Intermediate Information: January 2008 Archives


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor

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

Foreclosures: Bargain hunters beware!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat Emptor

Copyright 2005-2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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This page is a archive of entries in the Intermediate Information category from January 2008.

Intermediate Information: December 2007 is the previous archive.

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