Will mortgage loan-limits increase?

by Dan Krell

Are you planning to buy a home this year? If you are planning to purchase a home that is priced more than $417,000, you could get a lower interest rate-if Congress raises conforming loan limits.

First, a very basic primer in mortgage jargon: “Conforming” refers to mortgages that correspond to Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) guidelines. GSE refers to those quasi-government enterprises that include (among others) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Conforming guidelines include underwriting criteria that lenders use so they can sell the loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The guidelines have strict borrower criteria as well as loan limits. The loan limit is set annually as a reflection of changes to the national average single family home price as determined by the Federal Housing Finance Board’s Monthly Interest Rate Survey. A “jumbo loan” is a mortgage that exceeds conforming loan limits; and usually has higher interest rates because of the higher risk involved.

Two large associations advocating for higher loan limits include the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Both the NAR and NAHB argue that increasing conforming loan limits would solve liquidity problems in the jumbo loan market, which would make lending for loans up to $625,000 easier for home buyers who are looking to purchase a home over the current loan limit of $417,000. The NAHB suggest that loan limits be raised temporarily while secondary markets normalize, and be re-evaluated after a two year increase. The NAR cites the need for stimulation of the housing market and the lowering of interest payments to those obtaining loans over the $417,000 limit.

The issue of raising GSE loan limits is not as simple as stimulating a sluggish housing market; as Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, made clear to Congress in September 2007. His statement to Congress implied that any increase in loan limits could provide false security to investors on the secondary market – increasing risk to those investors, their companies, and the government. Additionally, Dr. Bernanke implied that if Congress is inclined to increase the loan limits that it should be done quickly, temporarily, and ensures that any increase will function as intended.

What’s the risk? A recent report from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO.gov) (the government entity whose mission is to ensure the safety and soundness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) entitled “Potential Implications of Increasing the Conforming Loan Limit in High-Cost Areas” reports that any loan limit increase would only help those in high cost areas as most jumbo loans tend to be geographically centered (California had almost forty-nine percent of the jumbo loans originated in 2007). One unintended consequence from raising loan limits to lower mortgage interest payments may be that home prices will increase to make high-cost areas actually cost more. Additionally, anticipated savings benefit may not be achieved as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have to charge for taking any increased risk.

As for now, it appears that loan limits for 2008 will remain the same as 2007. It is clear that although there are benefits, there may also be too many questions left unanswered before Congress can act quickly to raise GSE loan limits.

This article 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 January 21, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dan Krell.

Mortgage Guidelines Get Tougher

by Dan Krell
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Like bears awakening from their hibernation, home buyers are slowly emerging from the holiday season and begin to look for a home to purchase. Many home buyers will find that that the challenge of buying a home this year will be more than finding the perfect home, but finding financing. Many home buyers expecting the mortgage process to be quick and painless may find that it is neither quick nor painless; others, expecting to be approved with a sub-prime mortgage, will be turned down. In the recent past, most home buyers found a way to obtain financing; this year may be different as the mortgage crisis fallout has changed the way lenders underwrite their programs.

Ask anyone in the mortgage industry and they will tell you that the entire mortgage landscape has changed. Some popular mortgage programs are no longer available, while other programs have been significantly changed. It may be a challenge for home buyers to locate a lender that offers a reduced documentation mortgage. These programs still exist, but have more restrictive guidelines; reduced documentation mortgages are requiring more verifications, higher credit scores and larger down payments.

Self employed home buyers will find that the popular “No Doc” is no longer available. The “No Doc” loan required no documentation or verifications from the borrower, hence the name. Although the program typically required a higher credit score, the “No Doc” loan was popular with self employed borrowers because employment, income, or asset verifications were not required.

Home buyers who need a low or no doc loan will have to look hard for alternatives. Most “liar loans” are no longer offered, or are offered with some type of verification. If you come across a stated income mortgage program, be prepared to sign an IRS form 4506 that will allow the mortgage company to verify the stated income. You should also expect a higher down payment and a higher than average interest rate.

As a way to assist home buyers with less than perfect credit, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac created their expanded criteria programs in the mid to late 1990’s. These programs offered these home buyers a mortgage with minimal down payment and a reasonable interest rate; however the interest rate varied on the borrower’s credit score. However, like other mortgage programs, these expanded programs have also changed their requirements which include, among other items, increasing credit score requirements.

As the sub-prime mortgage industry has all but dried up, the FHA mortgage (HUD.gov) has picked up the pace. But even the venerable FHA loan is changing; FHA approved lenders are also tightening up their lending guidelines (in anticipation of new FHA guidelines). Some of the changes include credit score driven approvals as well as variable loan pricing (the interest rate will vary based on the borrower’s credit score).

For home buyers considering purchasing a home this spring (or any other time), talking to a lender should be their first priority. The mortgage crisis has changed the way mortgage lenders operate, including how lenders view borrowers. Home buyers should be prepared to provide more documentation and information to their lenders, as well as a possible higher down payment.

This article 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 January 14, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dan Krell.

New legislation affects home owners and home buyers

by Dan Krell

As the end of the year is a time of reflection, let’s reflect on the new legislation that directly affects home owners and home buyers. Although this is not a complete list of new laws, here are a select few that concern taxation, eminent domain, and privacy.

Buying a home in Montgomery County will cost a bit more next year as recordation tax rates will increase effective March 1, 2008. Current recordation tax rate is $3.45 per $500 (or more commonly described as $6.90 per $1,000); the first $50,000 of the purchase price is exempt from this tax if the purchaser will live in the home. The new recordation tax rate will add an additional $1.55 per $500 (a total of $5.00 per $500) for any amount over $500,000.

Confusion about property taxes and new tax assessments will hopefully be a thing of the past as the property tax disclosure requirement will go into effect April 1, 2008. The law requires any home seller to disclose present and estimated future property taxes for the property for sale. The tax amount must contain the current state, county, and municipality tax as well as any special services tax imposed. The estimated future tax must represent an accurate portrayal of any future tax increase. Estimating future property tax increases may sound tough, but don’t worry – the Montgomery County Department of Consumer Protection is required to assist home sellers and real estate agents with the tax estimations.

Additional property tax legislation includes the Homestead Tax Credit. The credit caps any property tax increase due when the home is reassessed. For homes purchased after December 31, 2007, the law requires home owners to file the one-time application within 180 days of the purchase. All other home owners have until December 31, 2012 to file the application.

Eminent domain has been a recent hot topic. Four changes to eminent domain in Maryland went into effect July 1, 2007. The first is the requirement to file for condemnation within four years of the decision to acquire the property. Subsequent changes increased the cap on mandatory payments to the displaced: the cap to displaced property owners increased to $45,000; the cap to displaced tenants of rental property increased to $10, 500; and the cap for moving and relocation expenses increased to $60,000.

Privacy protection is always a concern. However, effective January 1, 2008, all businesses including real estate brokers are required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that personal information is protected when client records are destroyed. Additionally, businesses are required to notify their clients as well as the Maryland Attorney General’s office if there is a security breach of electronic files containing client information.

Also becoming effective January 1, 2008 is the ability for a consumer to place a security freeze on their credit report. Without the freeze, anyone with basic information can request a credit report. If the freeze is requested, the information can not be accessed without express prior authorization of the consumer.

For more information on the new legislation, you can go to the Maryland General Assembly website (http://mlis.state.md.us) or the homepage for the County Council of Montgomery County (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/csltmpl.asp?url=/content/council/index.asp).

This article 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 December 31, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Mortgage workout or workover?

by Dan Krell

Earlier in December, a new mortgage relief program was announced as the Bush-Paulson Mortgage Plan. The plan, although not yet approved nor agreed to by all parties involved, is intended to help those home owners who have sub-prime mortgages with interest rates that will adjust significantly higher. Proposed details, as revealed in a December 5th, 2007 Financial Times article, include a five year interest rate freeze for sub-prime adjustable rate mortgages that were dated between 2005-2007 and whose rates are to increase between 2008-2010. Lender participation will be voluntary. Additional borrower qualifications include having less than three percent equity in their home, not being more than sixty days behind on their mortgage payment, as well as demonstrating an inability to afford any mortgage increase (www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c4b23f82-a37c-11dc-b229-0000779fd2ac.html).

Many Wall Street investors have criticized any workout plan as excessive government intervention in a market that is already correcting itself. Some in the industry have described such intervention as delaying the inevitable for those in foreclosure, explaining that many home owners who can not afford a rate increase now would possibly not be able to afford a delayed (five year) rate increase. Other critics include self described “responsible“ home owners who feel they work hard to maintain their credit and pay their mortgage timely; they claim that any government intervention to help those in foreclosure sends the wrong message.

Others, including Presidential candidates, have criticized the President for not doing enough to help those home owners already in foreclosure. For example, Senator Hillary Clinton (as posted on her website HillaryClinton.com) criticized President Bush’s plan and proposed an alternative plan that includes immediate foreclosure moratoriums and across the board rate freezes. Although well intentioned, many proposed alternatives also have market and socio-economic consequences.

Unfortunately, many home owners who are facing foreclosure don’t know that a workout plan (know as a “loan modification”) may already be possible with their present lender. Of course the home owner must request it. Additionally, the proposed workout must make sense and the home owner must demonstrate a need as well as the ability to afford the modified payments. In many cases, lenders would rather work with financially troubled borrowers than foreclose; the foreclosure process is costly – for both the lender as well as the borrower.

The key to initiating a workout plan is for the home owner to communicate with their lender. Among the many reasons why home owners facing foreclosure do not communicate with their lender include lack of information of their options, misinformed of their options, and psychological stress (including apathy and feelings of hopelessness). The latter being the most prevalent because of the psycho-social complexity, which include the events that brought the home owner to their present financial problem as well as the time and effort involved in attempting to resolve any mortgage issues.

In an effort to assist home owners who are presently facing or at risk for foreclosure, Treasury Secretary Paulson and Housing Secretary Jackson created the Hope Now Alliance as a step in President Bush’s initiative to help American families keep their home. The Hope Now Alliance was created to facilitate communication between borrowers, lenders and housing counselors. For more information on loan work outs you can visit HUD.gov or HOPENOW.com.

This article 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 December 24, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Single Family Home vs. Townhome?

by Dan Krell
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As list prices of many single family homes have been reduced, many home buyers find themselves weighing the option of purchasing a townhome versus purchasing a single family home. The numerous options create a dilemma for home buyers, requiring them to think twice about their home requirements, lifestyle and long term goals. When faced with such a decision, home buyers often need to clarify their beliefs and misconceptions between townhomes and single family homes.

Given the selection between a single family detached home versus a townhome, what would you choose? The answer may not be as easy as you may think. There are reasons why a single family home may be competing with a townhome. Often times, the single family homes may be in fair to poor condition, needing obvious repairs or requiring immediate attention from the home buyer. Sometimes the homes may be a pre-foreclosure or short sale requiring third party approval, which has its own subset of considerations (dealing with a third party and trying to keep your interest rate lock through the lengthy wait). However, some single family homes may be well cared for but have prices reduced because of an atypical floor plan or style that does not fit the typical home buyer’s lifestyle.

Is it about the size? One misconception that home buyers have is that townhomes are inherently smaller than single family homes. However, many townhomes have living areas that are comparable or superior to that of single family homes; many townhomes are built with over 2,000sf gross living area and have a 1 or 2 car garage! Of course, depending on your lifestyle, the size may be secondary to the floor plan or layout of the rooms and amenities. Although townhome living has been described as vertical living, larger townhome interiors have high ceilings and open floor plans making it feel like a single family home.

Another misconception that home buyers have is that single family homes are not bound by a Home Owners Association (HOA). Although the chances are very good that the townhome you are considering is governed by the rules, restrictions, and covenants of a Home Owners Association (HOA); however, many single family homes are also under the authority of a HOA. Additionally, there may be restrictions even if there is no HOA. A home that is located within a protection area, which is imposed by the county or locality, has land use restrictions that may prohibit building, additions and/or tree removal. If you would like to research land usage for a specific home, you can visit the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Silver Spring (the staff is friendly, helpful and knowledgeable).

A common belief is that maintenance costs are higher for singe family homes than townhomes; when comparing homes, it is important to examine costs for upgrades as well as monthly operation costs. Repairs and maintenance vary on the home’s materials and systems. Additional maintenance considerations include painting, roof replacement, landscaping as well as daily expenses that include heating and cooling.

Home buyers will be surprised this spring as homes come to market; they will be surprised by their home buying options as well as prices.

This article 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 January 7, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dan Krell.