Intermediate Information: January 2007 Archives

One of the consumer attitudes I encounter constantly is the feeling that if you cannot afford the loan, the lender will not loan you the money. This safety zone common sense sort of reliance upon lender policy as a backstop is not only false, but one of the best ways to get in trouble with real estate there is.

Once upon a time it may have been true. Back in the dim times fifty years ago, lenders required down payments, and retained their loans for the full duration. This provided at least two levels of protection for the lender. First, if people did default upon their loan, that down payment was a cushion for the lender in that the property was genuinely worth more than the lender had at risk. All real estate loans were done "full documentation", where the borrower proved they made enough money to make the payments and repay the loan. Underwriting rules were designed to filter out those whose employment was not stable enough, those who couldn't afford the loans, and those whose creditworthiness was marginal.

At the same time, however, real estate was far more affordable. The inability to get a loan on good terms meant that you were a little further away from the middle class house of your dreams, that you were going to have to save a little more, work a little harder, and perhaps settle for something less than you really wanted, but you could still have a good property. 800 square feet on a fifth of an acre, instead of 1200 square feet on half an acre. These really were typical property choices available then. You saved until you had forty or fifty percent down, instead of twenty, and then you maybe had to look a little bit harder, but it could be done, and people paid cash for their properties all the time. A three or five thousand dollar property was something that people could save the money to pay cash for, even at seventy five cents per hour.

That's not the case now. Even though people may make $40,000 per year, and the family has two incomes, they are not content with the lifestyle of fifty years ago that enabled people to save a down payment within a couple of years. Nor is employment as stable. People don't work forty years for The Company any longer.

The changes on the lender end have been even more profound. Lenders discovered making stock valuations rise as a primary method of becoming wealthy. Where once the most important thing to the stockholders was to have every single loan repaid in full, now it becomes more important to have portfolio growth, which makes potential investors willing to pay more for existing stock. Then it became unnecessary to actually hold loans until they ran their course, as investors were willing to pay more than the face value of the loan for the rights to receive payment! This nice dependable mortgage bonds were good as gold! Matter of fact, the money the lenders received by selling the loans was higher than they made by selling the loans. True, they might only make three to four percent from selling the obligation, as opposed to seven percent for the obligation itself, but they could do it in two to three months, as opposed to the entire year. In fact, they could go through the process four, five, or even six times per year: Receive a loan application, provide the funds on a short term basis, and then sell to investors for a three to four percent markup. Instead of earning seven to eight percent on their money per year, they were now earning twenty or twenty five. They could even retain servicing rights, as the investors had no idea how to run the loans, and make even more money. Stock prices would show the effects of growth, as investors expected them to be able to keep in up, and current stockholders could cash out for huge gains by selling part or all of their holdings.

However, you now have a new group of stockholders, who bought - or held existing investments - in the belief that this growth curve could be maintained. They want that growth to keep going - however are they going to sell for a big profit if it doesn't? If the growth doesn't continue, how are performance awards to management going to be paid?

And so it goes. Growth begets a need for more growth. Now there's nothing wrong with growth - quite the contrary - but when the expectations shift over time from a two or three percent annualized growth curve, to eight or ten or even thirteen percent, it creates an expectation that no one wants to fall short on. Furthermore, other people with money, seeing the rewards, join in the lending business. Joe made fifty percent in two years with Bank of Nowhere in Particular! Let's all invest in that bank! They'll double our money in three years!

The fact of the matter is that there is only so much revenue growth that can be had in any given set of economic conditions. When you try to overshoot that amount, it can come from very few places. First, it can come at the expense of the competition. Unfortunately for that hope, the lending market grows more competitive, not less. Second, it can come from places that weren't a part of the market previously - in other words, people who were not good credit risks or who would not have applied in previous markets. The reason most of those would not have applied is that they are less credit worthy, and they know it as well as the lenders do. Third, growth can come through individual loans being larger, being willing to loan more money per property. This has also happened, but you cannot loan more per property without subsequently having more at risk, although the lenders have learned how to solve this. Remember that we discussed them selling the loans? Well, that's how the lenders limit their risks - by selling to someone else for cash. Let them assume the risks!

So we have increased competition for borrowers, including those who may not have been as solidly credit worthy as a previous day's client. There are more lenders competing for limited pools of borrowers, and pressure to qualify the borrowers for increased loan amounts, because, after all, that's how the bank makes money.

Furthermore, shifts in consumer habits played into this. People don't live in the same house for as long, and they don't keep loans nearly so long as they once did. Where they once lived in the same house from the time they bought it until they died, now the first house they buy in their twenties is a "starter," and then they sell that and buy a trade-up when the family expands a little, then another when they move up the corporate ladder, and this leaves out the effects of transfers and changing employers. Furthermore, they refinance and take cash out when they want a bigger SUV or a European vacation, and then they take more money out when the rates go down because they can afford a larger loan on the same payments.

The increased prevalence and availability of the stated income loan has played right into this. Certainly, some people in your profession make that much, but what if you're not one of them? Simply say that you are! After all, you're in that profession, right? Furthermore, there is no payoff for telling people that they don't qualify. They've made up their mind that they want that three thousand square foot six bedroom house, and if you tell them they don't make enough, they're not going to give up their dream house! They'll just find another way to do it, so someone else will get that loan! That nice, wonderfully wonderfully large loan that means a huge commission check to the loan officer and a forty thousand dollar premium on the secondary market for the lender!

Traditionally, the check upon this was the fact that the borrower had to actually make the payments on the loan once they had it, which limits their ability and willingness to sign for more loan than they can handle. However, competition between lenders once again found a way: First, the interest only loan, and then the negative amortization loan solved that problem, particularly as sub-prime lenders make their qualification for the loan based solely upon the initial minimum payment. Whereas when A paper lenders underwrite a hybrid ARM that's interest only for a given amount of time, they will base their computations upon a fully amortized loan payment, and even assume the rate will rise slightly, that is not the case in the sub-prime world. Sure they've bought the property on a 2/28 interest only loan with a three year prepayment penalty, and they bought in a flat or declining market, and they are not going to pay the principal down any in two years, and the property isn't going to be worth any more, so it's unlikely they will be able to refinance, and they certainly won't be able to afford the payments when they adjust, so they're going to lose the house, but hey! You got a commission check and your lender sold the loan (at a fat markup due to the prepayment penalty), and your employer won't have any money at risk when they do default! What's not to like?

So how is a consumer going to protect themselves in this sort of environment? Obviously, you've got to start by figuring out a budget and sticking to it. This is hard. This is very unpopular, as far as real estate professionals go. When I sit down with people's finances and tell them what they can afford with a sustainable loan, the first words out of their mouths are usually, "I can't afford anything I want with that!" A certain percentage of them just walk out right there, sure that they can find someone else who will tell them they can afford more.

As I've just covered, they certainly can find someone who will tell them that they can afford more. However, the reason I sit down and go through the numbers, including today's rates, what they make, how much they spend, is to show them precisely what they can afford. When somebody shows you real numbers and you deny those numbers, and are certain you can afford more, you are essentially performing magical thinking. "I want it and I deserve it, and this other guy tells me I can just pull myself up by my bootstraps and fly!"

However, loans aren't magical. In fact, there is nothing magical about loans. You may get a negative amortization payment that you can afford for a while, but the money that you are not paying does not just vanish into thin air. It may be held in abeyance for a while, but it is there, and it will turn around and bite you. You wanted a $600,000 home for a $2000 monthly payment, and you got it for a little while. However, you now owe $680,000 and the property (which you put $50,000 down on) is now only worth $540,000. It doesn't take a genius to see what happens next. Even if the property increased in value by $100,000, it costs you $55,000 to sell the property and you have to pay $15,000 of their closing costs so that they can qualify for the loan, and that fifty thousand dollars you put down has turned into nothing.

A rapidly increasing market, such as we had for several years ending about the end of 2004, covers a multitude of sins and mistakes. If the property doubled in price over three years, you came away with $400,000 and you were very happy! Unfortunately, this is not the type of market we are in now, nor are we likely to have that sort of market any time again in the forseeable future. It's always a bad idea to bet on it, because you never know it's going to happen ahead of time.

So what are you going to have to do? As I said earlier, figure out what your real budget is and stick to it. If you can't afford anything you want, then want less. Insist upon sustainable loans, and qualifying for them full documentation. Full documentation loans have better interest rates anyway. Fully amortized loans, where you are paying principal and interest, have lower interest rates, as well, and if you stick with A paper guidelines (and 100 percent loans on A paper are possible for people with decent - not spectacular - credit), you get better interest rates and can usually avoid pre-payment penalties.

"I just won't buy anything if I can't afford what I want!" some of you are saying. Right now, with prices retreating somewhat, it may even make a limited kind of sense for those with strong credit and stable prospects. However, the market here locally is not going to retreat that much more. Indeed, where prices are is currently being masked by a stubborn type of seller and a not very competent stripe of real estate agent. It doesn't matter that three fourths of the sellers want $X for property of given characteristics, if the sales that are taking place are $100,000 lower. If this seller won't sell, someone else will, and it is the sale that actually happens that tells where the market is, not the hundred comparable properties where the asking price is $100,000 higher.

However, real estate, even in markets that are rising just slightly, is such a fantastic investment due the the effects of leverage, that I do not anticipate the local market going much lower. Indeed, very smart investors are swarming, intending to hold the property five years or so instead of flipping it. Yes, we've lost between twenty and thirty percent the last two years, but the statistics have been manipulated to make the decline seem much shallower. I'm starting to see evidence of a reversal in the not too distant future, and people who decide to sit on the sidelines because they can't afford anything that they want are likely to discover themselves being able to afford still less when they do decide to jump into the market - or nothing at all. If you've got a family of three and don't want a two bedroom condo, what are you going to do when you can't afford that?

Caveat Emptor


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