From: Jed Kolko, Trulia’s Chief Economist
Government, lending changes, and forces of nature all shook the housing market in 2011. They had both an immediate impact and slow-burning effects. They set the stage for a bumpy 2012 with more foreclosures, political battles and local market risks – which will affect the industry and how agents do business.
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.
What It Means for Agents: More foreclosures will hurt prices and consumer confidence. Short sales could be harder to get approved if the foreclosure process gets easier.
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.
What It Means for Agents: Scaling back the mortgage interest deduction would lower the offers buyers – especially high-income buyers – will make on homes. And some buyers will drop out of the market if the deduction, which favors homeownership, shrinks or vanishes.
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.
What It Means for Agents: Even if easier refinancing may not affect the home-purchase market directly, it will stimulate the economy a bit, which will raise housing demand and give buyers more confidence.
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.
What It Means for Agents: Those working in flood-prone areas should be aware of private-sector flood insurance options for buyers in case the federal program lapses after May. And agents in these areas should follow the debate over NFIP on websites and blogs that cover the insurance industry.
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.
What It Means for Agents: Agents need to know the local loan limits, which may be different for FHA insurance and Fannie/Freddie backing. Homes for which loans will be above the new limits might see less buyer interest and price reductions.