Home inspections pointless?

home inspections
Home Inspection Myths (infographic fom visual.ly and apexwaterproofing.com)

I have heard an increasing voice of discontent over home inspections. Not just from home sellers and their agents, but from home buyers too! Home sellers often complain about the incorrect flagging of working components as being defective. Listing agents usually gripe that home inspectors scare buyers and interfere with their sale. But many home buyers are also growing dissatisfied with inspections and the subsequent property reports.

Inspection reports are becoming “matter of fact.”  Even when an inspector flags a component or system, less information is given about it and what to do.  Additionally, there is an increasing trend for recommendations to seek expert advice .  Home inspectors have been known to make mistakes too.  Some are starting to wonder why they should hire an inspector to tell them to hire an expert.  Consumers can just hire experts to inspect the corresponding major systems and components from the start.  Some are asking if home inspections are becoming irrelevant and pointless.

The home inspection, as we know it, began in the 1980’s. As the profession became standardized, it became a necessary part of the home buying process. The inspection used to be a straight forward examination of observable systems and components. But the home inspection has morphed from a once-over by a trained professional to the concept of getting a home perfect through remedying all of the home’s defects.  The fact that home inspections have become a tool for many agents to renegotiate price is another sign the inspection may have jumped the shark.

All things considered, home buyers expect a thorough and exhaustive inspection. They are relying on the inspector to identify concealed and latent defects. They are relying on the inspection and report to help them determine the condition of the home and its systems/components before they move forward with their purchase.

According to Maryland’s home inspector licensing law, the home inspection is intended to “provide a client with objective information regarding the condition of the systems and components of a home at the time of the home inspection;” and provides an opinion of “visible defects and conditions that adversely affect the function or integrity of the items, components, and systems inspected, including those items or components near the end of their serviceable life.” However, there are limitations (COMAR 09.36.07.03).

According to COMAR, a home inspection is “not technically exhaustive,” and it may not identify a concealed condition or a latent defect. Among the list of items that the home inspector is not required to ascertain, includes the condition of systems that are not accessible, and the remaining life of any system or component.

Furthermore, an article that appeared in RealtorMag last year suggests that home inspectors are generalists and don’t know everything about a home (4 Things Home Inspectors Don’t Often Check; realtormag.realtor.org; July 05, 2017). Inspectors often defer to experts on foundations, fireplaces, chimneys, well/septic systems, and roofs. This is done because those components are not easily inspected and also requires specialized knowledge that is usually outside the scope of the inspection and/or beyond the expertise of the inspector.

However, in today’s real estate environment, home buyers are wanting and expecting more from the professionals they hire as well as the homes they buy. Buyers anticipate their home inspection with high expectations about the inspector’s opinion and conclusions. So, it’s not a surprise that many home buyers are voicing displeasure with their inspectors. Some complain that the inspector missed items and/or did not inspect a component.  Additional complaints are about the inspection reports, that some feel are lacking in detailed information.

Have home inspections become irrelevant? Or is it just a case of the home inspectors having to educate the public what they do?

Home inspections are essential for most home buyers. But home buyers need to understand that inspectors are not the authoritative voice on all home systems and components. Instead, home inspectors bridge the knowledge gap between what the home buyer knows and what they should know about a home, especially the home they are buying.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Housing inventory crisis?

housing inventoryThe low housing inventory crisis has plagued the housing market for about six years.  Low inventory has frustrated home buyers and all but eliminated move up home buyers.  The ongoing housing inventory crisis is an obstacle to a balanced housing market.

As a result of the ongoing housing inventory crisis, existing home sales may see a decline in the next few months, when spring sales should be strong.  Seasonal increases are a given, as National Association of Realtors (nar.realtor) data indicated a 3.0 percent month-over-month increase for February existing home sales and a 3.1 percent month-over-month increase in the Pending Home Sale Index (the Pending Home Sales Index is a forward-looking dataset indicating the number of homes that are under contract).  However, February sales only increased 1.1 percent from last year.  But the tell of slowing activity is the 4.1 percent decrease in pending home sales from last year.

Most experts blame the sluggish home sale activity on low housing inventory.  NAR’s reporting that February’s seasonal month-over-month 4.6 percent increase of total housing inventory is expected.  However, the 8.1 percent decrease in housing inventory compared to last year is worrisome.

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (gcaar.com) March 2018 data for single family home sales in Montgomery County indicated a decline in activity across the board.  Listings decreased 11.1 percent month-over-month and 7.8 from last year.  Contracts decreased 6.6 percent month-over-month and 6.9 percent from last year.  While closings only decreased 3.8 percent month-over-month, there was a 7.8 percent decrease from last year.

Another sign that that the housing market is in crisis is last week’s announcement from Zillow.  If you have not yet heard, Zillow is expanding their Instant Offer program and plans to jump into the housing market (zillow.com).  They plan to fix and flip homes by making cash offers and buying houses like other investors who participate in their IO program. The homes will be listed for sale with real estate agents who subscribe to Zillow’s Premier Agent program, as well as select partner brokers.

Zillow Chief Marketing Officer Jeremy Wacksman stated,

“Even in today’s hot market, many sellers are stressed and searching for a more seamless way to sell their homes…They want help, and while most prefer to sell their home on the open market with an agent, some value convenience and time over price. This expansion of Instant Offers, and Zillow’s entrance into the marketplace, will help us better serve both types of consumers as well as provide an opportunity for Premier Agents to connect with sellers. This is expected to be a vibrant line of business for us and for our partners in the real estate industry, while providing homeowners with more choices and information.”

The venture into flipping is a huge deviation for the internet juggernaut, whose revenue is mostly generated by selling advertising and leads to real estate agents and loan officers.  The reaction in the industry is mixed, however Zillow’s stock dropped 7 percent the day after the announcement.  Critics, including experienced real estate investors, scoffed at Zillow’s ambitious plan to flip a house within ninety days.

In a market where home owners are reluctant to sell, and frustrated home buyers are dropping out, Zillow needs to find ways to increase lead generation to grow subscribers (see why tech models looking for alternate revenue).

While being ridiculed by many, Zillow’s flipping plan may be a brilliant strategy to generate home seller leads for agents.  Zillow acknowledges in their press release that “the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their home with an agent, making Instant Offers an excellent source of seller leads for Premier Agents and brokerage partners.”  If Zillow’s plan works, it could also grease the wheels of the housing market by turning reluctant home owners into sellers.

As a home seller, the home sale inventory shortage limits your competition.  But be aware that it’s not entirely a seller’s market.  Your home’s condition can significantly lower the sales price, or even prevent a sale.  Serious consideration should also be given to your listing price.  Additionally, you should focus your attention to preparing your home to show to home buyers.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Interest rate increase – Don’t panic

interest rate increase
45 years of mortgage interest rates

Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to raise the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the interest rate that is charged to banks for borrowing overnight funds to maintain the required target funds. Although the Fed interest rate increase means that a banks’ business is getting more expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mortgage interest rates increase in kind.

If mortgage rates are not always affected by the Fed’s interest rate increase, then what is?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis pointed out that the FOMC’s interest rate hike indirectly influences jobs, wages, prices of the things we buy, and other items (7 ways the Fed’s decisions on interest rates affect you; bankrate.com; March 20, 2018). She states, “Sometimes mortgage rates go up when the Fed increases short-term rates, as the central bank’s action sets the tone for most other interest rates. But sometimes mortgage rates fall after the Fed raises the federal funds rate.” An example of this is the seventeen rate increases during 2004-2005 when mortgage interest rates initially dropped, then slightly increased a year later. And most recently, the three Fed rate increases during 2017 when mortgage interest rates remained stable.

The reason why a FOMC interest rate increase doesn’t always affect mortgage interest rates is because mortgage interest rates are tied to the bond market. The bond market is typically a bellwether of the economy. It is highly likely that the bond market baked in last week’s Fed’s rate increase prior to the FOMC announcement. Bond yields have already been increasing due to an improving economy, which pushed mortgage rates higher in recent weeks.

In fact, the Freddie Mac Press release the day after the Fed’s announcement indicated that mortgage rates increased one basis point (freddiemac.com; March 22, 2018):

“The Fed’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point puts the federal funds rate at its highest level since 2008. The decision, while widely expected, sent the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury soaring. Following Treasurys (sic), mortgage rates shrugged off last week’s drop and continued their upward march. The U.S. weekly average 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose 1 basis point to 4.45 percent in this week’s survey.”

Immediately following the Fed’s interest rate increase, NAR’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun, statedWe are in the middle innings of monetary policy normalization (nar.realtor, March 21, 2018).” Yun believes that the labor market is pushing the Fed to act to stave off inflation. He stated that consumers should expect more rate increases throughout 2018. However, he believes that increased new construction can belay future Fed rate increases:

“Housing costs are also rising solidly and contributing to faster inflation. The one thing that could slow the pace of rate increases would be to tame housing costs through an increased supply of new homes. Not only will more home construction lead to a slower pace of rate hikes, it will also lead to faster economic growth. Let’s put greater focus on boosting home construction.”

Yun’s call to home builders to increase housing stock is preaching to the choir. The housing market’s tight sale inventory should already be spurring home builders to crank out new homes. But there are challenges. The latest new construction statistics released by the US Census (census.gov) indicated that building permits issued during February were 5.7 percent lower than January’s permits, but 6.5 percent higher than last February.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Home buyer savings account?

Maryland first-time home buyers may soon have another program to help them buy a home.  Two related bills are making their way through the Maryland General Assembly to create a first-time home buyer savings account. If enacted, Maryland would join a handful of other states that have already enacted such programs to incentivize home buying.

home buyer savings account
Home buyer Savings Account (infographic from realtormag.realtor.org)

The bills are an effort to address the lack of first-time home buyer participation in the housing market. The lack of first-time home buyer participation has received a lot of attention since the Great Recession. Not just because of the rising costs of buying a home, but also because of the lack of home buyer savings. The lack of down payment was identified by the National Association of Realtors as one of the issues barring first-time home buyers from entering the housing market. The October 18th 2016 NAR news release (Five Notable Nuggets from NAR’s Home Buyer and Sellers Survey’s 35-Year History; realtor.org) also cited underemployment, student debt, and delayed family formation.

The idea of a home buyer savings account is not new. It was first conceived by Montana in the 1990’s as an incentive for home buyers to save money for down payment and closing costs. Virginia was the second state to enact a similar program in 2014. Several other states have since enacted similar plans, while others (including Maryland) have proposed such plans in their respective state legislatures.

The increased attention to first-time home buyer savings account during 2017 has made it a hot topic. While states are looking to provide state tax breaks for first-time home buyers, Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado wants to provide federal tax incentives to first-time home buyers for saving down payment and closing costs. H.R.2802 First-Time Homebuyer Savings Account Act of 2017 was introduced in Congress last June by Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, and co-sponsored by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and Rep. Barbara Comstock. The bill has yet to make it out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep Coffman stated in a press release:

The American dream of homeownership is getting harder and harder to attain for those starting out on their own these days, especially Millennials, because of the challenges involved in saving up for the down payment…The First-Time Homebuyer Savings Account Act  is a straightforward and bipartisan solution to this problem. If we can help Millennials attain homeownership, this would not only be a wise financial move for them, but would have broader positive financial impact for our economy as a whole

Maryland’s proposed first-time home buyer savings plan, introduced by HB0463 and SB0972, is currently being debated in the Maryland General Assembly. If enacted as introduced, the legislation would allow $50,000 to be deposited “state tax free” into an account for the purpose of buying a home in Maryland by a first-time home buyer. Any interest earned up to $150,000 would also be state tax free, as long as the interest is also used in said purchase. However, if the funds and interest are used for any other purpose, the holder of the account would be subject to state tax and penalties.

Would a first-time home buyer savings account stimulate interest in the housing market?

Lisa Prevost, writing for the New York Times, brought attention to Montana’s struggle to get first-time home buyers to participate in their savings plan (Tax Free Accounts for Homes: nytimes.com; August 8, 2013). At the time of Prevost’s article, the Montana Department of Revenue reported that “…no more than 225 people, and as few as 125, have participated annually since the program’s inception. Their annual deposits have averaged around $400,000.” Edmund Caplis, director of tax policy and research for Montana’s Department of Revenue, was quoted in the article as saying, “What you’ve got to understand is, this is people trying to get into their first home. For most working families, trying to pull together an extra buck is a stretch.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Mortgage Choice Act good or bad?

Mortgage Choice Act

Mortgage Choice Act
Choosing a lender (infographic from lender411.com)

Monday’s Reuters “exclusive” report about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau dropping their investigation on the Equifax data breach caused quite a stir in DC (Exclusive: U.S. consumer protection official puts Equifax probe on ice – sources: reuters.com February 5, 2018).  The exclusive cited unnamed sources.  However, a spokesperson for Transunion (a credit repository) suggested that cybercrime is not within the jurisdiction of the CFPB.

Later that day, Reuters cited Democratic Senators’ concerns and outrage over the alleged investigation pullback (Senators urge Trump administration to resume Equifax probe; reuters.com February 6, 2018).

The next day, Reuters reported that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin desired to meet with CFPB’s Acting Director Mick Mulvaney, based on its initial reports of dropping the Equifax investigation (Treasury’s Mnuchin says he wants answers on Equifax breach; reuters.com February 6, 2018) .  In the same report, Reuters cited the CFPB’s spokesperson saying that the CFPB was working with other government agencies on the Equifax data breach.

The veracity of Reuters’ unnamed sources in the report is not clear.  However, there may be something to the fact that cybersecurity falls under the domain of the FBI and Homeland Security.  Additionally, there are many other agencies investigating the Equifax data breach, as Housing Wire reported on Monday (CFPB reportedly pulling back from Equifax data breach investigation: Reuters reports that bureau is not aggressively pursuing investigation; housingwire.com; February 5, 2018).  The FTC appeared to be the lead agency investigating the matter when the data breach became public news.  Additionally, the House and Senate Financial Committees, as well as all fifty states attorney generals are investigating.

Mortgage Choice Act goes under the radar…

News created drama, such as the Reuters’ CFPB story, allows real consumer issues to fly under the radar.  Consumers should take note that the once dead Mortgage Choice Act has come back to life.  Much like a scene out of Tin Men, the revived legislation is being promoted by the likes of the National Association of Realtors® under the guise of being good for the consumer.

According to the CBO (cbo.gov/publication/53497):

Under current law, a ‘qualified mortgage’ has certain characteristics that make it more affordable…To meet the qualified-mortgage definition, certain costs that are incidental to the loan and that are paid by the borrower…cannot exceed 3 percent of the total loan amount. Lenders offering “high-cost mortgages” (home mortgages with interest rates and fees that exceed certain thresholds) must make certain additional disclosures to borrowers and must comply with restrictions on the terms of such loans.”  The Mortgage Choice Act “…would exclude insurance premiums held in escrow and, under certain circumstances, fees paid to companies affiliated with the creditor from the costs that would be considered in determining whether a loan is a qualified mortgage or a high-cost mortgage.”

The NAR is urging support for this legislation, as well as issuing an open letter to Congress.  The NAR’s rationale is that the Mortgage Choice Act:

“… will enhance competition in the mortgage and title insurance markets, and ensure that consumers will be able to choose the lenders and title providers best suited for their home buying needs.”

This sounds virtuous, but in reality it’s a play to allow broker affiliated lenders and title insurers to charge consumers more without additional disclosures.  NAR says that lenders and title insurers would still be subject to RESPA (which prohibits steering and kickbacks).  But charging consumers excessive fees and affiliated businesses giving kickbacks are not mutually exclusive.  Meaning that a lender charges can be excessive independent of the lender providing a kickback to the broker.  (the CFPB has recently fined brokers and lenders for kickbacks).

Is NAR interested in building consumer trust?

The NAR has for years tried to influence public opinion of Realtors® and the industry.  The NAR Code of Ethics has been used as a focal point to increase positive sentiment towards Realtors®.  However, NAR’s desire to implement a Code of Excellence may have been a beginning shift towards building public trust.

The Code of Excellence, like the Code of Ethics, is a desire to increase competence and proficiency.  But research has demonstrated that showing off accolades and awards doesn’t instill value, nor does it increase sales (Valsesia, Nunes, & Ordanini: What Wins Awards Is Not Always What I Buy: How Creative Control Affects Authenticity and Thus Recognition (But Not Liking). Journal of Consumer Research. Apr2016, Vol. 42 Issue 6, p897-914).

Value, along with quality and price,  has much higher regard than ethics in a consumer’s mind.  This was demonstrated by Carrigan & Attalla’s ground breaking consumer research (The myth of the ethical consumer – do ethics matter in purchase behaviour? The Journal of Consumer Marketing. 2001.. 18(7),560-577.)

If the NAR is truly interested in building consumer trust, the NAR leadership should get on the correct side of this issue and provide value to consumers instead of giving lip service.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.