is an excellent time to buy, as prices are below where you would expect, given the longer term factors influencing the San Diego regional housing market.

Articles which consider only short term price fluctuations are looking backwards as we go into the future. They're looking at where we've been, not where we're going. And as always when you're effectively driving with your eyes closed: "You're gonna hit something, but that's the way it goes..."

Caveat Emptor

First off, let me make something very plain. All a CBB can do is give good agent an incentive or disincentive to look at the property. A high one will not, by itself, sell the property. A low one will not prevent it being sold. Buyers, being interested in their own bottom line, will persist in choosing the property that offers them the best property for their purposes at the lowest price, and agents with about an hour in the business should understand this. I not only cannot sell a buyer on a property that isn't at least as good a bargain for them as the competing properties, I won't try. It's contrary not only to my client's interest, which should be the ultimate consideration of any agent, but it's not in my interest either.

Now with that said, you really don't want to do is give agents a reason to sell the other property instead of yours. A cheap CBB does not motivate the agents to work. Suppose a boss told their workers "You will be paid $10 for every green widget you sell. You will be paid $15 for every purple widget you sell." Assume the widgets are identical in every way except color. How many green widgets do you think would get sold versus purple? Sure, they'll sell green if the customer wants it, but that's not going to be what they suggest first. If a customer came in the door wanting a green widget, they'd get a green widget. But if they walk in the door and aren't sure they want a green widget, the sales staff will quite predictably see if they can sell them the purple widget first. If they can, the green widget sits unseen, untried, and unsold.

In real estate, the person who sets that compensation is the owner of the property. There are lots of properties out there, even in a seller's market. Do you want your property to be treated like a green widget, or a purple one?

This isn't evil. Agents have to eat, pay the mortgage, pay expenses, etcetera, and we don't make as much money as people think. Even less so than most people, agents don't get to keep every dollar their company gets paid for their services, and they don't get paid instantly for waving a magic wand. It takes time, work, and expertise - I've spent six months, hundreds of hours, and over a thousand dollars just in expenses working with clients to close a deal. If the company gets paid $10,000 and the agent has an 80% split (better than most), they get $8000 gross. Less monthly desk fees, less per transaction fees, and less fixed expenses of staying in business, that's maybe $6500, and social security eats twice as much of that as normal, leaving about $5400 - and we haven't even considered income taxes or advertising yet. For a solid month of work, and who knows how much time looking before the clients made the offer that was accepted. With practically unlimited liability, and requiring continuous training and work to keep their edge. If it takes 3 months in all, that's barely minimum wage, and most agents work sixty hours per week at a minimum. Quite often, we've got to reduce our commission to put some money back into the transaction so it can close. Sound like a cushy sinecure to you?

Of course, most agents are working with more than one set of clients at a time, but as you can see, a $10,000 commission doesn't translate into a huge windfall for the agent. If the company only gets paid $8000, that translates into maybe $4100 that the agent can use to pay their family's living expenses and taxes. Which do you think they'd rather have, the bigger check or the smaller? Ask yourself what you'd do in their place. If it's a question of the smaller check or nothing at all, there's no question, but there are a lot of properties competing with yours for the available buyers, and more coming onto the market all the time. Do you want to give agents a reason to try and sell your property, or a reason why they'd prefer to sell someone else's property?

With all of this in mind, a screaming deal will sell. You don't have to worry about whether or not the agent is going to be on your side. Buyers will beat a path to your door, with or without an agent. However, pricing your property as a screaming deal is not something most rational owners want to do. They want to get top dollar for that property, and it takes at least ten percent below the rest of the market - more likely fifteen - to get attention as a screaming deal. I've said this before, most notably in How to Sell Your Home Quickly and For The Best Possible Price, but this is fifteen percent off the correct asking price, not the owner's fevered dreams of greed. The average CBB around here is three percent. So, save three percent to lose fifteen? Not something I'd do. Furthermore, you're not going to put up a CBB of zero, no matter how low it's priced. I've explained before why the seller pays the buyer's agent. Finally, if you end up needing to give the buyer an allowance for closing costs to get the property sold, you're quite likely giving out with the other hand the same money you withheld in the first place, as buyers paying their agent is a closing cost. Why not put it out there in the first place, where it is likely to do you some good?

The differences a higher CBB makes for the seller are three: You don't have to worry that buyers needing to come up with cash to close for their agent will impact buyer cash to close, you get more attention for your property more quickly and more consistently, and you don't have to worry about buyer's agents creating reasons not to buy your property. Put yourself in this situation: Most buyers are reluctant to pull the trigger on a half million dollars. They need some good hand-holding and reasons to buy, and instead, their agent is looking for a reasons to help convince them why they want to buy some other property instead. Do you think it might take longer for the property to sell? With carrying costs of somewhere around two-thirds of a percent per month for most properties, if a CBB a half percent higher gets the property sold three weeks faster, you are ahead of the game. The time difference will almost certainly be more than that, and - statistical fact - the longer your property sits unsold, the lower the price it will sell for.

If you want to offer a low CBB, that's your prerogative. The property had better sell itself enough better than anything comparable to still the doubters - and practically every buyer is a doubter. The lower it is, the worse it will be, the longer you'll have to pay carrying costs, and the lower your final sales price. A low CBB, especially in conjunction with other factors about the listing can advertise to buyer's agents that you aren't ready to sell yet, warning them of a difficult transaction. If I can find a model match with an obviously motivated seller around the corner, why should I take my buyer to yours? We're going to get a better price on the same thing with the property around the corner, there will be fewer issues with the transaction, and the fact that I'll make more money even though my client got a lower price is pure bonus for being a good agent. Call it karma.

On the other hand, offering a significantly higher than average CBB doesn't work as well as some people seem to think it does. It definitely won't sell the property for more than it's really worth. Furthermore, it raises all kinds of red flags in my mind, and, I imagine, in the eyes of most agents. "Why do they think they need to offer five percent when the average is three?" springs to mind pretty much unbidden. Most often, the property is overpriced. Almost as often, there's something wrong with it that only an experienced investor is going to be able to deal with - and experienced investors don't pay top dollar for a property. Ever. Quite often, there's something unrepairable detracting from the value of the property. It might get the property sold much more quickly - most agents have some investors I can call if we have reason to, and if you get our attention with a high CBB, both we and our clients are happy. So if you're stuck with a property that has something seriously wrong with it, a high CBB and a low price will cause it to see a lot more action. But they have to be coupled together. High CBB won't do it on its own. On its own, high CBB is pointlessly wasted money.

An average CBB or maybe slightly higher will quite likely accomplish what you want; a quicker sale and therefore a higher sales price. If you're a half percent above average, that's not enough to raise red flags, and it will get you attention. Good buyer's agents will still require that it be an above average value for the client, but they will look, where they might not otherwise. It also stands a good chance of motivating them to really take a good long look at the property.

Short Sales are worse than everything else, as far as CBB goes. Short sales usually take much longer, are more often than not overpriced, and there's a much higher chance of transaction falling apart and the agent losing the client as a result. In my area, over eighty percent of all short sales fall apart, and there's not much the buyer's agent can do to alter the odds - it's in the hands of the listing agent. The lender is going to require the agents involved to reduce their commissions. Agents know this, and they can't really fight it. If you're out there on the cheap end of CBB before the lender wants to grab money we've earned away from us, and four out of five self-destruct and lose the client without closing, what reason is there to show your property, as opposed to the one down the street that's not a short sale? Cost my client money and time to no good purpose, when I can usually find them something just as good at a better price that closes faster and without the eighty percent chance of fallout. But there's always a reason for a short sale. I've never seen one yet where the owner didn't need to sell for some reason or another. Why doesn't matter; If a short sale is the least bad thing that can possibly happen to you, the one thing you don't want is for the property to fail to sell, and a below average CBB on a short sale will practically insure that the property won't sell.

If I had my druthers as a buyer's agent, I'd rather buyer's agency commission be set as a flat amount, regardless of the actual sales price, so that the agent isn't shooting themselves in the foot if they can negotiate a better price. On the other hand, it's not a crime for the seller to structure it in a way that produces dissonance between the interests of the buyer and the interests of that buyer's agent. I may not like it, but I take shameless advantage of it when I'm listing property - I advise owners to make CBB a percentage. Just because I understand a happier client is likelier to bring me more business doesn't mean every agent does. Maybe it's because I read Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz at an early age, and military history has always been an avocation with me. Maybe it's because I took almost enough probability and statistics courses in college for it to count as a major. Maybe I'm just competitive by nature. Whichever it is, I believe in taking every opportunity to load the dice in my client's favor before they get tossed. Anytime there are large amounts of money at stake, you're either in it to win or you are a sucker. There's a lot more money involved in real estate than almost anything else.

At higher valuations, reasonable agents expect CBBs to go down. There's not much difference in the actual work between a half million dollar property and a full million dollar one. Higher liability exposure and a little more hand holding and a little more service. Furthermore, the kind of people who buy million dollar properties tend to be better qualified to do so, leading to fewer escrows failing due to buyers failure to qualify.

One of the things I don't understand is that many agents are the worst about CBB. They should know the power, and yet when it comes to their own money they disregard the facts and try and to do it on the cheap. I make a special note when I notice those listings, because it's like they're shouting, "I'm just out for a quick buck! I don't really know what I'm doing!" to those with the ability to hear it. With that information, I keep a special eye on their listings for other clients. Just part of my desire to look for opportunities to depth charge fish in a barrel. When I find one, it always results in a happier client.

Caveat Emptor

Recently, the forty year mortgage has started to make a comeback, and a few lenders have started introducing the fifty year mortgage. The reason, straight from the horse's mouth, the lender's representatives, is lowered payments. In an uncertain and unstable market, investors are getting nervous about 100% interest only financing, and so the lenders are tightening up on the standards of who is able to qualify for that, while looking for another way to compete on the basis of lower payments. One way that they do this is the Option ARM, or negative amortization loan. However, to anyone who does even a minimal amount of investigation those loans are like cutting your own throat. A lot of people will still sign up for them, but now that Business Week did a feature calling them "Nightmare mortgages" more and more people are picking up on the tremendous downsides to this loan, but if they still want too much house and they've got to be able to qualify for, and make, the payment, they need an alternative. That is the forty and now the fifty year loan.

Now nobody does forty year fixed rate mortgages, let alone fifty. They do two and three year fixed rate loans, called the 2/38 and 3/37, respectively. Some lenders will also do a loan that amortizes over forty years, but the remaining balance is due in thirty years. This so-called 40/30 balloon has a lot in common with a thirty year fixed rate loan - including the fact that almost nobody goes more than five years without refinancing, so that the thirty year balloon should be no big deal. All of the preceding forty year loans are sub-prime loans, by the way, with prepayment penalties and higher rates than A paper. A Paper lenders doing the forty year loan are few and far between. People get longer durations from sub-prime lenders; A paper competes for the best borrowers - the ones who can really afford their loans - on rate/cost trade-off and underwriting standards. For those lenders doing the fifty year loan, it is pretty much the same story. The fifty year amortization due in thirty, the 2/48 and the the 3/47.

Now because the lender is risking their money for a longer time, and with less amortization and therefore more risk, most of the lenders - particularly the ones looking to compete on rate that you would prefer to do business with - charge a slightly higher rate for forty year loans than thirty, and a little higher still for a fifty. The difference is not huge, but it is there. Where a 2/28 might be at 7%, the corresponding 2/38 might be at 7.125, and the 2/48 at 7.25 for the same cost. Sometimes they'll say that the difference is as small as a quarter point of cost for the forty year amortization as opposed to the thirty - but that's an eighth of a percent on the rate, at subprime's usual 1 point equals half a percent trade-off.

Now in my opinion, these longer amortization loans are mostly a marketing gimmick to lower the payment - slightly - for those who do not qualify for interest only under lender's guidelines. The forty year amortization started making a comeback early in 2005, most as the 2/38, and the fifty year about March of 2006.

My perception is that refusing interest only to these borrowers is a figleaf tossed to nervous mortgage investors. It's not like fifty year amortization is really going to make a difference, as opposed to interest only, if a 100% loan gets foreclosed any time in the first five years, or if property values decline further. Let's do some math.

Assume a $200,000 loan on a $250,000 purchase in California, just so I can do it in one loan without worrying about PMI.

Amortization Period
Interest Rate
Loan Payment
Other costs
Total monthly
Income to Qualify

Now unlike everyone else who has written on longer amortizing loans, I'm not going to obsess about "interest paid over the life of the loan." People are going to refinance in a few years anyway. That's just the way things are. But let's do look at the difference between interest paid in the first two years, the fixed period for most of these at the end of which people will refinance.

Amortization period
interest rate
1 month interest
24 mos interest
Remaining Balance
Comparative Deficit

Now the 40 year loan only saves $1668.96 in payments over the first two years, and the fifty $2131.92. So if we subtract these numbers off the deficit in the above table, we are left that the forty year loan costs us $1299.30 in net deficit as opposed to the thirty, and the fifty year loan costs us $2434.17 net of all savings. This on top of the fact that it really doesn't make that much difference in the income we need to qualify for the loan (which in my example is limited to cost of housing with no other payments). Just paying off a credit card that takes $100 payments per month will do more to help you qualify.

These numbers get worse, not better, in the bigger loans that the lenders are using them to justify. Let's assume a $400,000 loan on a $500,000 property instead:

Amortization period
interest rate
Loan Payment
Other costs
Total monthly
Income to Qualify

Amortization period
interest rate
1 month interest
24 mos interest
Remaining Balance
Comparative Deficit

Considering that over two years, the forty year payment saves $3339.92 in payments, it's still down by $2599.38 as opposed to the thirty year amortization, and the fifty is down by $4869.83 in just two years - never mind what happens if you have to do it again in two years, and once again, paying off a credit card probably will do more to help someone qualify full documentation.

Now I don't see anything particularly wrong with forty and fifty year mortgages, although a 30 year is better while making very little difference on the payments, I can see the benefits for those who lie in this income range. But pardon my lack of enthusiasm for something that makes very little difference to whether someone qualifies for the loan, while costing them far more than they save in terms of payments, even over the short term and disregarding the effects if the people do not refinance. Far better to just persuade someone not to buy quite so much house in the first place, even if it means you get less of a commission. But then if most real estate agents sold property on the basis of what people could afford rather than it's beautiful and they want it and therefore it's an easy sale and now let's figure out a way to get them the property even if they can't afford it, the southern California real estate market would not be in the state it is in.

Caveat Emptor

People sometimes ask, "Why should the lender care where I got the money for the down payment? I earned it, it's mine - cash is cash!"

They're right as far as they go. In general, the lender doesn't care whether you got your cash. It could have been by selling off your first-born child, moonlighting as a drug dealer, or embezzling the funds from your employer. It's not usually a good idea to get a real estate loan if you're facing criminal charges (and you must disclose it if you are), but if you aren't facing charges, the lenders don't really care.

What they do care about is money appearing for no known reason just prior to purchasing real estate. Quite often that money is an undisclosed loan, on which you are going to have to make payments, which are going to influence the debt to income ratio under which you qualified for the loan you want them to issue you. Debt to income ratio is the most critical measure of loan qualification. If you're going to be making payments of $400 to pay back the person who loaned you that money, the lender is required to consider whether the money you are making is going to enable you to pay back that loan as well as their own.

So the lender is going to want to know where any sudden influx of money in the last few months came from. This is called "sourcing" the money. They want to know where it came from. Did you sell another property? Then they want evidence, in the form of a HUD 1 that shows that money. Did you get a bonus? Let's see the remittance advisory. Did you sell stock? Did you sell your collection of rare Roman gold coins? Each of these has paperwork to attest to the fact, and the lender will want to see it.

If some friend or family member wants to make an actual gift, that's fine also. What the lender will require is a letter from that person stating that this money is a gift and comes with no strings attached. What they're looking for is an explanation that doesn't involve the money being obtained through a loan.

If you've had the money for a while, or have been building it up over time, your account statements will demonstrate that fact. Six months ago, you had $100,000. Since then, you've saved another $3000, earned another $5000, and your balance is now $108,000. This is called "seasoning" the funds. Nobody wants to have a loan sitting around longer than necessary - particularly not a loan for a significant amount of money. Seasoning the funds reassures the lender that this is not an undisclosed loan.

Suppose the money in your checking account that suddenly appeared two weeks ago is a loan? That isn't necessarily insurmountable. Let's get the loan paperwork out there where the lender can see it, examine the repayment schedule, figure out what it does to your ability to make the payments on this new real estate loan you want. If you qualify by debt to income ratio with these payments included, it's pretty likely your loan will be approved. There are exceptions, but I'm going to let those go uncovered, because I'm not real big on telling the general public how to get fraudulent loans accepted. There might be politicians reading this, and letting them know all the answers to that would be irresponsible of me.

The main reason why we have to source and season cash in every transaction is quite simply so people aren't able to hide the fact that they've recently gotten a loan. It seems paranoid at first, but it isn't paranoia if people are out to get you, and lenders have gotten burned many thousands of times over this point. People quite often don't even think it's wrong to keep silent, even though it is fraud. So if they don't require sourcing and seasoning of funds, the lender grants the loan based upon known information, only to later discover that the borrower is unable to make payments due to also needing to make payments on an undisclosed personal loan.

Caveat Emptor

I just picked a random ZIP code in my local MLS, and out of the first twenty listings I came to, ten had explicit violations of one or more of the sections of RESPA regarding steering right there in the listing. This did not include lender-owned real estate, which has its own set of issues in this regard. All I did was count two common violations.

The first was "Buyer must be prequalified by X", where X was some loan originator. In a way, I understand this. Forty percent plus of all escrows locally are falling out, and the vast majority of them because of unqualified buyers who cannot qualify for the loan. This wastes a minimum of about a month, plus when it goes Active again, it looks like it's been on the market for longer than it really has. Bad thing all around for the seller. The justification used is that for some reason, the agent trusts that particular loan officer to render a real opinion. Perhaps occasionally, a lender owned property will even try to require prospective buyers to prequalify through them. While it might seem reasonable, here's some relevant law from RESPA

Business referrals

No person shall give and no person shall accept any fee, kickback, or thing of value pursuant to any agreement or understanding, oral or otherwise, that business incident to or a part of a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan shall be referred to any person.

They mean that "any thing of value" bit, if you peruse down the the definitions. It's defined very literally by about a paragraph of text that boils down to four words: ANY thing of value. You refer business to them, they give you approvals you can count on. It doesn't matter if you require "only" a prequalification - they now have the prospective borrowers information, including credit information and home telephone number. This means that even if there's no application fee, no deposit, not even a credit report fee, you have still given that loan originator a "business relationship" with the borrower. That makes for legal consideration on both sides of the equation, and both the originator and agent are guilty. This is just as hard a violation of RESPA as a fraudulent HUD 1 form. It hasn't been enforced much of late, but I believe that the State of California could probably put over half the brokerages and lenders in the state out of business over loan steering. I only counted four out of twenty actual explicit requirements to pre-qualify with a specific lender this time, while the last time I conducted the exercise it was eight. Maybe it's getting better, maybe it's not, but twenty percent of a representative sample of listings having an explicit violation of the law right there for everyone to see is not something agents should be proud of. When it comes to holding someone responsible for their representations, pre-approval doesn't mean anything. If you're a real estate agent who doesn't do loans, talk to a lender you trust about necessary information to determine whether a loan is doable. I've created a special form that I send to agents making offers on my listings. Nothing in the way of personally identifiable information except the borrower's name - no social, no contact information - but it does have credit score, late payment history, income information, etcetera, to the point where I can tell whether or not I could do the loan on the terms necessary to make the transaction fly. Furthermore, it does require the loan officer to sign a representation that they aware that a decision as to whether or not to grant credit - in the form of agreeing to enter escrow - will be made based upon this information. They don't need to make representations of opinion - all I'm asking for is verified facts. Armed with those facts, I have a pretty darned good idea if this borrower is capable of consummating the transaction. Doesn't tell me whether they will or not, but that's not what wanting a prequalification or preapproval is about.

But when I'm a buyer's agent, which is most often, I simply ignore these requests that violate the law. Furthermore, this puts me in rather a strong negotiating position if the listing agent repeats the request or brings it to my attention. Now they've compromised their client's interests, by giving the other side (me) a concrete legal issue to aim at them. Game, set, match. As I said, four out of the first twenty listings in a random ZIP code explicitly violated RESPA right in the listing, without counting the ones that say "Contact us prior to making an offer," where that's usually what they want. Four out of twenty where there is precisely zero doubt that they're violating the law.

Actually, that wasn't the most common violation, either. That goes to "Seller to select all services," at six out of twenty - thirty percent. Also from RESPA:

Sec. 2608. Title companies; liability of seller

(a) No seller of property that will be purchased with the assistance of a federally related mortgage loan shall require directly or indirectly, as a condition to selling the property, that title insurance covering the property be purchased by the buyer from any particular title company.

(b) Any seller who violates the provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall be liable to the buyer in an amount equal to three times all charges made for such title insurance.

Even though in California the seller usually buys the title insurance for the buyer, I've had more than one lawyer tell me that failure to negotiate is construed as a violation of RESPA by the courts. It works like this: In the case of simultaneous owner's and lender's policies from the same company, there's a discount for the lender's policy, essentially requiring the lender's title insurer to be the same as the owner's title insurer. Since this happens on every purchase transaction where there's a loan, you have the requirement to negotiate. Seller and buyer negotiate until they come to a mutually acceptable compromise. Neither one of them gets to dictate to the other. Furthermore, failure to consider the best bargain for the client is a violation of fiduciary duty for the agent. It's not the sellers who want to choose services. Other than corporate owned property - lender owned and corporate relocation properties - there just isn't a reason for many sellers to care. The only reason is if they're employed by a title or escrow company, and their fringe benefits include free title or a free escrow. I've seen that once in the last four years.

What's really going on here is title insurance companies providing free farms, or subsidized mailings, or any number of other freebies they use to attract real estate agent business. Or the brokerage has a captive escrow company they're required by the broker to use, despite the fact that failing to negotiate this point is a violation of the law. I've had agents or their idiot assistants tell me that they get "discounted service" even when I've got a lower quote from the competition. Furthermore, the interplay of title company and escrow company is important. If there's no common ownership between the two, the title company will charge a "subescrow fee" that I've seen be anywhere from $100 to $450 (usually about $350) because they're the ones who are actually set up to accomplish some things that are legally the escrow company's responsibility. For instance, recording. What this means is that even if the actual quote is lower from unaffiliated companies, the clients are quite likely better off choosing escrow and title companies where there is common ownership, even if the quote is a little higher - because there won't be subescrow fees, and quite likely not messenger fees between title and escrow. To paraphrase an common saying, $350 is $350, even when there's a half million dollar deal happening. Make certain you get a guaranteed total fee for services quote based upon the actual escrow and title relationship to each other. I'm quite sorry for independent escrow companies - I have no reason to believe they're any less competent or charge anything more than title company affiliated ones - but they're competing at a disadvantage because the title company wants to charge more to work with them, and this is quite reasonable given that they will be performing services that are the escrow company's responsibility. They waive subescrow for their own affiliated companies simply because, one way or another, they're responsible for the work.

I've also heard all sorts of nonsense about competence of title and escrow officers. The fact is that most of them are perfectly up to your transaction. Even corporate owned relocation properties, where there may be some complex tax issues, aren't significantly more complex than your garden variety individual buyer - individual seller, and don't get me started about 1031 exchanges. Any good agent's agenda is very simple - competent service providers for the lowest total price. The vast majority of the time, this means a title and escrow company with common ownership. Note that I don't care which title company and affiliated escrow company. I'll do business with anyone that hasn't hosed a client, and even if they have, I'll simply require a different title or escrow officer - just because John has a recto-cranial inversion doesn't mean Jane, another officer at the same company, does. Even lender-owned property will negotiate service providers if you approach it right - which is how it should be. Oh, you'll end up with their choice of providers most of the time, but you can get them to pay for subescrow and messenger fees, and quite likely an allowance to meet your lowest quote elsewhere - meaning your client doesn't really have a reason to care. Essentially the same product at the same price to them. Why would most clients raise a fuss about that? Indeed, the only thing worthy of most clients raising a fuss would be if you didn't negotiate for that. Indeed, explaining the whys and wherefores of the whole service provider quandry has gotten me a seller or two working at cross-purposes to their listing agent, who had someone all picked out without informing their seller. When this happens, my buyer wins. How could I not use every weapon at my disposal?

The intent of Congress on steering is quite clearly spelled out:

Sec. 2601. Congressional findings and purpose
(a) The Congress finds that significant reforms in the real estate settlement process are needed to insure that consumers throughout the Nation are provided with greater and more timely information on the nature and costs of the settlement process and are protected from unnecessarily high settlement charges caused by certain abusive practices that have developed in some areas of the country. The Congress also finds that it has been over two years since the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs submitted their joint report to the Congress on ``Mortgage Settlement Costs'' and that the time has come for the recommendations for Federal legislative action made in that report to be implemented.
(b) It is the purpose of this chapter to effect certain changes in the settlement process for residential real estate that will result--
(1) in more effective advance disclosure to home buyers and sellers of settlement costs;
(2) in the elimination of kickbacks or referral fees that tend to increase unnecessarily the costs of certain settlement services...
(emphasis mine)

Whatever forms those kickbacks and referral fees may take, if your agent is violating this, do you really want to do business with them?

Caveat Emptor

Having written several articles on Negative Amortization Loans, telling of the details of what is wrong with them, and even destroying the myth of Option ARM cash flow, I sometimes get asked if I would like to see them banned completely.

Well, given the pandemically misleading marketing that surrounds these loans, and pandemically poor disclosure requirements, I am tempted. It only takes one person losing their life savings and having their financial future ruined to make a very compelling story, and I've seen more than one and read about many more.

However, when you ask if they should be banned outright, I have to answer no.

Part of this is my libertarian sympathies. Adults should be allowed to make their own mistakes. But there are economic and a realpolitik reasons as well.

The fact of the matter that just because Negative Amortization loans are oversold under all of the friendly-sounding marketing names such as Option ARM, Pick a Pay, and even 1 Percent Loan (which they are not), does not mean that there is no one for whom they are appropriate or beneficial. People for whom these are appropriate do exist. Consider someone with crushing consumer debt, and no significant usable equity on a home they've owned for a while. They sell the home, they end up with nothing and still have the consumer debt. They can't refinance cash out. But if you put them into an Option ARM for a while, you remove from several hundred to over a thousand dollars per month from their cash flow requirements. In three years, they will pay off or pay down those consumer debts, and then you refinance to put them back on track, and the money that has accumulated means nothing compared to what they've paid off. It's a very narrow niche, but it does exist.

Consider also someone starting a business. Cash flow insolvency is what kills most start-up businesses. Until the customer base builds, they don't have enough money to pay the bills. Lower monthly cash flow requirements on their house can mean the difference between success and failure of their business, far outweighing the cost of the extra money in their balance that they accumulated. Furthermore, the fact is that when their cash flow gets tight, they're not making the mortgage payment anyway. They are likely to lose both business (through insolvency) and property (through foreclosure) if the business fails anyway, and the lowered cash flow requirements of the Negative Amortization loan may give the business more of a chance to succeed, and once it is profitable it will pay back the investment many times over.

There's still a need to really explain what's going on, and all of the drawbacks of the loan, but people in these two circumstances really do have a valid possibility of it being in their best interest. Banning negative amortization loans completely takes away that option, thereby hurting those people.

Furthermore, in realpolitik, it is unlikely that any attempt to ban them will be successful, or permanent if it is successful. Let us presume some public spirited official in Congress or at the Fed decides to make the attempt. What do the scumbags who make their living selling these loans do? They won't go back to selling real loans with real payments - if they could do that, they wouldn't be selling negative amortization loans. Negative amortization loans are a way to sell property without the apparent up front costs of a higher payment that always will be indicative of the housing market. Given a choice between giving up screwing people and fighting back, they are going to fight back. Lobbyists, PAC, and grassroots deception en masse, and probably astroturfing as well. If the average voter gets a pamphlet saying Congress or the Fed is trying to ban these loans that "are the only way middle class people can afford a home!", they are not going to do research in order to educate themselves about what is really going on. They are going to call their congress critter and voice the opinion the negative amortization industry gave them - and they're likely go so far as to go apply for one themselves, unless they already know what a bad deal that loan is. Chances of congress resisting: Basically nil. There is no organized group in opposition, no budget for groups that want to push a ban. Any ban would be politically dead on arrival.

There is an approach that will work, however: Disclosure requirements. If these people have to tell the prospective victims in easy to understand language and easy to read print about all of the problems they are letting themselves in for with these loans, very few people are going to sign on the dotted line. "Caution: If you accept this loan, the 1% is a nominal, or in name only, rate. You are really being charged a rate of X%, and this rate will vary every single month. If you make the minimum payment, your loan balance will increase by approximately $Y per month at current rates, or Z percent within five years. You will have to pay this money back in lump sum if you sell, or with higher payments at a later date. If you cannot afford full payments now, you will unlikely be able to afford them in the future after your balance has increased. There is a three year prepayment penalty on this loan, and if you sell the property or refinance within that time, you will pay a penalty of approximately $A in addition to whatever additional balance has accrued. It is currently under consideration that the mere fact that you have one of these loans will have significant derogatory effect upon your credit rating, even if you never make a late payment, due to financial difficulties encountered by borrowers with this kind of loans in the past." I could go on in bullet points for a couple of pages, but I trust you get my point. You have all of this in writing from the federal government, the least an intelligent adult is going to do is find out what's really going on here.

Furthermore, the only way disclosure requirements could be fought by the industry is behind closed doors. The only way it stays behind closed doors is if nobody raises a political stink, and it's easy to raise a political stink about stuff like this. Newspapers and television reporters and bloggers all converge on the issue, and the industry is left in the awkward position of crying because they have to tell the truth. That doesn't play well with the American public. The way this plays with the American public is the major reason for the successes of Porkbusters. Despite some very entrenched and very powerful enemies lining up against them, they've won on a couple of big issues because of the power of the idea that the American people have that the truth should be told. Take the tack that all you want is for the industry to tell the truth, and watch the political wind die out of their sails. David beats Goliath reliably in American politics when the issue is "Do I have to tell the truth?"

To summarize, it is tempting to try to ban negative amortization loans. But it is far better social and economic policy to go the disclosure route instead, and far more likely to be politically successful.

Caveat Emptor

Many people are unaware how profoundly lending policies influence the market for residential property. So I am going to go over the various gradations in available loans for various types of property.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the standard house, built on site, mostly by hand, from basic materials. Called "stick built" to differentiate it from other building methods, this is the default housing that everyone is familiar with. Once emplaced upon that property, there is no real way of getting it off the property intact, and therefore it is appurtenant to the land. This might come as a shock to people who concentrate on the house, but when you buy a property, you are buying the land upon which it sits - the lot - and the structure comes along because it is appurtenant - because it cannot be moved off easily. It is this type of property which has been at the forefront of liberalization of lenders loan policies, precisely because it is both universally desirable and non-portable. That land is defined by its boundaries. It isn't going anywhere. The structure isn't going anywhere that the land isn't, because in order to remove it, you pretty much have to destroy it. It's built on a several ton concrete foundation, which, if you nonetheless manage to pick it up, is still overwhelmingly likely to crack if not disintegrate, not to mention ripping out plumbing, electrical, and other connections.

Now because the land isn't movable and the structure isn't either, lenders have gotten comfortable that you're not going anywhere with that structure. Because the combination is so universally desired among consumers of housing, they have gotten comfortable with giving loans for essentially the full purchase cost of the property, knowing that it takes a special set of circumstances for them to take a loss on the property, and they can charge higher interest rates in order to insure against that. (I am using insure in the statistical, law of large numbers sense that is the essence of insurance.)

Now once upon a time, lenders treated condominiums far less favorably than single family detached housing. But it was always obvious that condominium units weren't going anywhere, and in recent years condominiums, in all their incarnations, have reached a level of acceptance among housing consumers that assures their marketability, and even the price discrimination against high-rise condominiums is gradually dying out. It is far less than it was just a few years ago. For condominiums four stories and less, the only difference their status makes to lending policy has to do with required expenses and Debt to Income Ratio: There is no homeowners insurance requirement, because the association dues pay for a master policy, but there is the additional expense of the homeowner's association to charge against the borrower's monthly income. As far as Loan to Value Ratio goes, condominiums are precisely like single family residences, and you can find 100% loans just as easily for them, at the same rate cost trade-offs, or very close. More and more, the fact that it's a condominium is becoming irrelevant to loan officers. Many lenders have completely eliminated the "percentage of owner occupied units" guidelines that used to be such a bugbear for getting condominium loans approved. For these reasons, among others, condominium prices have taken off. In the last fifteen years, they have gone from being about half the price of a comparably sized and furnished detached home, to the point where they are basically proportional to detached single family homes, and in some areas, higher price per square foot due to the fact that they are a viable less expensive consumer's alternative due to (usually) fewer square feet to the dwelling, and so less expensive overall if not proportionately so.

The first real step away from the "stick built' house is the modular dwelling. These are piece-manufactured at factories, and assembled in pieces on site. Usually, it's something like one entire room-wall in a piece, with all the necessary plumbing and electrical already embedded in it, although sometimes it does take the form of entire rooms. Think of it like modular furniture, which is manufactured in individual pieces, but those pieces are intended to be put together so that instead of an arm chair and an ottoman, you have a chaise lounge. The important difference is that unlike modular furniture, once that modular house is assembled on that foundation, it's not going anywhere. Try to disconnect the plumbing hookups, or disassemble the pieces, and all you will likely have is much smaller pieces than you started with. Modular housing, once assembled, isn't going anywhere. It is permanently attached to that land. For this reason, lenders are in the process of phasing out pricing discrimination against modular housing as opposed to stick built homes. For some lenders, modular gets the same exact loans as stick-built, for a few, there is a hit to the rate-cost trade-off that may be anywhere from a quarter of a point to a full point. Over half of the residential lenders in my database are happy to do residential real estate loans for modular housing on pretty much the same terms as manufactured. 100% percent financing, interest only, even the horrible negative amortization loan are all available on modular homes. As a result, prices of modular homes may be a couple percent lower than those of stick built properties, but they are very comparable and the the investment potential is just as strong and there is no large amount of difficulty getting them sold due to the difficulty of getting a loan. Some lenders still don't want to touch them, but it's pretty easy to find lenders that will, and on the same terms as they do any other property, so the lenders who still will not lend on modular properties are hurting no one but themselves by dealing themselves out of possible business.

The next step away is manufactured housing on land owned by the home owner. Now technically speaking, modular housing is a subset of manufactured housing, but when most lenders are talking about manufactured housing, they are talking about homes built at the factory in entire sections, and assembled with only a few total joins at the home site. True manufactured housing is portable, where modular really is not. If you're in Idaho and decide to move that house to your property in Georgia, it's doable.

Now because it is portable, as you might guess from things I've said here about the prevalence of attempted scams that lenders have had issues with people dragging them off. You'd be right. Lenders file foreclosure papers on the land, and the homeowner metaphorically backs up the pick-up truck and takes that residence somewhere else, leaving the lenders with a piece of land and no residence. Because there is no longer a residence on it, it's not worth anything like what it was when there was a residence on it. Lenders have lost multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual properties around here. You get burned enough times, you start getting wise. Those real lenders who will lend on manufactured homes require a laundry list of conditions, and even if they are all met, they won't loan 100 percent of the value, or anything like it, and there will be an additional charge of at least one full point of cost on their regular loan quotes. Cash out loans are typically limited to sixty-five percent of value, making it hard to tap equity. Furthermore, due to accounting standards and depreciation, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made a rule that manufactured homes were limited to twenty year loans, which drastically limits not only the type of loans available to their owners, but also has the effect of restricting what they can afford to borrow, because the payments principal has to be paid back over a shorter period.

Now because loans are more expensive, harder to get, and amortized over a shorter period of time, this has the effect that even if someone wants to purchase a plot of land upon which the primary residence is a manufactured home, they cannot afford to pay as much for it. Let's say par rate on a thirty year fixed rate loan for a stick built house or condominium is 6.25%. To keep it simple, let's hypothesize that someone can afford loan payments of $2000 per month. That gives a loan amount of just under $325,000 for the stick built house ($324,824). Now because of the minimum one point hit, the equivalent rate on the manufactured home loan, even though it still sits upon owned land, is about 6.75%, and you're limited to a 20 year loan, giving a loan principal of about $263,000. The same person who can afford a stick built loan of $325,000 can only afford $263,000 for a manufactured home. This means that the manufactured home is not going to sell for as much money, because for what most people thing of as the same price (monthly payment) they cannot afford as much manufactured home as stick built. This leaves completely aside such issues that magnify this difference as the fact that because the loan terms are more favorable, it's more cost effective to improve a stick-built home, so equivalent stick built homes have more amenities and are therefore even more attractive and more desirable. Not to mention the fact that the lender will require a twenty percent down payment on the manufactured home, where they might not require one at all on the stick built. The people who are in the market for relatively inexpensive housing are first time buyers. I can't remember when the last time I encountered a first time buyer with a significant down payment (5% or more). Very few of them have down payments. This means that even if they are inclined to purchase a manufactured home, they are going to be constrained to purchase a stick built house by lending policy. That $263,000 loan I talked about earlier in the paragraph is only available if the buyer puts a down payment of $65,750 or more in addition to closing costs. For the vast majority of buyers, this limits their choice to stick-built, or none at all. For these reasons, when people go to sell manufactured homes, one can expect the prices to be more than proportionately lower than those of comparable stick-built homes, and so investments in manufactured homes do not tend to pay off nearly so well as property earlier on this list.

There is one further step down on the list: Manufactured homes on rented land. These are not, properly speaking, real estate loans at all. There is no land involved. If there is no land involved, it's not real estate. Since there is no land involved, the loans are not real estate loans. They are listed in MLS because the people are buying and selling housing, but they are not real estate loans. It is very difficult finding lenders who will lend on them at all, and those few who will mostly do so through their automotive department. Furthermore, whereas space rent might be cheap if it's your only cost of housing, it is expensive as compared to homeowners association dues, let alone property taxes, and the loans are still all twenty years or less. Because lenders don't like to touch them, because the down payment requirements are large, and because of the additional expenses imposed by space rent, prices for manufactured housing on rented land are microscopic by comparison with everything else. Even here in southern California, $100,000 buys a really nice 4 bedroom place where by comparison the lowest priced 4 bedroom anywhere in the county right now are $337,000 (manufactured on owned land, and way out in the hinterlands of east county).

Lest anyone think that this is in any way shape or form due to inferior construction, it is not. Because these buildings are manufacture on assembly lines which are largely robotic, there are many fewer problems with things like forgetting to nail at appropriate intervals, workers getting distracted, not getting corners square, and all those sorts of problems. I'd bet that a manufactured dwelling is probably of superior construction to a site built dwelling, all other things being equal. It is purely lender policy, as influenced by the history of their experiences with these kinds of properties, which is driving these differences.

So before you think a property is a great bargain, consider what kind of property it is, because even if you have plenty of income and a huge down payment and these concerns are irrelevant to you, when you go to sell it your prospective buyers will generally not have those things, and every time you eliminate a possible buyer from being able to consider a property, you statistically make the final sale price lower, and you statistically make the sales process take much longer. Eliminate enough potential buyers, and you're going to be very unhappy indeed.

Caveat Emptor

Undisclosed Short Sales

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What happens if a home you signed to purchase goes into foreclosure before the closing date?

We were supposed to close on a home four months ago. On the day of closing we get a call from the seller's realtor that the sellers owe 22K and need time to figure out negotiations w/the mortgage company. We go through a series of extensions & hear a variety of excuses from the sellers realtor (sellers haven't turned in paperwork, wrong forms filled out &new ones were overnighted, etc) In June, a Lis Pendens was filed & our realtor checked it out. He talked to the sellers realtor & found out that it had been filed but has been negotiated off &was no longer in effect. On 8/9 our realtor gets a call from the sellers realtor that they have finally been in contact with the mortgage company &there is 1 more paper that needs to be completed & they are "on top of it". After not hearing anything last week, I check with the online courts to see if anything else has occurred to see that a foreclose decree was noted for 8/4. What happens now? Can we purchase the home from the bank?

Somebody has not been "on top of it". Probably at least two somebodies, and they're not exactly fulfilling full disclosure requirements, either.

Yes, an Notice of Default adds thousands of dollars to fees due. But what do you think the lender would rather have: An already negotiated sale that is consummated and they get their money, or go through that whole dismal foreclosure process?

So what is going on here is an undisclosed short sale. What this means is that the lender isn't going to get all of their money, or the transaction would have closed by now.

So what's most likely going on is that the bank is taking their own sweet time about approving it, but your realtor has allowed the selling realtor to feed you a line of BS. Indeed, they've probably actively cooperated. They're probably afraid of losing the commission, but if they keep it open "just a little longer" maybe the lender will approve it.

It's the listing agent's job to talk the lender into approving the sale. Perhaps the bank is imposing some conditions that the seller can meet, but does not want to. Perhaps the bank is demanding some money, or that the realtors reduce their commission, and they don't want to Perhaps the listing agent just clueless, but I doubt your agent has exactly covered themselves in professionalism either.

The person with the power to break the logjam is you. Talk with a lawyer, but if you put in a 48 hour notice to perform, the lender is likely to suffer a sudden attack of rationality, especially in this market. They'll likely net more money through the sale than through the foreclosure process, but if you allow them to go on ad nauseum they will keep the transaction open as long as possible. You see, once the transaction closes they can't get their money back if a better offer comes along. Therefore, they are trying to put you off for as long as possible in the hopes that such a better offer will come along. From their point of view, they have this transaction well in hand, they are just hoping to get more money from someone else, and the longer you allow this to go on, the higher the likelihood they will. If you don't force the issue, the only possible resolution is unfavorable to you. There are possible issues with the deposit, and damages they could owe you and you could owe them, which is why you need to be careful. But putting them on Notice to Perform is the thing that is going to break the logjam one way or another, and your agent should probably have done it months ago. You're stuck with them for now, but if this transaction doesn't close you should probably find a new agent. Good agents know that if they are willing to risk losing a particular deal, they will not only better represent their clients interests, but also that they will end up with more deals overall. Approached correctly, it's a way to have even the client whose entire family has their heart set on a particular property that you are acting on their behalf, not just looking for a commission, and they will send you their friends, and they will come back to you when it's time to sell, or to buy another property.

Caveat Emptor

Mortgage Accelerators, or Money Merge Accounts, have become the thing that everyone's pushing of late. I have gotten so much junk mail about this from more originators (who don't know who I am) and wholesalers (who should) in the last few days that I'm going to have another whole go at the entire concept. The claim most often advanced is "pay off your mortgage in a fraction of the time!" In fact, typical numbers say they're only going to do a fraction of the good done by biweekly payment programs, which effectively make one extra payment per year. Money merge accounts or Mortgage Accelerators (to use the term I originally learned years ago) have been pushed and over-promised so badly of late that I hope whoever manages to do an elementary search will be able to find a voice of sanity.

These wasteful loans that waste a homeowner's money are fast becoming the current market's negative amortization loan as far as marketing goes. These things are being pushed hard, consumers are being led to expect far greater results from them than they are likely to achieve, with the results being that those consumers who sign up for them are wasting their money. If they're not as bad as negative amortization loans, that's still damning with faint praise if ever there was such a thing. Not as bad as the loan that encouraged people to buy a more expensive property than they could afford, put them more deeply into debt with every passing month, ruined their credit ratings, and caused them to lose the property they over-extended to buy, as well as setting the United States as a whole up for the worst financial crisis we've experienced in the past eighty years. Well, it is kind of a high bar for lenders to get over, and they haven't done it here - but that's not due to concern for consumers.

What goes on with these accounts is complex, and they're not all identical. The basic idea is the same, however. You create a special account of some nature, where you deposit your entire paycheck in the mortgage account, where it lessens the amount of interest you pay on a day-to-day basis. Then you pay your other expenses of living out of the account, gradually increasing the amount back up until the next time you get paid. The idea is that by paying down the balance with your entire paycheck, less interest accumulates and people making the same regular payments will pay their balances down faster with the same balance.

Sounds like a cute idea, right? If it was free, they would be a pure gain for the consumer. Unfortunately, they're not free, and I've never yet seen one that wasn't more costly than it could possibly be worth.

Lenders like these things for a lot of reasons. Most obviously, they're getting pretty much all of a consumer's banking business. Checks come in, go out, clear or don't; all those lovely fees. In the vast majority of all cases, there's the initial cost and interest expense of an associated home equity line of credit. This also raises the bar to make it more difficult for a consumer to refinance away from their loan if someone offers them a better deal. Furthermore, there's usually an explicit charge of about $3500 to set the thing up. I'll show where this money would be better spent on a direct paydown of the mortgage.

Also, the people who sell these things have these beautifully intricate presentations. While people are watching the money whizzing about between one account and another, they're usually not considering whether those figures are reasonable, typical, or even anything like the numbers they personally experience.

Most importantly if consumers are shopping for a new loan, their attention is distracted from the most important part of shopping for a loan - getting the best possible tradeoff between rate and cost, focusing instead on this fascinatingly complex toy that doesn't make nearly the difference most of the people pushing it say it will. Taking the attention of consumers off the question of what rate they are getting, on what type of loan, at what cost, means that they don't have to compete nearly so hard to give you the most competitive rate-cost tradeoff. In plain English, their loans can charge a higher rate of interest. In fact, this difference will cost the typical borrower far more than they could ever hope to save via a money merge account. I'll go over that in this article, as well.

So, first off, let's consider what typical numbers are. Here in San Diego, the median property sale is $558,000. In order to qualify for the loan, consumers need a back end Debt to Income ratio of 45%. Front end will most typically be around 36%, with property tax, insurance, vehicle payments, credit cards, student loans etcetera. I'll be really nice and say 32% - chances are that if it's lower than that, the people would have bought a more expensive property. I'm going to assume 20% down payment or equity, which is, if anything, larger than typical. We'll postulate a rate of 6%, which is probably a hair higher than most folks with conforming loans have - and more favorable to the money merge account - and I'm going to put it all into one loan even though that's theoretically a jumbo loan amount, just to give the money merge/mortgage accelerator every possible benefit of the doubt. After all the smart thing to do is split the loan amount, which leaves roughly $30,000 out of this account in a higher interest rate loan, and so the scenario envisioned is more beneficial to the Money Merge than what happens in the real world.

This gives a loan of $446,400. At 6 percent, the payment would be $2676.40. Assuming 32% front end ratio, that's a gross monthly pay of $8365. I don't have withholding tables, so I'll use the actual tax rate for couples making slightly more than $100,000 per year with about $55,000 taxable, which is $7400, plus about $8700 in Social security taxes, plus state taxes which I will assume to be roughly $2000. This money gets withheld - it never comes to you in the form of a check. Since you don't get it, when your check goes into the money merge, it doesn't help you pay the interest. This leaves $81,900, or $6825 in take home pay. I'm not going to worry about other deductions like health care, or how your pay is structured, which further erode the benefit. I'm just going to assume it hits your account in full on the first day of the month, maximizing benefit, although I'm still going to assume all of the excess goes out every month. If nothing else, for investment accounts. It's pretty silly to have your money paying off a 6% tax deductible debt when you can have it earning about 10% elsewhere! But this isolates the benefit gained from the actual Money Merge, and separates it from any benefit derived from making extra payments, which is another way the people selling these play "hide the salami" with consumers, distracting them from what's really causing the benefit - the extra payment, which almost anyone can do, anytime they choose, for free. I'm even going to assume that you don't have an impound account, so the money you eventually spend for property taxes and homeowner's insurance goes to help the money merge as well.

So you get $6825, less the payment of $2676.40, leaves $4148.60. Over the course of the month, money goes out to pay for all of your expenses. They people who sell money merge accounts urge you to leave paying your monthly bills as late as possible to get the maximum benefit from these accounts, completely ignoring the costs of the occasional late payment this is going to cause, as well as detrimental effects upon your credit when it does happen. In fact, a certain amount of these bills are going to wrap into the next month, meaning that under the conditions we've agreed upon, you write that check to your investment account for this month and pay that bill out of your next month's pay if you're smart. Since you're going to write that particular check ASAP if you're smart, that's going to diminish the effects of the $4148.60. But I'm going to be nice and give you a $1000 "cushion" that you carry into the account from month to month (again, you won't do this if you're smart), while the $4148.60 is going to be paid out evenly over the course of the month, giving you a mean daily amount of $2074.30, plus $1000, or $3074.30 per month of temporary principal reduction. This reduces your interest paid by $10.37 that first month! I'm going to assume this is pure gain, every month, and that it continues to compound. If you do this every month for thirty years, you'll actually pay off that loan a grand total of three months early, and the last payment is reduced to a shade over $400! All of this hooting and hollering and shouting and frustration over three months of paying your mortgage off - in an absolutely optimized, perfectly favorable environment where the Money Merge account didn't cost you a penny in set up fees or monthly cost. And even in this ideal situation, with the maximum reasonable advantage compounding over the course of the entire mortgage, out of $963,000 in payments, the money merge saves you about $10,000 at the very end - just over 1% of total payments, heavily discounted for time value of money thirty years from now. That's not the "pay your mortgage off in twelve years for the same payment!" come on used by the most popular of these! Were I the regulatory authorities, I'd be looking very hard at their advertising!

But most people don't pay their mortgage off in this fashion, and these accounts are not free - or at least I've never heard of one that was. Most people refinance or sell within three years. When they do that, the accounts have to be set up again - which requires new set-up fees. In the example given above, that $10.37 per month compounding for three years is worth $407.92 - and that's if there are no countervailing expenses.

In point of fact, most of these accounts charge a monthly fee that ranges from roughly $1 to whatever they think they can get away with. Plus, there's an upfront cost that ranges from $1995, the cheapest I've seen, up to nearly $6000 depending upon the plan, with most seeming to fall in about the $3500 range. Plus, most of them require you to use a special Home Equity Line Of Credit (HELOC), which costs money in and of itself. The rates on HELOCs are higher than for regular mortgages, forcing you to effectively pay a penalty in interest of having $2000 or $5000 or whatever it is at a higher rate of interest, by usually about 2%. Keep in mind that this is ongoing, and for the entire month. The $2.30 to $8.30 per month this costs directly soaks off a large percentage of the $10.37 putative gain you get. Not to mention whatever the initial costs of the HELOC are. Some are cheap - I've seen others that had thousands of dollars in upfront costs. The HELOC costs, both upfront and monthly, are not relevant to the few plans that don't require HELOCs, but most do.

So with a middle of the line account, you've spend $3500 just to set the money merge (or mortgage accelerator) up, versus $407.92 in benefits over three years, which is longer than most people keep a given loan. Would I do that? Not on your life or mine! Why should I expect one of my clients to do so?

Now, let's consider some alternatives. Remember I told you the money merge account saves you $10.37 per month in optimal conditions, which works out to just about $10,000 saved at the end of thirty years? Well, let's ask ourselves, "What would be my benefit if I just took the $2000 the cheapest one of these costs me and instead used it for direct principal reduction?" In other words, what if you added that $2000 to your regular mortgage payment once? The answer is, for the example above, that you pay off your mortgage four and a half months early, as opposed to about 3.8saving an additional $1800. Using the upfront costs for the cheapest of these that I'm aware of pays the mortgage off sooner than the accelerator account! After the three years that's all most people keep their mortgage, you're still $1985 and change ahead of the poor stupid schmoe who signed up for the accelerator account! For a middle of the line $3500 set up fee, the difference, mutatis mutandis, is $3780 and growing at the end of three years, to the point where that mortgage is paid off 6.7 months early, as opposed to the mortgage accelerator's 3.8, saving thousands of dollars more than the "accelerator"! This doesn't count the monthly costs, HELOC set up fees, or additional HELOC interest charges that the vast majority of these accounts require, and which do siphon off the benefits as noted above.

Keep in mind that with all of this, I've been building a "best reasonable case" to maximize the money merge's advantages. I've mentioned several assumptions that I was making in the account's favor. If any of them changes, the putative benefits basically vanish entirely, or even go decidedly negative.

Now, let's ask ourselves if getting distracted by a mortgage accelerator caused us to not shop as aggressively, or not pay as much attention to the tradeoff between rate and cost as I should have, and as a result, I end up with a mortgage rate that is a mere 1/8th of a percent higher for the same cost. An eighth of one percent is the smallest rate bump in the "A paper" world, and quite often I see differences of a quarter to half a percent for the same loan between various A paper lenders when I'm shopping a loan. What would that cost me if I could have had 5.875% for the same cost instead, even keeping the benefits of the accelerator?

The answer is $35.77 per month on the payment, but more importantly, $46.50 the first month on the interest, and this adds up to $1641.77 less interest paid over the three years most people keep the mortgage, while the $10.37 per month benefit of the money merge put the 6% loan as having a balance that's actually $20 lower. Not counting fees of the money merge account, or anything else - just pure difference on the actual cost of that loan, in the form of interest you paid that you wouldn't have had to. How does that sound: Even if everything about the money merge was free, you'd be getting a $20 lower balance over three years in exchange for having spent $1600 more on interest. If you offered people $1600 for $20, what proportion do you think would take you up on it? If you offered them $20 for $1600, how many suckers do you think would go for it, even if you personally begged ten million people?

For those of you who may be loan officers - or real estate agents - reading this, can you point to one single putative benefit that you would think worth the cost that lenders charge to sign up for these programs yourself? As I've said, I can't. There is nothing here that justifies the wild ways in which these are being marketed, and the ridiculous promises that are being made about them. In point of fact, I can think of only a few possible reasons to sell these:

  • Eyes only for a commission check (probably number one in terms of the overall market)

  • You don't understand what's going on, took some marketers word, and haven't done the numbers yourself (hardly a recommendation of your services or professionalism)

  • You just don't care about your clients welfare

A year and a half ago, when these started being marketed, I wrote about the broad outlines. Never had the urge to hose a client by selling one, so didn't really investigate any further, although I wrote that the benefits were quite minimal as compared to the costs a few months later. But the ridiculous promises and over-aggressive marketing these have been subjected to in recent weeks have finally motivated me to do a rigorous analysis, and what I see is not "merely" of minimal benefit in even the scenarios most amenable to said benefit, but actually costs more than any putative benefit. I can see precisely zero justification for counseling any client in any situation to pay the money that every one of these I have yet encountered to set it up, as the benefits derived from any of these programs with which I'm familiar never do manage to equal the opportunity costs.

Now before I sign off, the point needs to be made that the psychology the account engenders in the consumer is likely to be beneficial, rewarding themselves psychologically for making what are extra payments on the mortgage, and as far as that goes, the account does accomplish something praiseworthy. But the vast majority of all mortgage borrowers can make extra payments of principal any time they want, for free, and when you consider these accounts strictly on the basis of actual numerical advantage over real alternatives, the costs of the program are literally never recovered.

Caveat Emptor

There are two sorts of buyer's agency contracts, exclusive and non-exclusive. Note that this has nothing to do with Exclusive Buyer's Agents, who do not accept property for listing. I disagree with their reasoning on the virtues of doing so, but I can see a reasonable person making the arguments that they do. Despite the fact that ninety percent of my business is as a buyer's agent, I have no plans to become an Exclusive Buyer's Agent. The line their organization takes is that agents tend to work on behalf of their listing clients, neglecting buyers even when they're representing them as well. To be fair, I do see that happening in the industry. The solution is quite simply to refuse Dual Agency. I get referral business by making each individual client as happy as I possibly can, not by hosing one class of clients so that I can make another that little bit happier. I'm only on one side of a given transaction, and my clients will tell you I'm not in the least hesitant to advise them if something isn't quite like I would like it to be. Furthermore, I learn things by listing properties - things that I can turn around and use to help my buyer clients - just as I learn things by representing buyers that I can turn around and use to help my next set of listing clients. Without that feedback between the two very different tasks of representing buyers and representing sellers, I'd be a much weaker agent, whichever side of the transaction I was on.

Now some states permit agents to call themselves "exclusive buyer's agents" if they work with exclusive buyers agency contracts. An exclusive buyer's agency contract, however, does not mean that all of that agent's business comes from representing buyers. It means that they require buyers to sign a contract that essentially prevents those buyers from working with another agent. An exclusive buyer's agency contract says that no matter which property these buyers buy during the period it runs, that agent will get paid. End of discussion. Since the buyers accept responsibility to pay the agent if the seller or someone else doesn't, which isn't a problem if there's only one buyer's agent, because it is in the seller's interest to pay the buyer's agent. However, what the seller pays only covers one agent, so if there's a second agent involved, the buyer has to pay that second agent out of their own pocket. This essentially constrains them to work with the agent they've given that exclusive contract to. Many very weak agents require exclusive buyer's agency contracts because they're scared of the competition - they know they don't measure up, so they cut the competition out by binding them with an exclusive agency contract. They've got good advertising campaigns in effect, good networks of people, whatever - the essential element in their strategy is that the prospective buyers talk to them first, before those buyers understand what's really going on. Not to mention that this does, in some states, allow them to designate themselves as "Exclusive Buyer's Agents." This is confusing nonsense, and not beneficial for consumers.

There is, however, an alternative. This is the Non-Exclusive Buyer's Agency Contract. This is a standard contract, available in all fifty states through the work of the Association of Realtors (self-interested dinosaur controlled by major chains though the organization is, it does do some beneficial work). In California, it's put out as a part of the WinForms program of standard forms, and I suspect the same is true elsewhere. When you strip it of all the legalese, what it says is that If you buy a property that agent introduces you to, then that agent will be entitled to a buyer's agency commission. Notice that construction, straight out of you high school geometry or logic course? If A then B. If not A, then nothing. In other words, if some other agent introduces you to the property you buy, you owe this agent nothing.

Consumers can be working with literally any number of prospective buyer's agents through non-exclusive contracts, and be perfectly safe. There's only going to be one commission due - to the agent who actually gets the job done. Because of this, consumers can sign one of these and start working with any agent, safe in the knowledge they're not stuck with that agent if they find out they're not doing the job they should. The only thing consumers are giving up is the ability to cut out the agent who actually finds the property they want to buy at a price they're willing to pay. Since this is the hardest, most difficult, most time consuming and most liability ridden part of a buyer's agency job, this is only reasonable. You don't go down to the premium mechanic, have them fix your car, and get out of the bill by paying the cheap shop on the corner. That is the real work for a buyer's agent, not the paperwork of the offer and escrow period, or the gladhanding, or even the showing. The ability to recognize and negotiate a bargain are closely related, however, so even if you get a lower buyer's agency commission by cutting out the agent who finds the bargain, or a cash rebate, you're likely to end up paying more overall for the property. How is saving one or two percent and missing out on five percent, ten percent, or more a good investment? The lowest difference I've made in the last year was over fifteen percent, by CMA of properties sold. That's what a buyer's market will do for you. But you're unlikely to find the agent who makes that kind of difference in your area first time out of the box. The non-exclusive buyer's agency contract lets you give every agent you meet the same chance to earn your business - which means consumers get to force the agents to compete on the basis of who actually does the job!

This makes signing such an agreement a bet the consumer literally cannot lose. In fact, the more such bets the consumer makes, the better it's likely to turn out for them. The weaker agents will self-select out of the process in most cases. What this means in plain every day talk is they won't exert themselves because they know they're not likely to end up with the business. The consumer who signs ten non-exclusive buyer's agency contracts might have, at most, two or three agents who actually work for the business. The others simply won't. They know they can't compete, and simply won't bother. Actually, most of them won't sign the non-exclusive agreement. They'll try to talk you into an exclusive agreement, but don't let them. For the consumer's part, they can simply keep looking for agents until they find the ones that will compete.

Indeed, it's only when signing an exclusive contract that consumers are making a bet they can lose. Not only can they, they are extremely likely to. Remember the ten non-exclusive contracts you signed in the last paragraph, out of which you got two agents who were willing to actually do the work? Look at that the other way around. Eight out of ten didn't, and the real proportion is probably higher than that. So if you sign an exclusive buyer's agency contract, those are the kind of odds you're facing. Eighty percent or more chance you're locking your business up with an agent who won't really do the most important parts of the job. I get calls from these people's victims all the time, asking me to work for them without any chance of getting paid. My answer is no. I'm perfectly willing to compete for the business, but I'm not willing to work without pay so that someone else can get paid. I'm eager to make the bet that I can out-compete other buyer's agents, but if someone else has already been awarded the gold medal, I'm not going to so much as head for the stadium. How hard do you think the person who has been pre-emptively awarded that gold medal is likely to really work for you? If the answer you got is, "not very" then you understand why you shouldn't sign an exclusive agency agreement. But buyer's agency is one competition where "time in the competition" doesn't control who wins. If you don't award that gold medal before the competition is held, good agents will compete, and they'll work all the harder because if they don't measure up, you can always find some more agents who will. Isn't that what you really want as a consumer?

Caveat Emptor

Effective April 1st and for the rest of 2008, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be buying loans above the current limit of $417,000. The is a result of the economic stimulus package signed by President Bush on February 13th. They will begin purchasing Fixed Rate Mortgages on April 1, 2008, and hybrid ARMs on May 1, 2008. Due to the length of time it's taking to actually fund said loans, several major lenders are now offering the opportunity to register and lock the new loans. The new limits, which vary by Metropolitan Statistical Area, do not appear on either Fannie or Freddie's web page yet, but the FHA Mortgage Limits page seems to have correct data for every county I checked, which was about four counties.

Fannie and Freddie have recently announced their policy as to what they will and will not fund as far as these loans go. In fact, Fannie seems to be taking the lead, issuing the letter I've seen.

The standards are significantly more restrictive than Fannie and Freddie's standards for conforming loans. The first difference is no automated underwriting, at least not yet. You have to live and die by the specified underwriting standards, including debt to income ratio, which under automated underwriting I've seen much higher than guideline approved for people with stable income like government pensions, good assets and good credit. Here's the quote:

All loans must be manually underwritten. The jumbo-conforming loan limits, eligibility, and underwriting guidelines will be added to Desktop Underwriter® in a future release.

Keep in mind that that the Jumbo Conforming loan, as currently written, expires at the end of 2008. I suspect there'll be some sort of extension going in to 2009, but at this point there is no guarantee there will be anything. For those who are wondering, this doesn't mean the loan will vanish or anything. It just means that there won't be any new ones funded after that unless something happens to extend the program - which I do expect but cannot guarantee. It would be pretty pointless to have this be one of the keystones of the economic stimulus package if everybody concerned intended to let it collapse at the end of the year - and the Federal Reserve, at least, knows that.

The written standards themselves are more strict as far as loan to value ratio goes. Freddie (at least) is still perfectly willing to buy mortgages at 100% financing for purchase money conforming loans - it's just the actual lenders who are not willing to fund them in the first place. Credit scores down to 620 are at least theoretically possible for conforming loans, but "jumbo conforming" purchases are limited to 90% with a credit score of 700, 80% with a credit score of 660. Those are fixed rate. hybrid ARMs are limited to the 80%, and require a 660 credit score. For Fannie and Freddie's "Limited Cash Out" definition, which is essentially a rate term refinance, 75% is as high as they will go. Cash Out Refinances, Fannie and Freddie won't buy, even on a primary residence. On second homes and investment property, 60% is as high as they will go, even for purchase money or "limited cash out".

For Jumbo Conforming, all housing debts must be in "0x30" status for the past twelve months, which is mostly a little bit stricter than the conforming standard. This means that you can't have any rent or mortgage payments that were 30 days or more late - not just on this property, but on any property you owned or rented in the last twelve months.

Thus far, the only two loan products that I'm certain will be included are the fully amortized fifteen and thirty year fixed rate loans, and the fully amortized 5/1 ARM. The 5/1 Interest Only for ten years that they have also included is not a standard loan product. The 7/1 and 10/1 appear on some rate sheets, though, so I'm thinking that the specifications are minimums: In other words, it must be fixed rate for at least five years, it must begin amortizing within 10 years. Indeed, I've just had this mostly confirmed by a couple conversations with wholesalers. Also, interest only fixed rate mortgages are specifically disallowed, but The Word is that interest only periods of up to 10 years are acceptable for those as well, and that the prohibition applies only to fixed rate loans that don't begin amortizing for longer than ten years. For instance, a loan that was unamortized for its full term would be unacceptable to Fannie and Freddie, which is nothing new. Fannie and Freddie have always required that the client begin actually paying off the loan at some point be built into the loan structure.

Some folks are making a big deal out of "no consolidation of existing first and second liens," in the guidelines, but that just goes to show how little A paper they've done these last few years. That's a standard criterion for Fannie and Freddie's Limited Cash Out refinances. So anyone that has an existing Second Trust Deed is going to have to subordinate the existing loan. I don't know that refinancing each loan simultaneously would be rejected, but the Official Word I have is that Subordination Is Your Only Option. That would be a loan killer if the current second mortgage holder refused.

Residential mortgages are for 1 to 4 units, but for Jumbo Conforming loans, Fannie and Freddie won't buy anything financing more than one inhabitable unit. Condos, townhomes, and PUDs are all fine, but no two, three, or four unit properties under a single title or deed of trust. Interestingly, Co-ops are also disallowed by the guidelines for Jumbo Conforming loans.

Finally, rates are higher than regular conforming rates. For fixed rate mortgages, there's a minimum of a quarter of a percent hit on the rate, as opposed to regular conforming mortgages. That's a price hit direct from Fannie and Freddie. The actual differences on the price sheets I've gotten are much higher than that. The thirty year fixed rate loans seem to be about 1.25% higher for the same cost as conforming, the fifteen year fixed rate about 1.5%. That the differential is actually higher for the shorter term loan is astonishing to me, and I can't think of a reason why at the moment. For hybrid ARMs, the pricing adjustment from Fannie and Freddie is three quarters of a percent, and the actual difference seems to be about 1.75% higher for the same cost. However, for fixed rate loans, this is about 1 full percent lower than regular "non-conforming" rates, while the "non-conforming" rate pricing for hybrid ARMs seem pretty similar to jumbo conforming. For fixed rate mortgages, at least, this provides a constructive alternative for full documentation type loans above the regular conforming limit, which have suffered severely by association with stated income loans these past several months. They're no longer completely joined at the hip. Now, up to San Diego's limit of $697,500 anyway (limits in your area may vary), full documentation loans are going to get a better loan than "stated income" borrowers.

I've had my suspicions from day one of this whole thing that Fannie and Freddie don't really want to fund these loans, but they want to stay on Congress' good side in case they ever need something. There's no longer a legal commitment that the US government will backstop Fannie and Freddie as far as losses go, but there is a strong feeling that they will, and doing the bidding to Congress at least this much gives them the moral ability to go to Congress for relief if this all goes south on them. "We did this because you wanted us to!" may not obligate the taxpayers directly, but many corporations have received public assistance on far weaker claims - while if they refused, Congress could well decide not to bail out what are, in fact, privately held corporations that are run for profit. So Fannie and Freddie have made the fact that they're not happy with this quite clear to those with the skill to read between the lines - but they're going to go along as far as they are with what the government wants them to do, because you're never certain that you won't need help somewhere along the line.

Caveat Emptor

UPDATE 5/8/2008: Fannie and Freddie have changed things a bit, and now the temporary Jumbo Conforming Loan rates have dropped like a rock, to the point where there's only a quarter to a half point difference in cost between them and regular conforming at the same rate. Now that will make a difference for full doc borrowers. Stated Income is non-conforming, and those rates are still significantly higher. I've said all along that Jumbo borrowers were suffering by association with stated income, due to the fact that both traditionally used the same rate table for A paper borrowers. Now that Jumbo Conforming loans have broken that association, the rates (up to the new limit) have dropped. This is about as surprising as gravity.

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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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The answer depends upon what they're doing for you.

If you contact them because they're the listing agent for a property, they shouldn't ask you to sign an agreement at all. They have a fiduciary duty to that seller to get the property sold. If the act of asking to sign the agreement causes you not to buy, or not to view the property - something that cannot be known in advance - they have violated fiduciary duty. They've just caused potential buyers to be discouraged. That's as hard a violation as it gets. It doesn't stop a lot of agents, as I've written before about Tina Teaser and Sherrie Shark, but it is a straightforward, no nonsense, no kidding violation of fiduciary duty. You don't want to do Dual Agency anyway, as I've written on many occasions. There are many reasons why you want a buyer's agent representing your interests, especially if it's a new development. There are all sorts of issues that will bite people without buyer's agents ten to a hundred times or more frequently. Issues that arise directly because of Buyer's who don't want buyer's agents are about nine of the top ten reasons why buyers get burned, including the top three or four.

If all an agent is doing is setting up an internet gateway, or search, that's no big deal either. MLS will allow me to have something like 120 client gateways at a time. I've never had half that at any one time. I can't serve that many people. I can only work with an absolute maximum of about six sets of full service buyers at a time - and that's if I don't have any listings. A smart agent will quite happily set up and internet gateway on the speculation of getting a transaction out of it. I'll call or email these folks periodically to see if they want to look at anything, or anything has caught their fancy. I'm not investing any significant time with them; they don't count against my (self-imposed) limit of six clients at a time. In fact, I make a lot more per hour with these clients than any others. Indeed, those of these folk who only want me for the paperwork will ask me for a contract that says I will rebate part of any buyer's agency commission at that point in time. If my liability is less and I'm not putting in anything like the time I need to for a full service client, I'm perfectly willing to work for a lot less money.

If you come to me to put an offer in, I don't need a contract there, either. The purchase contract specifies that I'm the buyer's agent - I don't need another one. Some agents use this moment as an opportunity to "lock up the business" by insisting people who want to make an offer through them sign an exclusive buyer's agency contract, but there is precisely zero need for any kind of agency contract at that point in time. The agency is created for this offer by the purchase contract itself, either explicitly (as in the California standard contract) or implicitly, by agency law. There's absolutely nothing wrong, ever, with an agent who asks you to sign a non-exclusive buyer's agency contract. You can walk away from a non-exclusive agency agreement at any time, but an exclusive agency contract requires that you stick with them even if this one falls apart. Suppose they do something to sabotage the transaction? It happens.

It's a rare client who requires something I have to pay for, but It does happen. Mostly, it's fresh foreclosure lists when it does happen. I haven't been subscribing consistently, as right now the well-aged ones are mostly better, but I know the ones that work for when I do have clients that want them. I can get them starting that day, and going back. I don't charge for this - but that's the only time I ask for an exclusive buyer's agency contract. Not only am I putting out a significant stream of money for their benefit, these people do count against the limit of six clients at a time I can work with - they count double! Working the fresh foreclosure lists is a lot more demanding than anything else I do, because it's all time critical. I can't put it off a day, and often not even an hour, even if there's something else going on with another client - it's got to be done NOW, and there are a lot of misses for every hit. It's kind of like been married to the ultimate high maintenance spouse. If that spouse is not willing to give just as much, nobody rational wants any part of that relationship. If you want an agent to put in that kind of work, you're going to have to commit to that agency relationship.

But the one common time a good agent will ask for a buyer's agency contract is when someone wants a real full service package. Property scouting is far too time intensive to do on speculation that you might want to do the transaction with me after I invest the time to find a real bargain. The agent has to invest usually weeks of time up front, culling out the bad prospects in favor of the better ones. This is, by the way, far and away the hardest work of the transaction, and the work that gets done has most of the liability of the process. A good agent - one who knows how good he or she is - will still only ask for a non-exclusive contract here. I'm perfectly willing to bet that I'm going to find you something you want to buy, and if I don't, then you owe me nothing. I'm eager to make that bet, as a matter of fact. I am not frightened of people who want to work with multiple agents. I know that the vast majority of them won't get out of their offices to go look. But if I do find something you want to buy - I take the time and do the work, and my experience and training spots a superior value - then I'm not going to countenance you then taking the transaction to some other agent. Kind of like a mechanic who gets the problem fixed - and then you decide to take the car to another mechanic. You're still going to have to pay the mechanic who actually solved your problem, and you're still going to have to pay the agent who finds the bargain. You don't think the agent did anything to deserve getting paid? Then don't buy that bargain property they found for you! But if you want to buy the property they found, then there is, by obvious fact, something particularly valuable, both about their property and about their work in finding it! If that were not the case, you wouldn't want to buy it.

So it's reasonable to be asked to sign a non-exclusive buyer's agency contract. As a matter of fact, agents that actually do this work have learned that if they don't get you to sign it, a very large percentage of people will then go to a discounter or rebate house, or even just buy the property without an agent, thinking they'll get a better bargain that way. Not only will you get a better bargain through the agent who understands the property and the market, that agent can then stay in business for the next time you, your friends, or your family wants to buy real estate. That's a win-win. But trying to cut out the agent who found the bargain is a lose-lose. You'll get a cookie cutter transaction from someone who doesn't understand the market and can't bargain as well - you'll end up paying more, and if there comes a point where you should walk away, they won't know it and won't tell you if they do.

Caveat Emptor

Is it unwise to use the listing realtor as your purchase realtor?

A house I'm interested in purchasing is being sold by the realtor selling my house. Although she's done a decent job selling my house, I fear she won't negotiate well on my behalf if she has to divide her loyalties between these listers and me (a potential buyer). How awkward would it be not to use my listing realtor to purchase a new home?

I would not undertake dual agency myself. If I do find a buyer for one of my listings, I'll refer them to someone else for negotiations, or at least get them to sign that I am representing the seller, not them. Everyone in the industry whom I respect agrees with this position. Too often, there is a conflict of interest between buyer and seller. Anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to rationalize money in their pocket.

It'd be fine to use her for any property she's not listing. If you want that one, however, go find another buyer's agent.

In every transaction, there is a tension between the interest of the sellers and the interest of the buyers. It is in the interest of the sellers to get the most money possible for the property. It is in the interests of the buyers to pay the lowest possible price. Except in the highly unlikely case where the most that buyer might possibly have paid is the exact same number that is the least that seller might have accepted, and that is in fact the sales price, such simultaneous duties cannot both be met. Since such happenings would be freak coincidence, and not only are they not known until afterward, any such lookback is prone to an agent indulging in what psychologists call confirmation bias.

Furthermore, there is tension between the interests of the buyer and the interests of the seller in other matters as well. Not far from here is a condo conversion project, currently being sold out. About 1993, there was a resident of that complex arrested on suspicion of serial murder. I am unaware of whether he was eventually convicted, but I do know they dug up several bodies as I was unfortunate enough to drive by when they were removing them. California law requires the disclosure within three years of anyone dying on the premises, but at three years and one day there is no requirement for disclosure that I am aware of. Nonetheless, if one of my clients wanted to buy one of those units it would be part of my duty of care to that client's interests to make certain they were informed. Would you not want to know about your building being used as an impromptu cemetery for several bodies? But acting as a seller's agent, I would be forbidden from making that disclosure. Which client's interests do I follow?

Suppose my client is having difficulty qualifying for a loan. Okay, obviously I'm not doing the loan, but I cannot force clients to do their loans with me and the only thing I can offer is carrots, never sticks. But suppose that I, as buyer's broker, find out from the loan officer on day 24 that they've been disqualified because the processor told the underwriter something they shouldn't have, and the loan is back to square one. If I am acting as listing agent as well, my duty to the seller requires me to inform my client of this difficulty. But my duty to the buyer is equally clear about in being a violation of my other client's best interests. Whose interest is paramount? Whose interest do I disregard? These interests are in direct conflict - there can be no compromise resolution. Indeed, as a listing agent I will demand information that it it may not be in my buying client's best interest as buyer's agent be disclosed, and vice versa. If they agree of their own volition, or some other agent talks them into it, then we have a willing buyer and a willing seller and full disclosure from my end and best interest of the client in furthering the transaction and so on and so forth. If I fail to ask because I am also representing the other side, I have not represented my client's best interests. If I talk either client into it when I am representing both, then I have, ipso facto, violated that client's best interest by getting them to agree to something which is not in their best interest. Did I do it because such was in their best interest, or the best interest of my other client? Even if I did act in their best interest, can I prove it? Probably not. Can I prove it in a court of law? Definitely not.

I like to make more money as well as the next person. But accepting dual agency is logically and provably a violation of my duty of care to someone in every case, no matter how the transaction turns out. No matter what you do, it's kind of like the old joke about someone playing chess with themselves. Sure you always win. But you always lose as well, and when you have a fiduciary duty to someone else, setting up a situation where you are guaranteed to lose is in itself a violation of that fiduciary duty.

So I urge you in the strongest possible terms to go find another agent to represent you. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using the same agent to represent you in multiple transactions, even simultaneous transactions. But I would never use the listing agent for a property as my buyer's agent, and I would not allow an agent I was listing a property with to act as buyer's agent. Force them to pick a side and stay on it, and since they've already got a listing contract, they have already made their choice.

This is incidentally another argument against Exclusive Buyers Agency Agreements. If they show you one of their own listings under an exclusive agency contract, they are the procuring cause and you must pay them. Nonexclusive contracts should also have explicit releases if the agent is also the listing agent.

Caveat Emptor

Ken Harney has some welcome news on Move afoot to end uninvited mortgage pitches

To a certain extent, these are a good thing for consumers. However, it gets way overdone.

What happens is this. Let's say I get a client into my office, they apply for a mortgage, and I run their credit. The three credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, then turn around and sell the fact that this person has just had their credit run under a mortgage inquiry code, together with some of their more easily obtainable information.

Result? My clients are besieged with mortgage pitches. For months, every time they answer the phone it's likely to be someone else who has paid the money for a red hot mortgage lead.

Needless to say, my clients aren't happy. I have had several clients come out and accuse me of selling their information to telemarketers. Now, the fact that I encourage folks who come here to shop their mortgage around notwithstanding, it would be shooting myself in the head to sell their information to other providers. I know what I've got, I know what I quoted them, and I know I intend to deliver. The only thing that will stop me is if they do not, in fact, qualify for that loan. If someone is satisfied with what I intend to deliver, far be it from me to tell them to shop around because they might be able to do better. My family and I do have to live, you know. I won't stop or prevent or hinder them from shopping their loan around (which alone sets me apart from 90 percent plus of the loan providers out there), but telling them to do so is just not part of my job description at that point in time. It's like expecting the mechanic as he starts working on your car to tell you that you might be able to get a better deal somewhere else.

Indeed, if I had the option of paying extra for that credit report so my clients aren't besieged by unsolicited offers, I would take it every time. Not only would my clients be less harassed, but the prospective providers who pay for that sort of information are not precisely known for their sterling character, if you know what I mean. I've had clients tell me stories of people determined to sell them negative amortization loans without informing them of the drawbacks. I've had clients tell me of people determined to get their business that they told them of loans that do not exist, often with conspiratorial pitches like, "This is the loan they won't tell you about! You have to ask for it!" Well then, why are you offering it? By all means, put it out there on the table and let's compare the two loans by cranking the numbers, but the vast majority of the time it turns out the reason you have to ask for that sort of loan is that it's a piece of garbage and no self-respecting loan professional would expect you to accept such awful terms.

Now let me tell you about the numbers of such pitches. Because each of the big three credit bureaus is innocent of the actions of the others, it starts in three places, each of which pitches to the prospective providers that it sells the information no more than four places. I don't know why the number four became magic, but it seems to pop up everywhere in the mortgage leads industry. So each of them sells to four, and there are three of them. That's twelve people you're going to be getting a phone call from right there, and never mind that you're on the "Do not call" list. They've got the information from someone you're doing business with - the credit bureau.

But what's going to happen the majority of the time is that somewhere around ten of those who initially buy the information are resellers. They pay sixty bucks a pop, and turn around and sell the information to four other folks at twenty-five bucks a pop. Some of these places are in turn resellers; indeed, some of them got this information directly, which is all that keeps the whole process from snowballing until people are besieged by what seems like every last person with a valid mortgage license for the area. So twelve, forty-eight, hundred forty four, four hundred thirty two wannabe mortgage providers swarm each person I run credit on. I try to remember to warn them, but there is nothing I can do to stop it from happening, however much I might want to.

Now do not get me wrong. It is a good idea to shop your mortgage and I have even repeatedly told people who come here that they should actually sign up with at least two prospective providers, a main and a backup, because at the end of the process the power is all in the loan provider's hands and it is often abused. Having two loans ready to go defuses most of the potential for abuse, leaving aside the issue that I guarantee my quotes in writing when the client decides they want it and gets me enough information to lock the loan.

But there is a major difference between that and setting this pack of wild ravening prospective mortgage providers on my clients, willing to promise the sun, the moon, and all of the stars and planets if my clients will simply drop me and sign up with them instead. There is a major difference between agreeing that shopping the loan is a good idea, and throwing my clients to a pack of hundreds of telemarketers who call for months - sometimes as long as two years, so that they seem to be part of the next wave the next time those folks need a real estate loan - and bulk mailers who are almost singlehandedly responsible for global deforestation and accelerated filling of our urban landfills. If it does happen, I will be pleased to see it end.

I'm also gratified to see National Association of Mortgage Brokers on the correct side of this:

But the National Association of Mortgage Brokers doesn't agree. When credit bureaus sell overnight trigger lists to third-party lead generators, the brokers argue, they fail to comply with a key provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act: that anyone receiving consumers' personal information must be in the position to make a "firm offer of credit" or have previously received permission from the consumer to obtain credit file data. Third-party lead generators obtain no permission and are in no position to make any credit offers, firm or otherwise.

There is a world of difference between suggesting you shop your mortgage and making certain you shop hundreds of providers, whether you want to or not.

I would suggest contacting your congresscritter to register your support for this proposal.

Caveat Emptor

P.S. In the meantime you can stop it from happening to yourself at www.optoutprescreen.com or by calling (888) 567-8688.

I know I've been predicting this for eighteen months, first from a trendline and later from watching the local market in action. I was hoping to see the recovery start last summer but that was when the national media finally picked up on how bad things had gotten. When masses of people are hearing gloom and doom daily, they're not likely to take out mortgages to buy real estate.

But in the last month, things have turned around so much it's actually a little scary.

The last three properties I've been involved in negotiations for all had bidding wars going on. Right now, I'm waiting to hear back from a house my clients have put in an offer on. I said an offer, but it's really more like a bid, because I know of thirteen competing offers on the property. It has been on the market for precisely six days as of right now, and today was the deadline for a "best and highest" from everybody. My clients offered almost ten percent over the asking price. At that price, I'm still seeing excellent value and if we get it, everybody will be happy. If we don't, there are still other properties they'll be quite happy with. But previous to that, I helped other agents with four and five offers competing against their client, and that was only in the last two weeks.

Even the kind of buyer we're getting has changed. I don't know where they all came from, but offers with twenty and thirty percent down payment are coming out of the woodwork. Maybe they're all investors that sold at the top of the market and think the time is right to jump back in. Maybe they're representing foreign investors looking to buy at a favorable time. Suddenly, I've got a couple sets of clients with more of a down payment, on average, than I've seen since I've been in the business.

Now, before all of the desperate overpriced sellers and their listing agents start singing "Hallelujah!", these properties are special cases. They're in desirable locales, mostly with good schools, they're attractive properties, and they've been priced correctly from day one. Actually, the one that saw the best bidding action was somewhat under-priced to start with. Indeed, there's a property on the same block going through what has been the story for the past two years: Start overpriced, come down slowly bit by bit, until nine months or a year later someone like me notices there's value there and they've been on the market long enough that they're likely desperate enough to deal, and my clients come in and get it for twenty percent below what they might have gotten if they priced it correctly in the first place. It's a story that's been played out thousands of times here locally. I can sing this hymn verbatim with my eyes closed and no accompaniment.

But what happened is that these owners and their agents came out and listed the properties for just noticeably less than market on the first day. Exactly like I keep telling people, it generated enough traffic to more than bid the price back up and make up for whatever underpricing they had done. Furthermore, the properties are coming off the market and going into escrow within a very short time - a week or two, instead of several months. No carrying costs of thousands of dollars per month, or only very small ones. No trying to find the money for multiple mortgages, or rent plus the mortgage on the property they're selling. No stress of wondering when it's going to sell. Multiple offers came in from quality buyers with significant down payments and plenty of income to justify the loan. No stated income 100 percent financing, 2/28s, or negative amortization here. Sustainable, longer term loans are the order of the day - and A paper, too.

So far, this is a limited phenomenon, even if it is expanding. The sellers and their agents are still having to make the correct moves to get this to happen. Omit one of the critical items (correct price and attractiveness), and the property will still sit on the market. Mind you, bargain properties have always been able to move, even at the nadir of the market, but now more properties are moving more quickly, and the ones that stand out for value are seeing multiple highly competitive offers very quickly, something we weren't seeing the last couple of years.

So even though the headlines today are screaming that housing prices fell 13.5% from February 2007 to February 2008, those are sales which started six weeks or so earlier than that, due to the refinance mini-boom we had. The actual experience I and other agents are having out in the market these last couple of weeks has been painting a very different picture. Yes, it's all anecdotal, but if you put enough anecdotes together, you get a trend - and it seems like every agent I'm talking to is reporting the same thing.

There's a huge amount of pent-up demand for housing locally. I've been noticing people talking about holding off for better than two years now. Waiting for the market to show signs of bottoming out. Well, it's showing signs of the bottom having been sometime in the past now. I did call market top almost a year before the local Association of Realtors admitted it, and the current consensus by local economists has that I only missed it by a month. I just made appointments to see some properties with some clients on Saturday, and three out of three agents where the property wasn't vacant told me they're in counteroffers right now, and they may be in escrow by then. I told them to call my cell if that was the case, and we'd pass the property by.

For those who have been holding off, we have hit bottom. I've been saying all along the economic support was there for $350,000 to $400,000 starter level single family residences, and it now appears that has been borne out. If there are still a few thousand sellers whose property is sitting on the market because they're in denial of the decline, that's their problem. The people who are serious about selling, properties are not only selling, but they're seeing bidding wars like I haven't seen in five years. From this point on, the longer you wait, the higher the price you're likely to pay. When the word gets around, and the kind of pent-up demand that has been keeping the market depressed these last two years plus gets ready to strike, expect to see a significant recovery in prices before the media starts reporting a trend.

Caveat Emptor

how soon should I start shopping around to refinance my home? I have a 2yr interest only and it's up in (four months)

Okay, the 2/28 loans which you are describing all have prepayment penalties for at least two years. Figure it's going to cost you 6 months worth of interest, on top of the cost of the refinance, if you refinance before the penalty expires.

(OK, you could have specifically bought it off by accepting a higher rate, but that's unlikely to have been the case)

That said, about three weeks before the penalty expires you can start the refinance process. Be advised that until the day the penalty expires, the current lender will be quoting a higher payoff, but once it has actually expired, the payoff should be correct, at least in theory. You should not sign final loan documents until such time as your penalty will expire with or prior to your Right of Rescission expiring. No more than two to three days prior to expiration.

Indeed, sometimes lenders will want to keep charging penalties even after they're no longer due. I'm not certain if they just don't update the payoff correctly or what, but I've seen lenders try to charge penalties a month after they expired. Once they've got your money, they can make you pay a lawyer and go to court to get it back.

For this reason, I would avoid "cash out" refinances any time within three months after the penalty expires. Matter of fact, if you're refinancing during that period, not only don't refinance for cash out, but don't have an impound account for taxes and insurance, and don't plan to put any money at all into the loan balance if you can avoid it. Here's why: When escrow officer goes to request a payoff from the soon to be former lender, the payoff quote may include the penalty even if it's no longer due. if they money they have from the current lender covers the whole thing, they have two choices. Pay it and have a completed transaction (not to mention getting their company paid), or don't, and leave everybody hanging. If they pay it, this means that you, the consumer, only get a much smaller amount of money, but I'm disgusted at how often consumers are shorted by the loan process, and this is one more way it happens. You're expecting $20,000 cash, and that $20,000 was the entire reason you did the loan. Comes the proceeds check, and you've only got a check for $9000. You want the other $11,000, you're going to have to go through the whole process again. Not the kind of situation you want to be in. Not the kind of situation I want my clients to be in.

If, however, the escrow officer does not have enough money available to them to pay off the loan plus the penalty, they have no choice but to leave the transaction at that stage until the quote is correct. They won't let it sit - they'll find out what's going on and everybody involved will be doing what's necessary to resolve the conflict between the two issues. Not having any more money in the loan than necessary to pay off the old loan is a good way to insure that the escrow officer won't pay a penalty you don't owe.

Don't let the rush to pay off the old loan cause you to cut corners on either your shopping for a new loan or asking all the questions you should ask prospective loan providers. Rushing into a refinance because your loan is going to readjust is one of the best ways to waste large amounts of money that there is. To illustrate, let's look at a larger than average loan amount that sees a huge jump in the actual rate. $400,000 at 6%, and it goes to 9%. This makes a difference of $33.33 per day, or $1000 per entire month. That's the equivalent of a quarter point on the cost - basically nothing on the scale of differences between subprime loans, and not very much on the scale of differences between A paper loans. I'll usually beat the retail branch of the lender I place a loan with by at least twice that. If it makes a difference of 0.25%% on the rate, that's $1000 per year that you're going to be stuck with the new loan. If you're still a subprime borrower, multiply that by the length of your new prepayment penalty in years. Doesn't it sound worthwhile to take an extra day which your old lender bills you $33 extra for, to shop the loan around for real and ask the hard questions that enable you to save $2000 or more on the new loan. Even if you're putting the money into your balance, you're still paying the extra. Not only that, but you're paying interest on it as well. On the scale of costs for a new loan, paying the soon to be former lender for a few more days at the increased cost is likely to be a wonderful investment if it gives you the opportunity to find a better loan.

On a note of personal relevance, at the time this is written rates are higher than they were two years ago, and you're in an interest only loan now, while interest only loans are difficult to do right now. Your payment is probably going to end up higher, especially if you roll loans costs in. If the reason you were in an interest only loan was that your debt to income ratio couldn't qualify for the real payment on a sustainable loan, that refinance is probably not going to happen for you. With prices having decreased locally by 25 to 30 percent, your loan to value ratio may not support refinancing either. If a refinance is not going to happen, and you can't afford your current payment, it's time to sell now. The new FHA Secure program helps some people, but requires documenting enough income to afford all of your payments. You owe what you owe and the rates are the rates. If the numbers don't work, get it sold.

One more piece of advice: Start improving your credit score now. Four months is plenty of time to bring your credit score up fifty points or more. If you can get into "A paper" loan territory, where penalties are much less common, you'll be much happier with your new loan than you are with this one. If you're in subprime territory and able to improve your loan to an "A paper" loan, your rate may go down despite the fact that the rates are higher.

As I cover in Getting Out of Paying Pre-Payment Penalties, if you're willing to refinance with the current lender, either directly or through a loan broker, your lender may be willing to waive the penalty in favor of sticking you for a brand new prepayment penalty on a larger amount. This is usually making a bad situation worse. As I said, you're likely to get a higher rate, be limited to an amortized payment on the new loan, and the new loan amount is likely to be higher (people in the situation usually roll the costs in), and all without even the benefit or lowering the tradeoff between rate and cost like penalties usually do. This seems pretty much the definition of lose-lose-lose-lose to me. Longer prepayment penalty on a higher balance at a higher rate, without getting any benefits in exchange. This is kind of why the best way to deal with prepayment penalties is not to accept them in the first place.

Caveat Emptor

If Your Loan Falls Through

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"What do I do when the loan falls through"
That depends upon when it falls through and what situation you're in. If you're in a refinance situation, you generally keep making payments on your old loan until and unless you can find a refinance that is better that you qualify for. There is one exception to this: balloon loans. Balloon loans must be paid off in full on thus and such a date. These dates are known at least five years in advance, but some people insist upon leaving it to the last possible instant.

If you're unable to refinance your balloon in time, lenders whom you ask for forbearance will generally will give you at least some time in extension of the old loan, but at a higher interest rate. This is very kind of the lenders because they don't have to give you an extra minute. The agreement ran out last week and you didn't pay them; they are entitled to foreclose if they want to. Good thing that the lender usually doesn't want to.

If you're doing a purchase, and the loan falls out any time with more than two weeks to go in escrow, that's usually time to rush another purchase loan through, although you won't be able to shop the new loan as much, and it's unlikely to be as good. See why I tell you to apply for a back up? I've gotten purchase money loans done in two business days or less - loan approved, and documents for signing in the hand of the notary.

However, loan providers will generally not admit that loans fell apart before the last minute, even if they were rejected out of hand back on day three. Actually, that's a trick they pull quite often; tell you about loan A intending to deliver loan B, and then at the last minute tell you that you don't qualify for A but you can have B. This keeps you from having time to shop around after you discover what a rotten loan they really have for you. They knew about what loan you would and would not qualify for within a week unless they are hopelessly incompetent, but their percentage lies in keeping mum until you have no choice but to accept loan B. In another amazing coincidence, loan B usually has a long prepayment penalty, and buying it off - if you can - costs two percent on the rate, and they'd have to send it all the way back to underwriting to see in you qualify, and that will take weeks, so why don't you just sign for this loan right now. They may even say, "We'll fix it later." Yes, they will volunteer to get paid again after you've spent several thousand dollars on that prepayment penalty. I had a guy come to me quite recently, trying to fix one of those after the original company failed to do so. Unfortunately, the coals he'd been raked over, and with his credit score, there was nothing I could do and he lost the property.

So it's now day thirty-one of a thirty day escrow, you've got a $10,000 deposit on the line, as your loan contingency expired back on day eighteen. Aren't you glad you applied for a back up loan? You didn't? Well, the situation isn't necessarily lost.

First, call your seller, or have your agent call their agent, and find out if they'll extend escrow. If it's a hot seller's market and they won't, you're hosed, but in a buyer's market like this, they will if they're smart. Most sellers, even in this market, will want you to pay extension fees and that is to be expected. The reason escrows are usually limited to thirty days is so they don't have to keep spending money on you if you can't qualify, and they do spend money on the transaction. This may cost you an extra $100 per day for up to ten days, but when the alternative is losing $10,000, that's very worthwhile.

Purchase money loans can be done fast if you are in fact qualified and your loan officer knows what they're doing. Forty eight hours is often very doable. Three to four days is much easier. Ten days is almost easy if all of the supporting work has been done. The loan provider will charge more of a margin than you usually would, but this guy is likely putting everything else on hold in order to deal with your problem. That's reasonable. Perhaps this time you'll heed me when I tell you to apply for a backup loan?

Loan providers who admit in the first week after you've given them standard qualifying information that you're not going to qualify for the loan they initially told you about are probably honest, and likely thought you really would qualify. But the longer it goes, the less likely it is they intended to deliver the original loan. I might believe someone like that in the second week - but I wouldn't believe that story from anyone in the third week after applying, even if they were backed up by everyone from Diogenes to George Washington.

Loans fall apart all the time. Locally, the percentage of escrows that fall apart because the buyer cannot in fact qualify for the necessary financing is edging up towards forty percent. So take precautions to make certain that situation does not happen to you.

Caveat Emptor

do mortgage companyies usually seek a deficiency judgment on home foreclosures
Depends upon whether it is a recourse loan or not. A recourse loan is one where the lender can come after you for any excess amount of money you owe. Whether a loan is recourse or non-recourse varies with the state you are in, whether it was a purchase money loan or a refinance, and always, what it says in the Note.

For a non-recourse loan, that's it. If something happens and the property does not fetch enough money at sale to pay the lender off, that lender is out of luck whether they want to be or not. These are often used in reverse 1031 exchanges, where the accommodator is going to hold title to the property for a while but is usually unwilling to shoulder the risk that the lender may be able to come after them for a deficiency. Due to the fact that the lender cannot come after the borrower for the difference, these are riskier loans and therefore carry a higher rate-cost trade-off than recourse loans. This is nothing more than any rational person would expect.

The law is different everywhere, but I don't think have never seen a cash out refinance that was not a recourse loan. In short, take the money now, but if you don't pay it back, they are going to come after you in court and with a multitude of tools to get that money back.

Now just because a loan is non-recourse does not mean that the lender will necessarily approve a short payoff. In fact, it is usually harder to get those approved because the lender knows that this is the only chance they have to get their money, whereas with a recourse loan they can attach other assets to pay for their loan.

Finally, it is to be noted that just because a lender does have recourse and can attach other assets does not mean that they will. If you're down to $0.47 to your name, they'd have to be pretty silly to waste a lawyer's time doing so. However, just because you don't have it now doesn't mean that you will never have it. Statute of limitations also varies, but if you receive a financial windfall within the first few years, don't be surprised if the lender who you thought forgave the difference is standing right there, demanding their metaphorical pound of flesh.

Caveat Emptor

Several times a month I get calls and emails. Sometimes, it's even people stopping in. "I've heard you're good at finding bargains." Well, yes I am. "Please tell me the addresses of some bargains so I can drive by."

Well, facts are cheap in the age of transparency. I will quite joyously look at stuff on the internet, even set up an MLS Gateway or feed for someone on the speculation that they'll come back to me later for a showing or to make an offer. Setting up such a feed takes very little time, and about the expertise of an eleven year old that has learned to fill out internet forms. Oh, and MLS access. Can't forget MLS access. We've got a brand new system that lets me custom define the search area now - I can click the corners of a search area I want on a map, and it will return only the results within that area. It's a really neat feature, and using it takes about ten seconds of training, and maybe ten minutes to do the whole thing. I'll happily do it as the possible prelude to a limited service commission, and even if the prospects end up using another agent, I've risked and lost nothing significant. No agency contract required, or even asked. I've even done it for folks who didn't want to give me their phone numbers so I could follow up. If they come back to make an offer, my compensation will be set in the offer paperwork.

But good analysis, experience, and expertise are not free - or even cheap. Furthermore, my time is valuable - and you're asking for a lot of it. I might find three or even four real potential bargains when I spend a full day searching - and that's in a target rich environment. Furthermore, I've got a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to draw upon that many agents don't, and I look at a lot of properties. I can winnow 100 listings on the internet to twenty possibles in about an hour, go through them in about five hours, of which I might show a client who has made the commitment to work with me six, with usually one or two standouts among those. The rest will have something that to experienced, knowledgeable eyes, will have reasons why it is not a viable choice for these particular clients. Maybe it's overpriced and I have reason to believe the owner won't negotiate. Maybe the location or surroundings have an unsolvable issue - one reason you can only tell a bargain by getting out of the office and looking at property. Given the area I work, most often there's something going on with the property itself that's not worth what it's going to cost to fix. I love the older East County suburbs of San Diego - they are good places to live, and when you consider what you get for what you spend, they blow the rest of the county away as far as value. Furthermore, I think the conditions are getting right for the housing buzz to rediscover them. But anytime you consider structures that mostly vary from thirty to eighty years old, you have to watch for maintenance and repair issues, and it really helps to know what you're looking for. Furthermore, it is always necessary to understand the market the property is being listed in. The only way you can do that is by having been in the properties that have sold recently, and the only way you can do that is to go out and look at them while they are still "for sale" because it's not likely the new owners will let you in after it sells.

What I'm trying to say is that the fact of the existence of a listing on MLS is cheap - basically free. You want me to send you addresses of properties for sale meeting certain criteria, that's easy and I'm happy to do it, no strings attached. Anything like that, that can be done by automated computer search, is not a part of what I'm really offering for sale, and I'll give it away on the speculation that sometimes, I'll make something when that person comes back to me to write an offer.

But the ability to recognize a bargain and equally important, what is not - that's the largest part of what I'm really selling as a buyer's agent. Winnowing those 100 listings to a few standout values is a valuable skill. If you don't agree with this, you shouldn't need or want that skill, and you shouldn't be talking to an agent about finding bargains. For people that want me to use that skill, there is a fee. This is precisely equivalent to the difference between a computer programmer giving away some old boilerplate code for free - but they want to be paid for a brand new custom program. This requires all of the same things: Expertise, analysis, experience, knowledge of the area and the current market, the time it takes me to build, run, and debug the bargain-finding program in consultation with the client, and everything else that's involved. The mental ability to do those things did not suddenly appear one morning and it does not maintain itself. Furthermore, the liability for doing this if I make a mistake is huge. Agent mistakes cannot be undone by simply re-writing a few lines of code to work correctly, and having the ability to sue me and my insurance company if I do make that mistake is a huge benefit to the client in and of itself. If they make the mistake, they're stuck - and to be blunt, the probability of a non-professional making that mistake is both much larger than most home buyers believe and many times the probability that I will make that mistake - while if I make that mistake, they can get a lawyer and sue me for everything they might have lost, plus court costs, plus other damages ad nauseum. The idea isn't to sue, but rather not to make that costly mistake in the first place. An amazingly large percentage of buyers make mistakes of a magnitude that I find incomprehensible, all in the name of saving a fraction of what the mistake costs.

The ability to recognize a bargain property is a valuable skill. If you disagree with this, what reason do you have for looking at properties before you buy them? Why don't you simply pick out the cheapest property that meets your specifications on MLS, make an offer, come to an agreement, and pay the price, all sight unseen? Remember, you're claiming that the ability to recognize a bargain does not have value. Why would you want to take the time to look if there's no value in it? When there are ten thousand identical items in a warehouse or on the grocery store shelves, you grab one and get on with your life. You might look at the label to make certain it was manufactured to fill the need you have. You don't bother opening the box - if it's defective, you can just exchange it for another. They're all interchangeable.

But that isn't the case even on everything in the grocery stone. There's a reason they wrap meat in transparent plastic - so you can see the piece of meat you're buying. To view the cut, how much fat is on it, how large a piece of meat it really is, how fresh it is - in short, the value of the meat. If you know what good meat looks like, you've seen people that have no clue as to what to look for choosing crummy meat that you've just rejected. It happens most of the times when I'm at the meat counter, as a matter of fact. It's why the grocery stores keep putting out bad cuts of bad meat. Somebody who doesn't know any better will buy it.

The same thing happens in real estate. I have dealt with people who bought into just about every bad situation imaginable - and now they're trying to unload the results of that onto someone else at a premium price. When I list a property, it's even my job to help them do so. But a significant percentage wouldn't even be selling if they had made the right choice in the first place!

The point I'm trying to make is this: Because the ability to find and recognize a bargain is a valuable skill, if you want it, you're going to pay for it. You can either pay me consultant rates by the hour, or you can pay me by doing the transaction with me. In either case, you're going to sign a contract that spells out exactly what that pay is. If you want bargains I've already found, those are valuable also. I can use the basic information as a lure to attract other people willing to work with me. If you buy it and you are not my client, the simple physical reality is that it's not available for people who are my clients. You got the benefit of my expertise without paying for it - and those who are willing to pay for it didn't. Contrary to something I read by a listing agent the other day, I have no responsibility to market the property - I haven't accepted agency, sub-agency, or anything else. When I'm acting as a buyer's agent, I have no obligation to any owner to sell their property. And until some prospective buyers sign my agency contract, I have no responsibility to them as far as locating and evaluating property. So if they're not going to sign my contract - and a non-exclusive agreement is all either one of us needs - I have no responsibility to give them the benefits of my expertise for free, any more than a lawyer or a computer programmer does. As a matter of fact, that non-exclusive contract is me betting that I will find something sufficiently above and beyond the market that they want to buy it - because if they don't buy it, the contract says I don't make anything. It's me betting that my expertise will cause them to want to stick with me - because if it doesn't or they don't want to, there's no reason they have to. If that bargain I find isn't a bargain, they can walk away with no obligations. But if it is a bargain, they use me as buyer's agent. The only reason to refuse to sign a non-exclusive agency contract is if you're not willing to work with the agent who brings you the bargain.

And that describes most of those who call or email. When asked to sign my contract, they'll say, "I'm working with someone." To which the answer is, "No, you're not. They're not doing the job. If they were, you wouldn't have come to me. What you are asking for is no different than asking one lawyer to do for free what you're paying another lawyer to do, or asking one computer programmer to do for free what you're paying someone else for. If you didn't think that what I do was somehow valuable to you, you wouldn't have contacted me and we'd both be doing something else right now. So your choice is this: Do you want to stick with someone who isn't doing the job, or do you want to work with someone who will get the job done, and will give you permission to fire him if he doesn't?"

Loyalty has a place. It's perfectly fine to give your Uncle Harry a chance to earn your business. But if Uncle Harry gives you his business card and tells you to call him when you've found the property you want to buy (or a property you may want to buy), he hasn't earned your business. In fact, he's told you he's unworthy of it. That's not an agent. That's a transaction coordinator, which most agents will charge you extra for so that they can go out prospecting and gladhanding for other business while the transaction coordinator does paperwork - the only real work their office does. But full service should be a lot more than a transaction coordinator doing paperwork in the office - and the office should pay for that coordinator out of what they make, not charge you extra for it. In this scenario, what expertise are you really getting? The ability to fill out all the paperwork on a checklist? It is important - but is it worth the thousands of dollars to you? Or is the ability to find you a bargain while discarding properties that aren't bargains what's really worth what a buyer's agent makes?

If you want a bargain on real estate, work with the buyer's agent who finds bargains you want to buy. The principle is the same one that says if you want the ditch Charlie digs, you pay Charlie to dig a ditch, not George. If you want the haircut Jane gives, you go to Jane's shop for her haircut - not down the street to Mary. And if John the mechanic isn't fixing your car correctly, you don't pay John and then ask Dave to do the work for free. You take your car away from John and take it down to Dave, and pay him for the work he does. It doesn't matter that John's mechanic shop has nifty uniforms, a funny advertising campaign, or anything else other than the mechanic who fixes your car so it runs right, which they don't. Dave fixes your car so that it runs right, you pay Dave, and you go back to Dave the next time it breaks down. If the funny advertising campaign is worth giving John some money, that's fine. But you're still going to have to pay Dave to fix your car, and he's going to want you to sign his service contract before he does any real work. The same thing applies to when you want to buy real estate. If Uncle Harry isn't doing the job you need him to do, you fire Uncle Harry and start working with someone else. Don't tell me you want me to find bargains for you but you're working with Uncle Harry. Get Uncle Harry to find you the bargains. If he's not doing that, your choice is really very simple: Suffer with Uncle Harry, or start working with someone who will do the job that he isn't.

When I'm looking to buy professional services, I don't look for the office with the lawyer with the neat ad campaign, computer programmers who act friendliest, or the doctor who talks about how to draw customers into their office. I look for the office who will demonstrate their expertise, keep me there by demonstrating their knowledge of the expertise I need, explain everything I need to know (preferably before I need to know it), advise me as to what my best choices are and the consequences of those choices. I want the office that finds other, better alternatives and offers them to me. That's sanity. That's what's valuable to me.

The same principle applies to real estate. If you want to do the searching yourself, that's fine. Here's your MLS gateway, call me when something pops up that you want me to get involved in. But if you want real expertise on the buyer's side of the transaction, that gateway is not what you want and you're going to have to agree to pay the agent who gives it to you. Because it is valuable, and if you didn't think it was valuable, you wouldn't be asking for it. I am not cheap - no good agent is. But I'm a lot less expensive than using a cheap agent.

Caveat Emptor

While I have been reading the site for about a year, I have tended to gloss over or completely ignore the posts regarding real estate and purchasing a home. That is, until about two weeks ago when I had a conversation with my parents and decided that I want to stop being a renter and instead purchase my first home this spring. I have tried to wade through your numerous posts on Home Buying and Real Estate but am having trouble finding a nice, organized timeline of posts to read. Could you perhaps help me by providing a suggested reading list of your posts for a soon-to-be first time home buyer, in the order that you think I should read them?

Thanks for your time. I appreciate all of the work you put into the site.


The organization on the site is not intended to be in any kind of order. Still, I'll go over a few of the most important ones that everyone needs to know.

Should I Buy a Home? series

Preparation, Process, and Consequences

The companion articles on why renting is for suckers and when you should not buy:
Why Renting Is For Suckers and When You Should Not Buy Real Estate

Why There is Money in Fixer Properties

Then read my basic series on loans: The Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement, parts I and II, Truth in Lending, and HUD 1, and why you should ignore APR.

The California Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (MLDS) Part I, The California Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (MLDS) Part II, Truth In Lending, HUD 1, Why You Should Ignore APR

Now you're ready for the advice on shopping a loan, and dealing with agents. In no particular order:

Payment, Interest Rate and Up Front Costs: Choosing a loan Intelligently
Mortgage and Real Estate Red Flags
Levels of Mortgage Documentation, or, Why You Should Demand to Do More Paperwork
Questions You Should Ask Prospective Loan Providers
Available Real Estate Loan Types
Fixed rate, Balloon, ARM and Hybrid Loans
One Loan Versus Two Loans
The Best Idea About Applying for a Mortgage
Loan Rate Sheets: An example, and the games lenders play
Mortgage Loan Rate Locks
Loan Quote Guarantees

On dealing With Real Estate Agents:

Buyer's Agents: What Do They Do?
Production Metrics versus Consumer Metrics
Exclusive versus Non-Exclusive Buyer's Agent Agreement

Then then while the whole thing is in process, come back and read as much as you have time for.

I'm exploring book publication, organized in more or less the chronological order you need to know everything.

(If anyone has access to a good literary agent, I'm interested!)

Caveat Emptor

I get occasional questions about the difference between these three kinds of activity. Well, there are subjective parts to the answer, but here are some general guidelines:

A true flipper is looking for a quick turn on the property, usually without much work done to really improve the property. They don't typically keep the property and rent it; they're not willing to accept the work of being a landlord. They make their money off of desperate sellers and getting a very low price for a property. Typically, their profit comes from how far down they can drive a desperate seller.

A fixer is someone who is looking to make a profit by making the property more attractive. By making it more attractive, they are able to sell for more money. They are willing to do more than just cosmetic things, but they still typically sell when the renovations are done, although many will wait for a full year to gain better tax treatment. They do not typically rent the property out, although they may live in it while it's being renovated.

An investor has the idea of buying and holding for a certain period of time, usually leveraging rent to make the payments, sometimes breaking even, preferably with positive cash flow, usually while eventually hoping to cash in on capital appreciation, but always holding for periods that start at two years and go up from there.

Now I've heard a lot of folks who are really fixers call themselves flippers, but I've never heard a flipper call themselves a fixer. Why? Because the general perception admires flippers more, because they theoretically make money by their wits instead of by the sweat of their brows. It's more status to call yourself a flipper, although why people think it's better to tell people they make their living by shorting people who really have no choice, instead of by actually creating value by improving the properties they purchase, is beyond me. I don't look down on flippers in any way. That seller had a reason they thought it was a deal worth taking; nobody held a gun to their head. I do have more admiration for fixers and investors - which are more difficult. But due to the huge long swell of the seller's market that concluded recently, many people got addicted to the fact that it enabled people who didn't really know what they were doing to buy properties for too much money, and six months later sell for a profit despite not having done anything to improve the property.

Right now, the local market does not support flipping, due to the fact that no matter how good the bargain they buy the property for is, as soon as the flippers go to sell it and actually make a profit, they become one of the thirty-odd sellers for every buyer out there right now. Indeed, I know of a couple of properties out there on the market that have been through more than one sale from desperate flipper to optimistic flipper, and then the optimistic flipper gets desperate and sells to another optimist. Indeed, with most properties on the market, it's a gamble as to whether fixing will yield a profit after expenses in the usual fixer's time frame. There are quite a few out there that are suitable, and many more that are not. With the ratio of 30 buyers to every seller this last week, the odds are against it in all but a very few properties.

Investors who buy now will do very well. There are a lot of desperate sellers out there, and so long as they've got positive cash flow in a sustainable situation, all they've got to do is wait for the market to move in their favor. Until then, they are making money. Real investors never turn into desperate sellers, because they always have the option of hanging on to it. It might not be their original plan or their most preferred option, but it is there.

I love working with fixers. It's a lot more work to find suitable properties right now, but that's fine. And, of course, families who buy for a personal residence in the current market will do very well in the long term. But flippers are basically wasting their time. The market isn't there to make them happy, and I can't say as that causes me any grief.

Caveat Emptor

Why doesn't real estate just sell for the asking price instead of having to go thru all the paper work...?

Wouldn't it be easier to just put a price on it and sell it for that price? We don't go thru all of that when purchasing cars or anything else. Where did this practice start?

Land is important, it is immovable, they are not making any more, and it is uniquely identifiable by location. It is used as a basis for taxation, and social status. Not too long ago, the vast majority of the population worked by farming land.

Precisely how much land goes with a parcel, and precisely what the boundaries and limitations are, is critically important. Taking just a few square feet away can mean that it cannot be used for a given purpose. Rights of easement are important to everybody served by that easement. Wars have been fought over simply the right to pass over a piece of land. Zoning disclosures are a real issue with at least twenty percent of all properties, as well as any number of their issues about the condition, permitted uses, boundaries, and appurtenances.

Because of its importance, its permanence, and its value, there has been a lot of fraud committed over land, therefore the systems of title and escrow. Add that to the fact that land is taxed by most governments, and you have the justification for public records systems.

Because of its permanent and immovable nature, banks will loan money against land on better terms than anything else. But since a fair number of people over the years have gotten money for land they don't own, or gotten more money for land than it is worth, the lenders have instituted safeguards such as the appraisal, inspection, and lenders title insurance. It still happens, by the way. Last week I looked a a property in a fantastic location, but really old and run down. By the market, I'd say it was maybe worth $600,000 - but the owners convinced someone to loan them $1.8 million dollars on it.

Every part of the process has a reason it is there. There is no need for anyone who is not a professional to learn them, but the reason those professionals exist is so that you don't have to know what they know - and that runs true for everyone from the escrow officer to the title officer to the agent, and trying to shortcut the process is a recipe for disaster. Just ask the people who got burned, and whose cases are the reasons for all that paperwork and hassle you have to go through to buy or sell a property. And people still get burned today. Most often, it's the people who try to shortcut the process to save a few dollars. "You don't need that appraisal! You're paying cash!" "You don't need that inspection! Solid as a rock!" "You don't need an agent! Trust me!"

There are good solid reasons why you don't want to cut any corners, and why you want a professional working for you every step of the way. Proper disclosure will save you from a lawsuit you wouldn't believe. Proper investigation will stop you from walking in to the problem in the first place, or at least get you some serious concessions if you have a good buyer's agent on your side. And if they fail to do their job properly, it gives you the right to go after their insurance and their broker's bond, and even to sue them to make you whole. By trying to "save money" and cut corners, you could easily find yourself out a much larger amount of money with zero recourse.

Caveat Emptor

Got an email alerting me to this fact. The e-mail was gobbledegook as far as making any sense but I went to the FHA home page and they had better information.

It appears as if the FHA, through OFHEO, has opted to maximally raise their limits, to 125% of the median sales price in their Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). For a very few MSAs, the limit is the legal maximum of $729,750.

For the first time, conforming loan limits are not going to be one number for the 48 contiguous states. This is a very welcome and long overdue development, even if it does make life more complicated. Go to the FHA Mortgage Limits page to find out how much the limits are going to be in your area.

I wrote an article about waiting for the limits and how Fannie and Freddie, and the FHA separately, are going to have to decide what they're actually going to fund. FHA's limits have now been announced, but we're still waiting for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are going to react. Keep in mind that they are 98% privately held corporations. They want to stay on Congress' good side because they do have some moral or historical claims on the taxpayer if they get in trouble doing what Congress wants them to do, but the final decision as to what they will fund belongs to them. Now that the FHA has made their announcement, I would look for Fannie and Freddie to be making their decisions as to what they will and will not fund fairly quickly, and that will set the limits as to what a conventional conforming loan is.

Caveat Emptor

UPDATE: I just went the the Credit Union, and not only they but the bank next door are doing something we used to call "Betting on the come" when I was a controller. They're advertising "Jumbo loans for Conforming Rates!" This is fundamentally dishonest. What they're doing is taking applications based upon what they think Fannie and Freddie will do. However, if they guess wrong, they're not going to actually fund the loan, especially given the two percent divergence between conforming and jumbo rates for A paper at the same price. Bottom line: They're trolling for clients with incredibly misleading advertising, and if Fannie and Freddie don't come through according to what these institutions expect, there's going to be a large number of very angry people.

People who talk about learning skills tend to discuss a model for learning called the conscious competence learning model.

It starts with unconscious incompetence. You not only don't know how to do something, you don't realize that it is a skill that requires learning. "Anyone can do that", people at this stage of learning will think, despite the fact that they never have. They have, in fact, no basis for comparison. Some things are as simple as tripping over your own feet, but most aren't.

The next stage is the conscious incompetent. You still don't know how to do whatever it is, but at least you know that you don't know how. Maybe you've tried and fallen flat upon your face, maybe it's something that you instinctively know is beyond your training or ability. Back when I worked for the FAA and people would find out what I did for a living, it's was amusing to see how many people would immediately volunteer that they couldn't have done my job. For some reason, I don't get that now, despite the fact that the skills of being a good real estate agent are at least as difficult to acquire.

The next stage up the ladder is the conscious competent. Some preparation, supervision, a few botched tries, and then you do it right without anyone having to step in. But you've got to think - really pay attention, take your time and be careful about what you're doing.

The final stage is unconscious competence, where the skill becomes second nature. You're good at whatever it is. Most people over the age of two are at this stage as far as the skill of walking is concerned. They do it without considering how to move the muscles that make the legs and hips move. They walk whatever distance they need to without even paying attention. And here's an important point: Sometimes by not paying attention, people step on something or trip over something and get seriously hurt. They walk in front of a semi, or trip over the coffee table and fall through a window or just step on an oily patch that causes their feet to go out from under them and hit the back of their skull on the pavement.

It is my contention that nobody is up to unconscious competence when it comes to real estate.

In fact, if you think you've achieved unconscious competence at most of the core skills of real estate, you're almost certainly stuck on the first level.

First off, real estate isn't one skill. It's at least half a dozen. The average client doesn't care about how good we are at attracting other clients. They care if we interact with them incorrectly, but I have yet to hear of a prospective client saying, "I want to sign up with someone who's great at prospecting for leads." They'll say highly correlated things like "I want to work with a top producer," or "I want to work with (insert heavily advertised brand here)" but they really don't care about lead prospecting competence per se. Yet this is probably the most discussed skill set on real estate websites. I don't understand why other agents think this is fascinating to clients, but by how often they talk about it, they evidently do. Maybe because it's one of the big focal points for every office - if you don't attract enough business, you're not going to be in the business. Nonetheless, clients don't really care about this one. You could be the worst prospector in the business, but somehow get enough clients to stay in business, and as long as you're good at everything else, the clients are going to be happy.

Then there are the interpersonal skills that most people have in fact developed by the time they're adults. Hello, how are you? Nice day, and so on from there until we get to the pinnacle of those skills, handling people so well that they never realize they've been handled. People care about this, and they know they care. Don't believe me? Whatever you do for a living, try calling your next prospect something nasty. You can't do real estate without these skills, but not only are they not the central job function for real estate licensees, but clients actually do not want somebody who is obviously too good at this. Why? They like the basic skills, but they don't like being played by sales persons, something that's happened to basically everyone by the time they're ready to buy real estate or get a loan. Nonetheless, many people choose agents and loan officers based upon feeling "a connection." *Buzz*. Thank you for playing. If a prospective agent isn't competent at the interpersonal dance, that's one thing. But 95% of all agents are quite good at it, and it doesn't mean a darned thing about their competence at real estate. Anybody with any competence at interpersonal skills can talk a good game in the office. They could be ready to crack that license prep course any day - not actually know a thing about real estate yet - and still manage to generate "a connection."

Then there's the paperwork and legal CYA stuff. I could name names of nationwide real estate firms that take months to cover these skills with new licensees, and brag about their training based upon that. The obvious snark that occurs to me every time I see one of their advertisements is, "How is being able to avoid legal judgments when you've hosed your client a virtue in the client's eyes?" In other words, it blows my mind that they actually brag about it to clients. To be fair, this skill set is a real part of the career, but I'd like to see more emphasis upon actually doing a good job for the client, not disclosing everything in small print, hidden among 500 other sheets of paper at final document signing. There is stuff here that you're going to see on every transaction, or almost every transaction, but pretty much every real estate transaction is going to have something going on that is different from some hypothetical "typical" transaction, and if you aren't thinking about what you're doing, it's very likely you'll miss something important. Even if you are thinking carefully, you might miss something. People successfully sue agents every day, and the defendants are not all incompetent. This isn't a skill that gets clients a better bargain very often, and perfect paperwork doesn't mean the client didn't buy a vampire property, that they got a good bargain even if they didn't buy a vampire, that they sold for a good price in a timely fashion, or anything else except that the paperwork is perfect. The paperwork will usually tell them if they are careful enough, but "careful enough" can be "reading documents for forty-six hours straight at final signing," and even then, it's pointless unless they've got the willpower to say no to the transaction at the last moment like that. Nonetheless, bad paperwork is what the attorneys of former clients find easiest to pin on real estate agents, and almost every judgment against an agent has "bad paperwork" behind it as the evidence. Paperwork is a necessary skill for agents, but it it's only evidence of a good or bad job - it isn't the good job or bad job itself.

Negotiation is a critical skill for agents, and many do actually study it. But for every agent I encounter who understands principles of negotiation, another is completely clueless and a third thinks negotiation is where you tell the other side everything about how the transaction is going to be. You should see some of the contracts my buyer clients have been told to sign - take it or leave it - in the middle of the strongest buyer's market of the last fifteen years. And these folks wonder why the property didn't sell. Actually, I'll bet that if you work with buyers, you wouldn't be surprised. I just randomly pulled up twenty listings in the zip code my office is in - and all but two had violations of RESPA right in the listing. Bare, baldfaced violations of RESPA - steering is illegal, no matter the form it takes. It's not only setting you up for a lawsuit, it's setting your client up for a lawsuit. If DRE wanted to put at least half the agents and brokerages in California out of business over this one point, I think it would be pretty trivial. But I digress - this paragraph is about negotiation. Everything about the transaction is negotiable, and refusing to negotiate anything can be grounds for losing an excellent offer. Price is not an independent variable, and it's not the most important of a series of completely independent points. It may be the central issue of a negotiation, but it influences everything else about the negotiation, and is in turn influenced by all those other factors. What does each side need, what do they want, what would they settle for, and what are they willing to give up in order to get it? If the answer to this question is "nothing," then they must not want it very badly! There are many factors other than money, but they all inter-relate, and the person who can figure out something the other side wants that isn't money can use that to make both sides happier. Negotiation isn't just faxing offers back and forth, and in the context of real estate, it's a skill that takes a significant amount of practice as well as study to maintain. Furthermore, more than any other skill involved in real estate, negotiation never gets to be so strong a skill that you can do a good job without thinking about it. For one thing, on the other side of that negotiation is another agent who does the same thing. I always presume the other side is better at it than I am to start with. Evidence quite often proves this presumption to be nonsense, but you don't hose your client in negotiations by paying attention and being careful. Nor is there any metric for negotiation skills except how good the deal you get one particular client is, and since every property is unique, often the client has no real idea whether you should be nominated for negotiator of the year or pilloried for incompetence. I haven't heard of anybody being sued for poor or non-existent negotiation skills. I have heard of buyer's agents getting beat up by their brokers for doing too good of a job - lowering the commission.

The next skill is property evaluation. This is more important to buyer's agents than listing agents, but listing agents can benefit by knowing it as well. It breaks into several skill facets, each of which is a skill that requires instruction and practice. The most important facet of this is the ability to spot defects that are going to cost the client money - actual structural problems. Ask yourself: Is the fact that the agent tells you they're not an inspector going to make you feel better about buying a property where the roof caves in three weeks later? Is that going to absolve the agent of blame in your mind? Don't expect your agent to note everything that a contractor or inspector or engineer will - but they should tell you about everything they see, and they should see most of it, and it should come as part of a full service package, so you don't have to spend $300 getting an inspector out, or $600 for an engineer, not to mention put a deposit into escrow where you may not get it back for quite some time if the seller wants to be obstinate. Furthermore, without a good agent who will tell you this stuff, you might have to do this multiple times. Instead, with a good agent you know about the problem before you consider putting an offer in - and instead of a costly drama that eats your life, you walk away unscathed and find another property that actually suits you. I just helped a client cross four properties off their list today, all of which would have sent him through that cycle. Decorator's eye is another facet of this - helping the client stage a property - or helping them see the potential of a property despite poor staging. Rehabber's eye is related, yet a distinct sub-skill - helping the client see the property with a few changes, usually not very expensive ones. Location evaluation: How does the location of the property fit with the client's agenda? Schools, traffic, shopping, environmental noise and other factors. Sometimes, the client doesn't know themselves, as I have discovered upon many occasions. All of these are part of the core job function, all are skills that must be developed and practiced if you want them. They are also critical to how happy a client is going to be with an agent's work - particularly if you're working as a buyer's agent, as I usually am. But it seems that this whole group of critical skills gets neglected in favor of "Which property has one feature that makes Mrs. Client swoon with delight?" This approach is conceptually similar to "throw enough mud at the wall and eventually some will stick." Out of sheer frustration if nothing else. But I have yet to see a single brokerage train their clients for any of this entire group of skills. Indeed, most of the major chains seem to be doing their best to pretend these are not part of an agent's function. Here's the thing: I can get people to buy and sell properties without these skills, and never get sued successfully over them. But then it's completely hit or miss as to whether the client will really be happy with the property - and who do you think is going to get the blame if they're not? I had some clients insist upon buying property on the corner of two moderately busy streets last year - and I made certain to remind them of the traffic and noise throughout the transaction - giving them encouragement to change their mind if they weren't certain they were going to be happy with it. But I'll bet you a nickel they call me when it's time to sell it because these opportunities to change their mind also generated a real buy-in to the situation for them.

Marketing skill is more critical for listing agents, but buyer's agents need to know marketing as well. How do you get the attention of someone who will want to buy this property? How do you persuade them it's worth making an offer on? What are the available venues, and what actually works? Theory says that there is one buyer out there who will pay more for the property than anyone else - how do you get their attention or that of someone close to them? Get them to come look, get them to see value, get them to make an offer you're happy to accept, get them to carry through on the purchase? On the buyer's side, you've got to be able to counter the fecal matter - and I can count on the fingers of one hand all the properties I've been in the last year where I didn't find some obvious fecal matter in the way it was represented, or the things that the listing agent said in order to get it sold. (FYI: This fecal matter has an ugly habit of biting the disseminators later on.)

Did you think I was leaving market knowledge out? Here it is. How does the property compare to everything else around it? What's the general market for real estate like in the area? What else has sold lately, for how much, and what was it really like? It's too late now to get a viewing of all the comparables that sold within the last few months - the lock box is gone, the new owners have moved in, they're done with all that transactional nonsense, and the vast majority sure as heck aren't going to let random strangers poke around their new house. How many agents get off their backside, get into their car, go out and look, take notes, and remember? Most of the agents I've done business with never leave the office except for an actual showing generated by clients driving around, or surfing the internet, or even reading the "for sale" ads. That is so backwards I have difficulty articulating precisely how messed up it is. A good agent knows the market, knows the comparables for sale, and knows how a given property compares. They might not have been in every single one, but they've been in enough for a good comparison. Patronizing an agent who hasn't done this, who doesn't make a habit of this, is like having half an agent - at most. How in the nine billion names of god are you going to help a client price a listing properly if you haven't looked at the competition? How in the name of ultimate evil are you going to know a property is or isn't worth making an offer on, and for how much? Yet people will do put up with this nonsense because they don't know any better. This is probably the agent skill that needs the most practice of all, and decays the most quickly if not practiced. There's this one neighborhood about three miles from my office that I haven't been into for almost three months, and I'm terrified I'm going to get a call for it before I can remedy the situation. There's nothing wrong with clients suggesting properties, and I firmly believe that no matter how messed up the property is, they should be given the opportunity to see any property that catches their eye - but doing that and only that takes zero advantage of the one thing good agents have that bad ones (and 99.999% of the general public) don't - precisely this expertise. It is this expertise that makes more difference than any other skill set in results for clients - whether selling or buying. You can't recognize either a bargain or the opposite without the context to put it in. You can't price a property right without knowing the competing properties and their relative strengths and weaknesses. But all too many people, both agents and general public, discount this difficult to acquire skill, thinking, "Anybody can do that!" Question: Which learning category does this place them into?

I don't know how many people I've met that seem proud to be stuck in unconscious incompetence. But just because you don't recognize the skill doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it doesn't mean that its lack won't bite you, and it most assuredly does not mean that its presence in others won't hurt you. For real estate transactions, to the tune of thousands of dollars at a minimum. Knowledge springs, not from the mental impenetrability of "Anyone can do that!", but rather from the admission that perhaps you might have something to learn.

Caveat Emptor

I enjoy your blog very much and figured you would be a good person to ask this prepayment penalty question to.

Is there a prepayment penalty if you dont pay down the whole amount? For
instance, say I owe 620k and want to refinance this. Can I get a loan for
say 610k from another lender and leave 10k with the orignal lender?

Does that avoid the prepay penalty?


Have to admire the ingenuity, but it won't work. Here's why:

First off, the penalty is triggered by paying a certain amount extra. There are two main trigger points for a prepayment penalty, usually known as "first dollar" and "twenty percent." "First dollar" prepayment penalties are uncommon, but they do exist. What such a penalty means is that if you pay one extra dollar of principal during the time the penalty is in effect, you will get hit for the penalty - usually six months interest on the prepaid amount. Not so bad if you pay an extra dollar and get hit with a three cent penalty, but you have to pay a substantial amount to get any noticeable good out of it. You pay $1000 extra, and that's $30 they're going to hit you with on a 6% loan. Pay off a $100,000 at 6%, and they're going to have their hands out for $3000 extra.

The other trigger point, "twenty percent" lets you pay down the balance by up to twenty percent for any given year without triggering the penalty. Note that this includes not only any extra you pay, but normal amortization as well. If you have a $100,000 balance, and would normally pay $3000 down through regular amortizationduring the year, this leaves you with "only" $17,000 of extra that you can pay before the penalty starts hitting you. Most often for this type of trigger, the prepayment penalty will only be assessed on any amount over 20% of the balance, but I have seen these charge the full penalty once triggered. So paying off $20,001 of a $100,000 balance at 6% might, depending upon your loan contract, cause a $600.03 penalty to be assessed - but most often it will only be that three cents. In this case, paying off the loan in full would only cause the penalty to be assessed on $80,000 - $2400 instead of $3000. It's also something to be cognizant of that this 20% paydown applies to the balance as of the start of the loan year, which runs from contract anniversary to anniversary. Say you have such a penalty in effect for three years. The first year you only pay it down to $80,000, escaping the penalty. The second year, you can only pay it down to $64,000 - by 20% of the beginning amount for the year - before triggering the penalty. If you do so, in year three you can only pay it down as far as $51,200 without triggering that penalty. This type of trigger is used when the lender is mostly worried about a complete refinance or selling the property. (A "soft" prepay is one where the penalty is not due if you actually sell the property, but most loans with prepayment penalties have "hard" penalties that are assessed at a certain trigger level, no matter the reason.)

No matter whether your penalty trigger is "first dollar" or "twenty percent" though, you're not going to refinance without paying it off completely. Here's why: In order for the new loan to be first in line, the old loan has to be paid off completely. The rates and prices on home loans that we all see advertisements and such for are predicated upon them being first trust deeds. They can only do this by paying off the previous loan in full and having a Reconveyance of the Deed of Trust recorded. Not paying the old loan off means no Reconveyance, which in turn means no new loan because their Deed of Trust will not be first in line. You'd have to content yourself with the higher prices for a loan priced as a second trust deed.

There are only four ways to avoid a prepayment penalty that I'm aware of. 1) Don't accept one in the first place, 2) Don't sell or refinance until it expires if you do accept one, 3) Convince a court the lender has done you sufficient dirt for the court to order part of the contract voided (this takes a lot of dirt), or 4) Swap your old penalty period for a brand new one by refinancing with the same lender, if they will allow it (They don't have to).

Caveat Emptor

One of the things I keep telling folks about the real estate market, whatever area you live in, is that it is controlled by the loan market. If you want to understand where real estate in general is headed, look at the loan market and the financial markets that generate them.

Right now, the loan markets are in full panic mode. In the last week or so, all non-governmentally guaranteed loans for more than 95% of value have disappeared. This means that VA and FHA are all that is left above 95% loan to value ratio, and you've pretty much got to be A paper full documentation to get 95%. Since 100% Loan to Value ratio financing has been the universal financing vehicle for borrowers for the past several years, this constricts their choices. Comparatively few people have money they could use for a down payment if they wanted to. Not everybody qualifies VA or FHA. VA requires military service, and FHA has loan limits that aren't going away. As I'm writing this, we're still waiting for hard numbers on what increased loan limits will be, but I strongly doubt that they are going to be raised as high as most people seem to be assuming that they will.

Furthermore, all of the other loan programs to get 100% loan financing have gone away, and all of the supplemental programs to extend buyers' ability to qualify have rather sharp income limits, and those income limits are not going up at all. They actually effect San Diego less than most areas, but even here, they constrict the ability of buyers to qualify. Both the mortgage credit certificateand all of the municipal first time buyers programs have income limits that mean people can't make over a certain amount of income - and even if they have no other bills they can't qualify for the loan on property over a certain loan amount, because even if they have no other bills, their debt to income ratio will be too high. You can't cheat on this - all of these programs require full documentation of income. Above about $420,000, even if they conforming limit goes up, even if the prospective buyers make the maximum amount per year for the program and have no other bills, they won't qualify based upon debt to income ratio.

The moral of this story is simple: If you want to sell your property above a given price, you're not competing for first time buyers. You are competing for people who have sold (or are about to sell) their property for a profit and are now ready to move up. No matter what the conforming loan limit is or becomes in your area, if the prospective buyers don't qualify for the necessary loan based upon debt to income ratio, they can't buy.

Any time you raise the price you want to sell by a certain amount, there are people that no longer qualify to buy your property. You have priced them out, and no matter how much they might want to buy your property, the fact remains that they cannot.

As for buyers making the median family income in San Diego of $72,100, their limit on 100% financing is about $270,000. So unless they have a significant down payment, a family making $6000 per month is looking at a condominium. Just a cold hard fact.

There will always be buyers around the edges who are exceptions. People who have saved or inherited a substantial down payment in defiance of demographic trends. But those are the exceptions, and for every one of them, you have a dozen of more unqualified buyers engaged in wishful thinking. I just spent the most of the morning unsuccessfully looking for a stated income loan to save the home of a guy who called me out of the blue this morning. At this point, I'm 99% certain there's nothing I can do, because the loan program to help him doesn't exist today. Six months ago it would have been a slam-dunk - there's plenty of equity. Before you ask me what relevance this has to buying and selling, I'm going to answer: Every time a lending program goes away, there go some buyers who otherwise could have qualified. Right now, there is no stated income. Doesn't bother me much, as 95% or more of my clients have always been full doc, but for those who are used to the opposite ratio, it's the apocalypse. Ditto for sellers and listing agents who don't understand what it takes to qualify, and who price their properties as if the loan market for two years ago was still going gangbusters. When the property sits for months because the people who might buy can't qualify for that big of a loan, that's a problem.

With all this said, the people who do have the cash or the ability to qualify for a loan are in the driver's seat now. You may be getting tired of hearing this from me, but veterans can qualify for about 20% more loan than someone without military service for the same income. People with 5% or more down are in an even stronger situation, and people who have both things going for them have an incredible amount of negotiating leverage. When the loan market will approve anyone who can fog a mirror, your competition is everyone who can fog a mirror. When the loan market wants to see guarantees and cold hard cash going into the property in the form of a down payment, your competition is, by comparison, non-existent.

Caveat Emptor

How do you transfer house ownership after someone dies and leaves you the house in a will?

The will must be probated. Once all debts of the estate are paid and the court agrees to a final disposition of assets, the executor will then create a deed giving whoever it is title to the property. It may or may not be part of the executor's job to record the deed with the county - so make certain it gets done yourself if you are the inheritor. It may cost a little ($65 locally), but it prevents huge problems down the road.

Now if there's a loan or other liens in effect, the mere fact that your predecessor died does not render them in any way invalid. Most specifically, Trust Deeds have the power to foreclose if the payments are not made in a timely manner. Sometimes the estate has the money to pay them off; more often it does not and somebody better keep making those payments during probate, which lasts a legal minimum of 9 months, or the issue will be academic before probate is resolved. Nor can estates, in general, secure financing, so refinancing the loan can be difficult. Relatively few dead people earn significant amounts of money.

On the other hand, if your property is in a Trust, then there is no probate on that part of the estate. Title to the property passes basically immediately to the successor trustee, who must comply with whatever instructions are made in the trust with regard to the property, but is otherwise free to do with it as they will within the limitations of the law. Among other issues encountered in probate but not here, this permits refinancing in whatever name happens to have the income to keep making the payments.

Caveat Emptor.

I got an ill-mannered complaint email about how an evil loan officer ordered the appraisal without waiting for the inspection to be done, and it turned out there was a minor problem that the seller likely could have had repaired, but this clown chose to walk away, and as a result is griping about having to pay for the appraisal.

First, that appraiser did the work based upon your representation you wanted the property. You signed a purchase contract saying that you were intending to purchase the property, and someone acting on your behalf because of that action ordered the appraisal, which has to be done if you're going to get a loan. That appraiser did the work. They are entitled to be paid.

Second, scheduling an appraisal promptly protects you. The longer the entire process takes, the worse the loan you are going to get. If they didn't lock your rate right away, the loan officer is gambling with your money. But rate locks aren't free, and they are for definite periods of time. The longer a rate lock is, the more you will pay for it. Furthermore, if you go beyond them you're either going to pay a tenth of a point for five days, or a quarter for fifteen (both assessed in full on the first day of extension) or pay worst case rates. The person who ordered the appraisal was acting in good faith to protect your interests based upon the representation that you wanted the property. If you didn't, why did you make an offer and sign the purchase contract? Speed is important in getting a loan done, and even if in some instances people like you end up paying for an appraisal when they cancel escrow, the people who actually want the property benefit by having everything done right away. Appraisals are around $350. A tenth of a point of $400,000 is $400. A quarter of a point is $1000. Or you can pay a quarter of a point more - $1000 - for a longer rate lock in the first place, but the assumption when you sign that purchase contract is that you want the property, which means the appraisal has to get done, and you want the lowest rate, which means the shortest practical lock time. People get sued - successfully - for not ordering the appraisal right away. This person was doing exactly their job.

I have stated before that I will bet money, based upon no additional information, that a loan done in thirty days or less will be a better loan than one that takes sixty or more. Ordering all of the services: inspections, appraisal, disclosures, zone report, etcetera, right away is part of how a good loan officer - and good agents - get a transaction to close fast, on time, and to the loan quoted. For the buyers who carry through on their intention, as evidenced by that signed contract, doing this is the only correct way to do business. Delaying the appraisal until after the inspection adds to the time it takes to get the loan done. How do you think the seller feels about everything they had to pay for, now that you flaked out?

A purchase contract should not be something you enter into lightly, thinking you can get out of it easily if the slightest thing goes wrong. This is part of the reason for buyers agents. They should explain to you that this is a binding contract, and you are agreeing to purchase that property, and in many cases the seller can sue to make you buy the property. A buyer's agent will also spot a lot of problems before you make the offer. Don't think of them as building inspectors; few agents have that license (and I'm not one of them). But there is nothing that says that I can't spot potential issues and bring them up. In this particular case, it's a trivial issue that I spot and tell my clients about on a regular basis before they make an offer, and as a result, we have dealt with the issue before the contract is agreed to.

Caveat Emptor

Whenever I go scouting in public forums, somebody is always asking, "What's the secret? How do you get rich in real estate?" The alternate to this question is "What do you know that I don't?"

These people are sure there's some magic formula for getting rich quick in real estate, but nobody is willing to share. They're a good person, they're a smart person, and in their mind, they deserve to make money as much as the next person. Why won't anyone tell them? No con artists need apply, of course.

The reason nobody except con artists will tell them is that there is no such secret. There are no mystical secrets of the universe that make you an overnight success in real estate or any other field. Like any other investment, it takes money to make money in real estate, and the more money you have and are willing to risk, the more money you can make. Leverage in real estate is a fantastic instrument, but in order to get the lender to loan you money, you have to be able to convince them you can repay it. This takes money, and it takes income. It can also be overdone, as many people have. Even if you win the bet about your property increasing in value, if you cannot make the payments you can bet on losing the whole thing.

Other people are skeptical of the value of real estate agents at all. "What do they know that I don't know?" is the question that I see asked the most, when they don't proceed directly to an assumption that the answer to this question is "Nothing," and from there the bashing begins.

Until somebody hits a real world snag, of course. "My house isn't selling. What do I do?" "A buyer offered me $X. Should I accept?" or "This happened. What do I do now?"

The issues are mostly preventable, and had even a brand new agent with the ink on their license still wet written the contract, chances are good that the potential problem would have been foreseen, and safeguards against it devised. This is, after all, what we're trained for and what we do. If I could learn a job by reading a couple books, I wouldn't need to pay you. Well, I know enough about many subjects to know that I can't learn everything I need to know by reading books, and that any pretense otherwise on my part would be foolish pretension. It might be one thing for me to pull my little girls out of the swimming pool when they get in over their head. It would be something else again to try an open ocean rescue.

And a financial lifeguard is an entirely apt analogy. It's not that you don't know how to swim, for crying out loud. It's that you got in to a situation beyond your capabilities, beyond your experience, and now that you're there, you can't get yourself out. Unfortunately for those who ignore "no lifeguard" signs in real estate, it's very difficult to go find that lifeguard while the trouble is going on. It's not like you can get a time out, and many times that fact that you are drowning may not be apparent until you breathe in water, months or years later. If there is a agent present the whole time, you can sue their insurance carrier for your losses, but most often, they will prevent the deadly misstep in the first place. Any agent with a lick of sense won't get involved when there's already an existing problem. That's where attorneys come in, and attorneys get much more expensive than the agent in a hurry.

It's not what agents know, but what they know. Anybody can read the financial press, and it's not too difficult to understand what they're saying. But knowing it and understanding it are two entirely different things. What good agents understand down deep at a level of calm certainty that nobody with an expertise less than theirs stands a cell phone's chance in an IED of talking them out of, and that is a system of approaching the transaction that debunks the hype, the nonsense, and makes certain that the numbers all work and the traps are all evaded. If you're not willing to pay the agent what it takes, spend a couple of years of your life familiarizing yourself with all of the issues, and you'll still likely fall short, because it's not just book learning, but experience, and even a new agent has a supervisor with a wealth of experience to draw upon. Nor is it just "sticks". There are an awful lot of carrots out there that are very valuable if know when and how to use them, and will cost a lot of money if you do not know when and how not to.

There aren't any huge and critical secrets. But there is a wealth of experience and understanding that people who do not deal with the real estate and mortgage markets every day are unlikely to have. Whether you're a computer programmer or any of a thousand other occupations, ask yourself if someone fresh out of college could do your job correctly on the first attempt. Because that's the bet you're making when you decide to work without an agent.

Caveat Emptor


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