FHA Comes of age

by Dan Krell

Congress recently passed H.R. 1852, The Expanding American Homeownership Act of 2007. The act is a move forward for a seventy-three year old program federal program called the Federal Housing Administration, also known as the FHA. The recent legislation was devised in the spirit of the FHA and looks to assist millions to obtain home ownership.

The FHA mortgage program (administered through the department of Housing and Urban Development since 1965) was created in 1934 when about only ten percent of Americans owned their home. At a time when home buyers needed a fifty percent down payment to obtain a three year balloon mortgage, the FHA’s progressive mortgage programs provided a spark for the nation’s stagnant housing industry (HUD.gov).

Through the years, the FHA provided progressive programs to assist those in need. The FHA took part in financing military housing in the 1940’s. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the FHA made funds available for adult, handicapped, and low income apartments. When rising inflation and energy costs threatened many apartment buildings in the 1970’s, the FHA made emergency funds available to assist in keeping these properties operational. In the 1980’s, when lenders pulled out of oil producing states because of falling home prices, the FHA offered mortgages to those who could not otherwise buy a home.

H.R. 1852 comes at a time when the mortgage industry is in crisis and home ownership is threatened for those who need financing alternatives. The bill expands the mortgage program to offer more financing options as well as increasing FHA mortgage originators.

Reforming the FHA mortgage program will expand the program and allow home buyers who do not qualify for a conforming loan (Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac) have access to alternatives to sub-prime lending. The FHA mortgage program will be expanded by increasing loan limits, eliminating the three percent down payment requirement, and implementing a risk based pricing system.

When home buyers do not qualify for a conforming loan, they turn to a sub-prime lender. Unfortunately, many sub-prime mortgages have high interest rates and other possible unfavorable terms. By increasing FHA loan limits in high cost areas these home buyers would possibly be able to obtain more favorable mortgage rates and terms through FHA.

Additionally, many first-time home buyers do not have the funds for a down payment or closing costs. These home buyers are typically driven to the sub-prime mortgage market as well. However, eliminating the FHA three percent down payment requirement will allow many more home buyers to obtain a FHA mortgage as well.

Many credit worthy home buyers who do not qualify for conforming mortgages due to mitigating circumstances are also forced to use sub-prime lending. Implementing risk based pricing may allow many of these home buyers to obtain a more favorable mortgage through FHA.

Presently many mortgage brokers do not originate FHA mortgages because of the restrictions and rigorous qualifications. However, increasing mortgage broker participation by reducing broker requirements and eliminating mandatory auditing would increase home buyer access to the FHA program.

The expansion of FHA programs may seem counterintuitive in a time when the industry is in turmoil. However, these reforms to a venerable housing program are welcome by many as well as being reminiscent to its legacy of commitment to home ownership.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of May 14, 2007. Copyright © Dan Krell 2007.

Condo Craze or Just a Phase?

by Dan Krell © 2007
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When you think of a condo, what may come to mind is the typical flat in a building. However, condos come in many shapes and sizes, including duplexes, townhomes and semi-detached homes. The term condo is actually in reference to ownership, rather than style of home. Condominium ownership means that your home is part of a condominium association that owns and maintains common areas, while you own the interior space of your unit. The common areas typically include the building exterior and common grounds as well as amenities, such as a pool or play ground.

Everyone in who owns a unit in the association pays a fee, typically monthly, for maintenance costs. Condo fees vary depending on the size of the association, types of amenities, and whether or not utilities are included.

For some, living in a condo offers convenience and worry free living that a single family home does not. Many condos developments are convenient to the amenities of downtown areas, such as Rockville, Bethesda, Gaithersburg, and Silver Spring. These homes can be close to metro too, reducing your need to drive a car. Additionally condo ownership typically means that you don’t have to concern yourself with mowing a lawn or repairing a roof, as the association takes responsibility for these things.

Condo living is an affordable opportunity to owning a home. Compared to single family homes and townhomes, condos tend to be less expensive and a viable option for many first time homeowners.

There is a downside to condo ownership, however. Although condos may be more affordable, history suggests that they do not appreciate as fast as other types of homes. Because some condo buildings appear densely populated, some neighbors can be noisy. Additionally, the level of maintenance may vary depending on the condo association and management company.

If you are considering purchasing a condo, here are some ideas to assist you. First, exercise your right under Maryland law to review the condo docs. The condo docs include the association rules and bylaws as well as a recent budget, which includes reserve funds for emergencies. Reviewing the condo docs can reveal rules that may impact your lifestyle, such as having a pet. Additionally, the budget and reserves can reveal how well the association manages condo funds.

If you have an opportunity, attend a board meeting to get a feel for what is happening within the association. Internal politics can impact the way the condo is managed. If you want to have input in the direction of the condo association, get involved with the association board.

Although the condo association has an insurance policy that covers the physical building, you may want to consider a policy to cover your possessions inside your unit.

Parking in your development can be easy or it could be a problem. You may have one or two reserved spaces for your unit. However, if your condo is convenient to metro or other amenities, you may find non-residents taking advantage of this.

No matter how you look at it, purchasing a condo can be a practical and affordable home for any home buyer. As there are many considerations when purchasing a condo, ask your Realtor for additional resources and ideas in helping you decide on the best home.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 30, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Looking for Blame in the Mortgage Crisis

by Dan Krell © 2007

The daily media reports of abuse, fraud, and other problems in the sub-prime mortgage industry attempt to make sense of a real estate industry in turmoil. It appears that the problems in the real estate industry are similar to those in Big Business. Like many of the recent business scandals, schemes and wrongdoing are carried out because the financial rewards seem greater then the risk. Those who are caught usually point their finger at their boss claiming that they were told to do so in fear of losing their job.

The present mortgage crisis is similar to some extent. Sensationalized media accounts of what went wrong and who is to blame seem to be in the daily headlines. The blame of the present crisis was first placed on the lenders and investors, who with their lenient underwriting guidelines, allowed many to borrow beyond their means. The new focus in the crisis is on inflated appraisals and how appraisers are “forced” to provide these appraisals in order to maintain business. Additionally, there has been some discussion about the loan officers who originated the loans, without regard to the consequences to the borrower.

The story of inflated appraisals on the mortgage industry is about how some appraisers are “forced” to provide appraisals with an inflated price or they will lose business. For a real estate appraiser, the pressures of complying with lenders’ requests to inflate appraisals are inherent to the business, but not necessary. To demonstrate the extent of the problem, the Baltimore Sun reported (April 10, 2007) that appraiser groups are asking regulators to crack down on the lenders who pressure appraisers for inflated appraisals.

On the other hand, not enough has been said about the loan officers who originate these loans. Many loan officers who originate sub-prime mortgages are mortgage brokers and are paid on commission; they only get paid if the loan closes. Most mortgage originators act ethically in the borrower’s best interest. However, some will say or do just about anything to get the loan to close, including making unrealistic promises to the borrower as well as pressuring others to ensure loan closure. Unless there is blatant fraud, loan originators are not usually held responsible for a “bad loan.”

There are reports of possible federal investigations of mortgage misrepresentation and non-disclosure of loan terms. A recent MSNBC article (April 10, 2007) reports that many sub-prime borrowers who were deceived by mortgage brokers and loan officers are filing law suits for violations of the Federal Truth in Lending Act. These borrowers include those who were misled to believe the terms of their mortgage, as well as others who were misguided to obtain a high interest rate mortgage when they qualified for a more favorable loan. Under the law, the full terms and conditions of loans must be disclosed to consumers. Additionally, some have interpreted that any misrepresentation, written or verbal, is a violation of this law.

Although most real estate professionals are reputable and act within the guidelines of the law and the ethics code of their profession, unfortunately some do not. Like Big Business, it appears that some of the problems in the real estate industry exist not just because of a lack of ethical behavior, but a lack of character as well.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 23, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Fair Housing Month 2007

by Dan Krell

April is finally here, which means spring is around the corner and we celebrate another Fair Housing Month. When you think of Fair Housing Month, thoughts of celebrating equality among the diverse come to mind. This year, however, people are talking about the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown as an indicator of how we are doing in promoting equality and fairness in real estate.

At first you might find it difficult to fathom how lending practices and fair housing go hand in hand. After all, isn’t mortgage lending a highly regulated industry? Aren’t lenders using exacting rules to qualify home buyers for mortgages?

The mortgage industry is vigilant in maintaining strict quality control standards as well as cracking down on abuses such as fraud. However, the saying “where there is a will, there is a way” holds true. There are unscrupulous people who continually scheme to make their fortune through blatant mortgage fraud and other dishonest practices.

Although there are new schemes that pop up every year, most schemes involve the use of straw buyers (fraudulent using another person’s information to obtain a mortgage), giving false information, and/or providing manufactured financial documents to obtain mortgage funding. Fortunately these folks get caught and end up in jail.

Another problem that contributes to issues in the mortgage industry is the forcing of clients to use a specific lender for a kickback (violating federal law). When this happens, it is common for the consumer to pay excessive fees, points, as well as having a higher than average interest rate.

Mortgage schemes like these are just a sample of lending abuses that occur. In addition to other predatory lending practices, all lending abuse preys on an uninformed consumer. Perusing the Mortgage Fraud Blog (mortgagefraudblog.com) you overwhelmingly get an idea of the extent of the problem.

Why talk about mortgage lending practices, predatory lending, and mortgage fraud during Fair Housing Month? The reason is that many of the abuses that occur in the lending industry are due to the targeting of certain classes or sub-classes of home buyers.

The problem does not lie with the mortgage industry per se. The problem extends from the lending industry to other professionals involved in the real estate transaction. If the settlement agent or Realtor is not already aware of the abuse, they may turn a blind eye when they become aware at settlement when they review the closing documents. If the home buyer catches on to the high fees and interest rate, they are sometimes guaranteed a refinance in a couple months by their Realtor or settlement agent (which is a common predatory lending practice).

Like many things in life, it’s not the tool; however, it is the tool’s abuse by the ill intentioned or uncaring that produces disrepute. It needs to be said that Sub-prime and interest only mortgages are needed and can be useful tools in the purchase of real estate. However these tools need to be used responsibly. A guide to mortgages and other consumer information can be found on the National Association of Realtors website (www.realtor.org/housopp.nsf).

This Fair Housing Month, let’s just not commit to practice fair housing, rather let’s assist others to practice fair housing by not turning a blind eye to their lapses.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 16, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Sorting Through the Paperwork

by Dan Krell
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Have you read your purchase contract or listing agreement? Many people won’t read the documents thoroughly, if they read them at all, and rely on their Realtor’s explanation to help them understand the legal and binding contract to which they are entering. Unfortunately, there is a chance that your Realtor may not understand the documents either and may have given you misleading information.

What was once a simple two page purchase contract is now an often confusing and seemingly endless forty to fifty pages of clauses and addendums. The contract of yesteryear may have been easier to read, however it was not very specific and was written in favor of the home seller. Today’s real estate contract is very specific to many aspects of the transaction, discussing the terms of the agreement as well as contingencies, notices and disclosures.

To make matters more confusing, there are two contracts in use in our area. The MAR contract is provided by the Maryland Association of Realtors and the Regional Contract is offered by the Greater Capital Association of realtors. Up until recently, there were major differences between the two contracts. Attempts for parity have been helpful, however differences continue. You should consult with your Realtor to determine which contract would benefit your situation.

As hard as it may be to read through the contract and understand its terminology, can you depend on your Realtor to explain it to you correctly? Both contracts along with addendums undergo constant change requiring Realtors to re-familiarize themselves with the documents. Because of this, it is common for even a seasoned Realtor to get tripped up.

When presented with a listing agreement and/or a purchase contract, your Realtor should explicitly explain the meaning of each clause so as you understand it. It is a good idea to even consult an attorney.

Today’s real estate contract specifies the rights and responsibilities of each party. Additionally, the contract defines default, discusses recourse and hiring an attorney. The MAR contract requires you to attempt meditation prior to going to court.

Additionally, you may find that there are many additional disclosures that are part of the contract. Contrary to belief, these addenda are not filler paper; many of these disclosures ensure you understand your rights as a home buyer or home seller.

For example, many home buyers don’t know that they have the right to review condo and HOA docs. You have seven days to review condo docs and five days to review HOA docs. If you find that there is anything in the docs that is not acceptable, you can declare the contract null and void.

Why should you understand the contract? Believe it or not the real estate contract survives even after settlement. This is an important concept as it is mistakenly thought that once settlement occurs there is no recourse. Disputes can arise after settlement if the home seller decides to take items they were supposed to leave in the home, or if there were misrepresentations in property condition.

A real estate contract is not to be taken lightly as there are consequences to any breach of this contract. Make sure you understand your rights and any responsibilities, and if in doubt-consult an attorney.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 9, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.