Before we welcome in the New Year, Trulia’s Chief Economist looks back at 5 events that really mattered for housing in 2011 – and beyond.
Government, the mortgage industry and forces of nature all shook the housing market in 2011. They had both an immediate impact and slow-burning effects, setting the stage for a bumpy 2012 with more foreclosures, political battles and local market risks.
1) Robo-Signing Reverberations
The “robo-signing” scandal – where banks were accused of approving foreclosures with incomplete or incorrect documentation – exploded in October 2010, but where are we now? Banks want a settlement in order to avoid costly, drawn-out lawsuits. One is shaping up that could reduce loan balances or interest rates for current homeowners, give payments to people who lost their homes and establish new mortgage servicing standards for the future.
Even if you think there’s money coming to you because you lost your home, don’t start spending against your settlement windfall just yet. One estimate from the Wall Street Journal is for a settlement of $25 billion if all states participate. Another report from TIME says that will translate into $1,500-$2,000 for households who were mistreated in the foreclosure process. A couple thousand dollars will give people some breathing room, but it won’t change anyone’s financial lives. And, be patient: it could be months before a deal is reached, an administrator is in place and the details are finalized.
Until that’s all figured out, here’s the immediate drama: who’s in and who’s out? Some states might hold out for a better deal or decide to sue these mortgage servicers directly, as Massachusetts has. California was the first and most vocal state to back out, and New York, Delaware, and Nevada have spoken out, too.
What Really Mattered: The threat of robo-signing lawsuits made banks gun-shy about pursuing foreclosures in 2011, which left many homes stuck in the foreclosure process. But once a settlement is reached, we’ll see a rush of foreclosures in 2012.
2) The Debt Ceiling and the Budget Deficit
The federal government is running a deficit — it is spending more than it collects in taxes and other revenue – so it borrows to cover the gap by issuing debt. When there’s a deficit, we add to the pile of debt. To shrink this pile, the government needs to collect more than it spends (or, if you prefer, spend less than it collects) and use the surplus to reduce the debt.
In August, the government played a game of chicken over whether to raise the debt ceiling – which is really just a formality acknowledging that the deficit requires issuing debt to keep the government going. However, the right way to deal with the debt is to reduce the deficit – not by fighting over the debt ceiling.
Long before the debt ceiling debate and Standard & Poor’s federal credit-rating downgrade, we all knew that the federal budget was in bad shape. The debt ceiling debate rattled the markets and consumer confidence temporarily but interest rates stayed low. The important effect was that Congress created a bipartisan supercommittee to tackle the deficit – but it couldn’t reach agreement by its November deadline.
What Really Mattered: The deficit-reduction supercommittee teased us with some policy proposals that will surely rear their heads again. One idea that both Republicans and Democrats didn’t totally disagree about was reducing the mortgage interest and other tax deductions. If and when that happens, high-income homeowners with mortgages would pay a lot more in taxes.
3) The Expansion of HARP
In October, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said seriously underwater homeowners will be able to refinance through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). Originally, refinancing under HARP required a loan-to-value of less than 125% — that is, you couldn’t be more than 25% underwater – but that rule goes away for fixed-rate mortgages. But there’s a catch! Loans must be guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and – more importantly – borrowers must be current on their payments and must not have missed a payment in the last 6 months.
What Really Mattered: Some seriously underwater borrowers who fell behind on their payments in hopes of negotiating a loan modification are now kicking themselves because those missed payments make them ineligible to refinance. But those who can and do refinance will have lower monthly payments and extra money to spend — which will help stimulate the economy.
4) Natural Disasters Cause Insurance Disaster?
In 2011, several tornados, floodings and a hurricane temporarily halted what little construction there was to begin with, but this was just a short-term slowdown. The bigger long-term effect was the near-collapse of the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Still struggling financially under debt amassed after Hurricane Katrina, the NFIP’s insurance premiums don’t fully cover insurance claims when disaster strikes. August’s Hurricane Irene and its flood damage returned this problem to center-stage.
What Really Mattered: In flood-prone areas, you can’t get a mortgage if you don’t have flood insurance. Without NFIP, housing markets in these areas would skid to a stop. Could the program actually expire? It could, but as part of last week’s payroll tax agreement, the program got a last-minute extension until May 2012. No doubt, the political fight over this program’s long-term future will continue in into next year.
5) Lowering the Conforming Loan Limit
Starting in October, the government lowered the upper limit for loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) from $729,750 to $625,500. Why? Government agencies now back or insure most loans, but it’s time to make the housing market less dependent on the feds. Lowering loan limits is one step in that direction; however, the real estate industry has urged the government to push the loan limits back up. And you know what? They scored a half-win in November, raising the loan limit back up for FHA loans but not for Fannie and Freddie.
What Really Mattered: Mortgage lenders are willing to charge lower rates for loans that are backed by Fannie or Freddie; with a lower conforming loan limit, a small number of loans that used to qualify for federal backing no longer do. As a result, homes that are now on the wrong side of the conforming loan limit will see fewer potential buyers and lower sales prices. This will matter more in California, New York, and other high-cost areas.
Renting out REO properties would be a drop in the bucket – it wouldn’t clear much of the housing inventory and wouldn’t ease rising urban rents, but it would help shore up neighborhoods where housing prices took the biggest slide, and that makes it worthwhile.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is considering proposals for selling government-owned homes to investors, who would then turnaround and sell or rent them out. (The official request for policy ideas is here.) It’s hoped that this move would help government agencies earn some much-needed revenue, boost neighborhood home values by getting buyers or renters into vacant homes and ease tight rental markets by expanding the supply of rental housing.
Even though Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) are national agencies, housing markets are local, which means that the vacant, foreclosed properties they own are concentrated in regions that were hit hardest by the housing crisis. Among larger metro areas, these agencies own the most foreclosed property – known as REO (real estate owned) – in Las Vegas and Atlanta, after adjusting for metro area size. Several metros in Arizona, Michigan and California are also among the top 20 metros where the government owns a lot of homes.
|Metro area||Government-owned REO for sale per 10,000 housing units|
|Las Vegas-Paradise, NV||28.9|
|Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA||22.6|
|Lake Havasu City-Kingman, AZ||20.9|
|Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||16.3|
|Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, MI||15.4|
|Lansing-East Lansing, MI||14.9|
|Boise City-Nampa, ID||14.5|
|Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL||13.4|
NOTE: Top larger metros (100,000 housing units or more), ranked by government REO per ten-thousand housing units. Includes all homes owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA that have been through the foreclosure process and are being marketed for sale, as reported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Generally, places that suffered most during the housing bust from severely falling home prices and high mortgage delinquency rates now have the highest concentration of these vacant, foreclosed government-owned homes. The big exception is Florida. While the Sunshine State experienced big price declines and lots of defaults, surprisingly few of the homes lost there have made it through the foreclosure process and can be put back on the market. Why is that? It’s because the foreclosure process in Florida takes a lot longer than in most other states. As a result, many of the Florida homes that the government and banks plan to put on the market someday are trapped in a slow limbo today.
Would selling these government homes to investors help neighborhoods? Yes. Vacant, foreclosed homes drag down the value of neighboring properties, so getting those homes occupied would help stabilize neighborhoods. A push to rent or sell these homes can and would help neighborhood home prices in areas where the government owns a lot of the homes – but such a policy wouldn’t do as much good for hard-hit Florida where the government has less REO to sell. The map shows where the government owns the most REO ready to sell (relative to total housing units) – and where getting those homes occupied could help local markets the most. The Southwest, inland California, northern Georgia and southeastern Michigan stand to gain the most from selling or renting out government REO.
But if you don’t live in a neighborhood with lots of homes that the government can sell or rent, then REO policies wouldn’t do you much good. Renting out these government-owned homes wouldn’t ease pressure on tightening urban rental markets. Renters typically live in bigger, denser cities, which are not where most of the government-owned homes are. In fact the typical location of a government-owned home is in a neighborhood with fewer renters, higher rental vacancies and where homes are more spread out. (FYI, this description is based on the housing characteristics of zip codes where these government REOs are located.) In short: you’d benefit if you live near government-owned vacant homes that get occupied, or if you’re looking to rent in neighborhoods where lots of overbuilding led to lots of foreclosures, but most people facing tight rental markets live far from these clusters of REO properties. Renting out government-owned homes wouldn’t give renters more options in most neighborhoods, which means that those same government-owned homes might have a tough time finding tenants.
And even if the government sold all its REO to investors and those investors were able to find buyers or renters immediately, it would make only a small dent in the overhang of empty homes from the housing boom. Of all the REO homes currently owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA, fewer than 100,000 units are currently listed for sale. (In total, including those not yet being marketed for sale, these agencies own over 200,000 homes.) There are over 3 million total homes on the market, plus millions more of “shadow inventory” – homes in default or foreclosure that aren’t on the market but are likely to be in the future. Getting people in 100,000 government-owned homes still leaves a lot of housing supply that will take years for the market to absorb.
So is this policy a misstep? No. It would help some of the most struggling neighborhoods in the country by getting vacant homes occupied. It leaves lots of big problems unsolved, but no one housing policy will fix what ails every local housing market. And, remember, housing is local, so the housing market is not just the federal government’s problem: state and local governments need to act, too. Florida loses out on the benefits of REO sales because its foreclosure process takes so long. Cities with tight rental markets need to boost supply by undoing regulations that make construction expensive or impossible. Just because one policy wouldn’t fix everything is no reason not to do it, but we can’t stop there.0 comments