X-Pert Knowledge: March 2008 Archives
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.
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.
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