Tuesday, February 26, 2008

U.S. Home Foreclosures Jump 90% as Mortgages Reset (Update2)

By Sharon L. Lynch

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Bank seizures of U.S. homes almost doubled in January as property owners failed to make higher payments on adjustable-rate mortgages.

Repossessions rose 90 percent to 45,327 last month from the same period a year ago, RealtyTrac Inc. said today in a statement. Total foreclosure filings, which include default and auction notices as well as bank seizures, increased 57 percent.

``The most troubling thing is that we are seeing more and more of these properties actually going all the way through the process and going back to the banks,'' Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Irvine, California-based RealtyTrac, said in an interview.

Defaults among subprime borrowers and those unable to meet rising payments on adjustable-rate loans drove foreclosure filings to the highest since August and the second-highest since RealtyTrac started keeping records. About $460 billion of adjustable mortgages are scheduled to reset this year, raising minimum payments for borrowers, according to New York-based analysts at Citigroup Inc.

More than 233,000 properties were in some stage of default last month. Total filings increased 8 percent in January from December, said RealtyTrac, a seller of foreclosure statistics that has a database of more than 1 million properties.

Nevada, California and Florida recorded the highest foreclosure rates among the 50 states, RealtyTrac said.

Nevada Leads

The rate of foreclosure filings in Nevada continued to lead the nation, with 6,087 properties in default or having been repossessed. That's 95 percent more than in January 2007 and 45 percent less than in December.

California had the highest total number of default and foreclosures with 57,158 properties facing possible seizure last month. That was more than double the year-earlier figure and was up 7 percent from December.

Florida had the second-highest number of homes in default or foreclosure with 30,178 in January, more than double the figure for the prior year and 3 percent less than in December.

Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut, Ohio and Michigan rounded out the top 10 states worst off in terms of missed payments and property seizures, RealtyTrac said.

Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida, had the highest January foreclosure rate among 229 metropolitan areas. Stockton, California, had the second highest, followed by the Riverside- San Bernardino area.

Prices Sink

New Jersey ranked 18th in terms of the proportion of households at some stage of default or seizure, with 1.5 percent. New York was 30th with 0.6 percent of households facing possible foreclosure.

Banks may be forced to resell as many as 1 million foreclosed properties this year, adding to a glut of inventory and forcing prices down even further, Sharga said.

January was the sixth straight month with more than 200,000 foreclosure filings, RealtyTrac said. The fourth-quarter total of 642,150 filings was the most since the company began records in January 2005. More than 1 percent of U.S. households were in some stage of foreclosure during 2007.

U.S. home prices fell last year for the first time since the Great Depression. That made it more difficult for homeowners to sell or refinance properties encumbered by mortgages that may be higher than the value of the houses themselves. Sales of existing homes fell last month to the lowest in at least nine years, the National Association of Realtors said yesterday.

Bush Plan

The median price of an existing home fell 4.6 percent to $201,100 from January 2007. The median for a single-family home dropped 5.1 percent to $198,700, and condominium and co-op prices fell 1 percent to $220,400.

President George W. Bush's proposal to help 1 million subprime borrowers avoid foreclosure with tax-exempt bonds is doing little to slow the increase in defaults.

State housing agencies are turning away many applicants because their homes have lost too much value or they've accumulated too much debt, according to estimates from Geoffrey Cooper, emerging markets director at a unit of MGIC Investment Co., the country's biggest mortgage insurer.

Mortgage companies including Fannie Mae and HSBC Finance have joined a U.S. Treasury Department-led effort to offer 30- day foreclosure freezes to give delinquent borrowers more time to arrange payment plans.

Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Washington Mutual Inc. and Countrywide Financial Corp. have initially agreed to participate in the effort.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sharon L. Lynch in New York at sllynch@bloomberg.net .

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bargain hunters may toss a lifeline to housing

Sun Feb 24, 2008 8:16pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The distressed U.S. housing market should get a lift this spring as bargain prices lure prospective buyers out of hibernation, but tighter lending means no one should expect the boom days to return any time soon.

Spring is a pivotal season in the housing market. Potential buyers typically emerge from a winter hiatus and shop in earnest for a new home or an investment. The strength of the market in March, April and May usually sets the tone for the entire year.

This year, spring has assumed even greater importance as it coincides with a sharp U.S. economic slowdown, triggered largely by a dysfunctional real-estate market. After sales of existing homes sank almost 13 percent last year, a housing revival could put the economy back on solid ground.

When the housing sector is thriving, so does the economy as buyers spend heavily on new appliances and furniture while owners pump cash into remodeling or additions.

Even in Arizona and Florida, which are among the states most hard-hit by the collapse of the housing market, a few rays of light are starting to shine through.

"If I would have described this whole process as a hurricane coming through Phoenix, I would tell everybody that for the last month I've been taking the shutters off the windows because I think the eye of the storm and most of it is behind us," said Floyd Scott, president of Century 21 Arizona Foothills, which has 10 offices and 460 agents in Phoenix. "Now we're in the process of picking up the debris."

In many areas, the choice of homes on the market has increased considerably, with unsold inventory double the typical supply as foreclosures mount and sellers hold out for higher bids.

Indeed, possible buyers are already coming out the woodwork seeking deep discounts.

Signed contracts that have yet to close were higher in January than any month in the prior six, though down 30 percent from January 2007, said Scott. "We've seen quite a bit of increase in traffic. A lot of people are shopping for deals right now," he said.

HIGH HURDLES

But the roadblock to closing the contracts is ominous.

Many lenders are shutting down the money pipeline to all but the most credit-worthy borrowers, looking to avoid repeating mistakes that led to the current wave of bad mortgages.

"One of the difficulties that we are having obviously in the home market is that lending conditions have really tightened up dramatically," Scott said.

While a flurry of sales this spring may highlight the pent-up demand in the market, it probably would not signal a sustainable housing upturn this year, most economists agree.

"We have this continuing battle with tightening lending standards and it's going to be tough for prospective buyers, even though they want the homes -- that's going to be an obstacle," said Young Kim, an economist at Stone & McCarthy Research Associates in Princeton, New Jersey.

Still, demand is stirring as sellers grow desperate to off-load properties. Fixed mortgage rates are low, and some home prices are looking too attractive to pass up.

Bidders are emerging for foreclosed homes and for so-called "short sales" at sharply reduced prices, real-estate agents said. In a short sale, the lender agrees to take a loss and avoid foreclosure costs if the borrower is unable to command a sale price that will pay the remaining mortgage balance.

Gary Kent, a real estate agent with Gary Kent Team-RE/MAX Associates in La Jolla, California, said he had his best sales month ever in January, selling foreclosure homes for banks.

Meanwhile, the average 30-year mortgage rate is around 6 percent. That's up a half percentage point from four-year lows set last month, but it's roughly a quarter point less than a year ago, based on data from Freddie Mac, the second-largest U.S. home funding company.

The median price for an existing single-family home dropped in 2007 for the first year since the National Association of Realtors began tracking them in 1968, sliding 1.8 percent to

$217,800.

By contrast, prices on average have risen 6.6 percent annually over the past 40 years, NAR said. Annual double-digit gains were the norm in some areas earlier this decade.

A new government stimulus package will likely also open the doors for more buyers in high-cost areas. It temporarily raises the size of mortgages that can be purchased by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the No. 1 federally chartered home funding company, making some lenders more inclined to approve home loans.

"I think this is the best buyer's market that has existed in a decade, maybe longer," said Russell Shaw, in his 30th year with John Hall & Associates real estate in Phoenix. "There are tons of inventory, great interest rates and the prices are back in line to where houses are decently priced again."

"If people have a good track record of paying their bills, the loans are there," Shaw said.

Arizona is one of several states slammed by overbuilding and buying by investors looking to sell quickly for a big profit. This "flipping" strategy worked well when prices soared, but when prices tanked, many owners could not sell and just walked away.

SENSE OF URGENCY RETURNS

South Florida is another area overrun with speculators, leading to overbuilding, particularly in the condominium market.

"People who are desperate are selling at any price," said Susan Weitz, an agent with Buy the Beach Realty in the South Beach district of Miami Beach. "Buyers that have been waiting for really, really good buys are in the market now. I am putting in a lot of offers on short sales."

Still, Weitz thinks the market won't stabilize for another two years, "I am talking people out of selling if they don't have to sell. I am convincing them this is not the time to sell," she said.

In Boston, a sense of urgency is also returning to the market, according to John D. Murray, a broker/Realtor with Realty Executives Prestige Properties.

A buyer he represents was the winning bidder at the asker's selling price for a condo in the city's upscale Back Bay neighborhood. At least three competing bids surfaced.

Until recently, the vast majority of would-be sellers have had to slice their asking prices to lure buyers.

Still, "even if you talk to people who refinanced recently, a lot of them are finding that the banks are asking a lot more personal and critical questions. It's more daunting and troublesome" to get a loan, said Murray.

(Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Miami, Marty Graham in San Diego, David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Frank McGurty)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tracking Housing Prices, Why The Numbers Conflict


Courtesy of WSJ.com

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

By David Wessel
From The Wall Street Journal Online

Predicting how much worse the U.S. housing market will get is tough. The future is never certain. But when it comes to home prices, getting a clear picture of the recent past turns out to be surprisingly hard as well.

That's confusing to homeowners, who fret about the value of what for many is their single largest asset. There is a huge psychological difference between a slower climb in the value of one's house and an outright decline -- and, as a result, a difference in the political reaction.

Tracking home prices is harder than tracking the price of stocks, which are traded constantly in public view on exchanges. And it's harder than tracking the price of toothpaste. That just involves sampling posted prices on grocery-store shelves and Web sites.

The two best -- though far from perfect -- measures of housing prices are the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight's index and the gloomier Standard & Poor's Case/Shiller index. Both are based on a concept, developed in the 1980s by Karl Case of Wellesley College and Robert Shiller of Yale University, that looks at repeat sales of the same houses.

Ofheo's index says home prices rose nationally by 1.8% between the third quarters of 2006 and 2007. But the S&P/Case-Shiller national index of home prices was down 4.5% in the same period. The Ofheo index showed a 2.16% increase in house prices in Chicago; the Case-Shiller index showed a decline of 2.48%.

Those discrepancies persist even though both barometers avoid distortions that occur in other widely cited measures -- such as the National Association of Realtors' median home price -- that reflect the mix of homes actually sold in a given month as well as the change in prices. Such measures rise in months when a lot of high-end houses are sold and fall at times when a lot of low-end houses are sold.

The Realtors' measure fell 6% in 2007. The group says the index was pulled down by a drop in the number of high-end home sales, which have been hurt by disruptions in the market for mortgages exceeding $417,000, the maximum mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are allowed to guarantee.

The big picture here is clear: House prices rose rapidly in the early years of this decade. They have stopped rising in many places. And, in many markets, they are now falling. (Even Ofheo's index showed a quarterly decline at the end of 2007.) And prices don't appear to have touched bottom yet. But Charles Calomiris, a Columbia University economist, says, "Too much weight is being attached to the Case-Shiller index. ... Housing prices may not be falling as much as some economists say they are."

With house prices so central to the economy right now, there is intense public (as well as scholarly) interest in why these two carefully constructed measures differ.

Ofheo gets a steady stream of inquiries from ordinary homeowners trying to figure out what's happening to the price of their houses, and offers an online calculator to make estimates. Ofheo's quarterly numbers -- to be released monthly beginning in March -- go into the Federal Reserve's estimates of household wealth. Case/Shiller is increasingly prominent and is the basis for future contracts that allow investors to bet on the price of houses.

There are a couple of very big differences. The Ofheo index relies on data collected by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which Ofheo regulates, so it excludes loans too big for Fannie and Freddie to guarantee (those exceeding $417,000) or too shaky (the riskiest of the subprime). Case/Shiller includes those, but its data are limited to 20 major markets because it relies on the costly process of going to local property records for data. One of Mr. Calomiris's complaints is that house prices in these markets may be doing worse than those in other places.

A recent dissection of the two indexes in 10 metropolitan areas by Ofheo economist Andrew Leventis, posted on the agency's Web site, sheds some light on other differences. Part of the discrepancy is technical, such as different approaches to adjusting data when there's a long interval between repeat sales of a house.

But puzzles remain. It turns out, for instance, that prices of low- and moderate-priced homes with mortgages that aren't guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie are falling particularly sharply, buoying the Ofheo index -- even though that index includes plenty of other of low- and moderately priced homes in the same neighborhoods.

Of course, by the time the experts get the measures perfected, we'll be onto a bubble in some other asset market.

Email your comments to rjeditor@dowjones.com.

-- February 15, 2008
Corrections & Amplifications:

In addition to its widely followed 20-city survey of home prices, S&P/Case-Shiller publishes a national home price index based on data from more than 100 metropolitan areas.

The 100-Page Start-Up Plan -- Don't Bother

Courtesy of WSJ.com
By KELLY SPORS

If you've considered starting a business, or actually have done it, you've probably been instructed to write a business plan. Perhaps you even bought a business-planning guide walking you through elaborate details of market analysis, sales projections and operational plans.

But while there's a lucrative industry of software, how-to books and business coaches preaching the merits of lengthy planning -- and selling their business-planning expertise -- a growing body of research suggests that some entrepreneurs spend way too long polishing 50- or 100-page business plans when they should be out in the marketplace selling their product or service.

"It doesn't take a year of planning to figure out whether someone is going to buy your product," says William Bygrave, a Babson College entrepreneurship professor. "All you have to do is start selling it."

Important Questions

Some entrepreneurs get so caught up in polishing their written plan, they lose sight of make-or-break issues, such as whether they have actual people clamoring to buy their product and who will sell it. Sometimes, the product can't be manufactured and sold at a price that will make a profit.

But it shouldn't take a year of long-winded planning to figure that out.

Mr. Bygrave and a few of his colleagues were so curious about the value of written business plans that they analyzed 116 businesses started by Babson alumni who graduated between 1985 and 2003.

Comparing measures such as annual revenue, employee numbers and net income, they found no statistical difference in success between those businesses started with formal written plans and those without.

The study concludes: "Unless you need to raise external start-up capital from institutional sources or business angels, you do not need to write a formal business plan."

Other research has come to similar conclusions. Columbia University professor Amar Bhide analyzed Inc. magazine's 1989 list of the 500 fastest-growing private businesses and found that 41% of them didn't have any business plan, and 26% had rudimentary plans.

He found that many opportunities need to be pursued quickly -- and to take advantage of them you can't wait for the planning process to be completed.

Dumping the Plan

Many business plans get tossed out the window the day after launch, because the plan wasn't grounded in reality.

Traditionally, when a business plan has been essential is when a start-up is pitched to potential investors. But even that's changing. Many venture capitalists and angel investors now say an effective 10-minute slide presentation or executive summary can be more effective than a full-blown written plan.

Investors often base their decision to invest on their trust in the people running the business as much as the idea itself.

"Most venture capitalists base the decision on a five-minute conversation or 10 PowerPoint slides," says Guy Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and creator of AllTop.com.

Too often, he says, entrepreneurs try to pitch venture capitalists with projected sales forecasts that show a large upward trajectory, when "we know it has no relation to the truth."

Forget About Planning?

So ditch the planning altogether? Not so fast. While the formal written plan itself may not be worth much, the planning process can be very helpful in honing strategy and dodging potential calamities. Just don't spend too long on it.

Mr. Kawasaki says entrepreneurs should spend no more than a few months planning and writing a plan of less than 20 pages. He recommends addressing three key questions: Who's going to make it? How are we going to sell it? How are we going to service it?

"The most important thing they should do is create a prototype" of their product, Mr. Kawasaki says. "Spend your time creating prototypes, not plans."

The value of the planning is it forces you to go through the various scenarios and troubleshoot hypothetical problems or roadblocks. You can address, for instance, what sales channel will be most lucrative and the most opportune sales price -- decisions that have to be made before you hit the market.

Flexibility Is Crucial

But for certain, much of the real planning happens once you start selling and hit realities you may not have anticipated.

And it's important to recognize when there's a flaw in the plan and be willing to change directions or ditch plans altogether when they're clearly not working, says Tom Kinnear, executive director of the entrepreneurial studies institute at the University of Michigan.

A business plan should just be a compass, he says, pointing entrepreneurs in the right direction before starting their business. Too many entrepreneurs get wrapped up in perfecting their written plans, which he says shouldn't take more than a few weeks to write.

"No business plan has ever survived contact with the marketplace," he adds.

Write to Kelly K. Spors at kelly.spors@wsj.com

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Homes in Bubble Regions Remain Wildly Overvalued

R.O.I.
By BRETT ARENDS
February 12, 2008

If you own a home in a former bubble region like California or southern Florida, there's bad news… and really bad news.

And they suggest that it is still way too early to go bargain hunting in these markets, although -- of course -- there is always the occasional deal around.

The bad news is fresh market data published Monday night by real-estate Web site Zillow.com. They show prices, as expected, kept slumping through the end of last year.

A new report from Zillow.com shows home values dropped nationwide by 3%. Chief Financial Officer Spencer Rascoff discusses which cities saw the largest declines.
But the really bad news is that, even after a year of misery and falling prices, homes in many of these regions still aren't cheap. They remain wildly overvalued compared to average personal incomes.

There is a strong long-term correlation between the two figures. And in many regions, house prices would still have to fall a very long way to get back into line.

How far?

Try around a third in Florida and Arizona -- and closer to 40% in California.

Yes, from here. The long-term chart for California is shown below.

Even if house prices stabilized, it would take a decade or more for rising incomes to catch up.

The data on median house prices and per capita personal income in these states have been tracked by Karl Case, economics professor at Wellesley College. (He is one half of the duo behind the closely-watched Case-Schiller real estate index).

Professor Case's numbers ran through the end of the third quarter. I decided to see how they might look today, using Zillow's data for the fourth quarter.

The company hasn't posted statewide data, but the price falls across the many cities it tracks give a pretty strong picture. From these I assumed, for the sake of calculations, that California prices fell 8% last quarter from the third quarter, a huge number by historic measures but not out of line with Zillow's data. For Florida and Arizona I assumed declines of 5% and 5.5%. You could use other, more modest estimates for the recent declines: They won't change the outcomes much. I also assumed personal incomes in these states rose in line with recent and historic averages."

The results? In all three markets, the prices are well off their peaks when compared to incomes. But they remain far above historic averages.

Median prices in California peaked in 2006 at 13.3 times per capita incomes. Hard to believe, but true. They may be down now to about 11.1 times.

But that's still way above the ground. Throughout most of the 80s and 90s they ranged between six and seven times incomes.

Just to get down to seven times incomes, prices would have to fall 37% tomorrow.

Those who bought at the peak of the cycle may be pinning their hopes instead on "incomes catching up" instead. But they had better be patient. Even if house prices stayed exactly where they are, it would take around 10 years for rising incomes to bring the ratios back into any sort of alignment.

And it would take even longer before prices started to look very cheap again.

That's based on average personal income growth of 4.6% a year in California and Florida and 4.2% in Arizona.

Yes, these are projections and estimates. Time and chance will play their usual roles. And there will doubtless be different pictures within regions of the same state.

Nonetheless the overall picture is pretty clear. And, if you are a homeowner in any of these regions, none too appealing.

Write to Brett Arends at brett.arends@wsj.com

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

US home loan demand rises to highest since '04-MBA

Reuter
Wed Feb 6, 2008 11:23am EST

By Julie Haviv

NEW YORK, Feb 6 (Reuters) - U.S. mortgage applications rose last week to the highest level in nearly four years, fueled by demand for home purchase loans as interest rates hovered near recent lows, an industry group said on Wednesday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage applications, which includes both purchase and refinance loans, for the week ended Feb. 1 rose 3 percent to 1,086.6, its highest since the week ended March 26, 2004.

The sharp rise in home purchase applications last week may offer a glimmer of hope for the hard-hit U.S. housing market.

Bob Walters, chief economist at Quicken Loans, an online mortgage lender in Livonia, Michigan, said those seeking to purchase a home have had plenty to cheer about in recent weeks as long term interest rates plummeted to near historic lows.

"Right now they have the best of both worlds," he said. "Home prices have become more affordable due to a sizable inventory of unsold homes, and they can finance their purchase at decade-low interest rates."

Borrowing costs on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, excluding fees, averaged 5.61 percent, up 0.1 percentage point from the previous week and 0.12 percentage point above where it stood two weeks prior when it reached its lowest since late June 2005.

Interest rates were below year-ago levels at 6.23 percent.

Mortgage rates have fallen along with U.S. Treasury yields in recent weeks. The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note yield fell further on Tuesday after data showed the vast U.S service sector contracted sharply last month, sending recession-wary investors into safe-harbor government bonds. Yields move inversely to price.

Many analysts, however, say the MBA's data has been skewed in recent months as prospective borrowers have been filing multiple applications to obtain a single loan due to widespread tightening of lending standards.

The MBA's data also counts all applications, including borrowers who are ultimately denied.

Furthermore, the MBA's data only includes retail lenders, which have most probably witnessed an increase in applications as wholesale lenders pull back from the market, according to Michelle Meyer, an economist at Lehman Brothers in New York.

"The home purchase data is incredibly volatile on a weekly basis and last week's jump does not suggest a turnaround in home sales," she said. "It is quite unreliable and a poor indicator of future home sales because purchase applications have been little changed over the past year and a half while home sales have fallen sharply."

The MBA's seasonally adjusted purchase index jumped 12.0 percent to 405.3. The index came in above its year-earlier level of 404.7, a rise of 0.1 percent.

Overall mortgage applications last week were 72.4 percent above their year-ago level. The four-week moving average of mortgage applications, which smooths the volatile weekly figures, was up 10.4 percent to 1,007.4.

REFINANCING BOOM LOSES MOMENTUM

The rise in applications last week was largely due to increased demand for home purchase loans. Demand for home refinancing loans, however, dropped last week after surging the previous three weeks.

The group's seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications decreased 1.0 percent last week to 5,054.0.

However, the index, which is closely tied to mortgage rates, was up 160.1 percent from its year-ago level of 1,943.4.

Fixed 15-year mortgage rates averaged 5.09 percent, up from 5.04 percent the previous week. Rates on one-year adjustable-rate mortgages decreased to 5.62 percent from 5.70 percent.

The refinance share of applications decreased to 69.2 percent from 73.0 percent the previous week. The ARM share of activity increased to 8.8 percent, up from 8.6 percent the previous week. (Reporting by Julie Haviv; Editing by Tom Hals)

Tips for Buying A Foreclosed Home

RealEstateJournal.com
By June Fletcher
From The Wall Street Journal Online

Question: I have been considering relocating to Charlotte, N.C., where I can purchase more home for the money. With the recent housing slump and increase in foreclosures, I figure it's an opportune time to purchase an affordable property. My questions: Is this a good time to buy, and if so, where can I find bargains? Also, where can I locate foreclosed properties without having to join an online site that charges a membership fee?

-- Johnna Richard, New York. N.Y.

Johnna: In good markets and bad, real-estate agents are constantly announcing that "now" is the best time to buy. With housing prices weakening, inventories rising and sales slumping, this attitude has drawn a lot of ridicule in the press.

But you know what? Now may actually be a very good time to buy, or at least start looking seriously.

Though no one can really tell when the downward-trending housing market will reach its nadir -- most economists predict it will bottom out sometime in 2008 or 2009 -- there's no doubt that sellers have let go of bubblelicious notions of what their homes are worth. According to S&P/Case-Shiller, existing home prices dropped 4.5% nationally in the third quarter over the year before; price appreciation was even slowing in Charlotte, one of the few cities that the research group covers that showed price appreciation year-over-year. It rose at a tepid rate of 4.7%.

The media makes this out as a tragedy, but it's really not. For buyers, a market that's nearing its bottom is only a concern for flippers, who need a rising market to make money. For buyers making a long-term investment, it's a reason to rejoice.

Yes, loans are hard to find, but they are still being made, especially if you have good credit. While the qualifications for getting a loan are becoming stricter -- but no more strict than they were in the mid-1990s -- mortgage money is still cheap by historical standards and will likely remain so in the near future. The Mortgage Bankers Association projects that 30-year fixed rates will hover around 6% throughout 2008 and the first two quarters of 2009.

Meanwhile, as you have noted, bargains abound, particularly in foreclosure properties. While many Web sites sell foreclosure information (sometimes after letting you sample the Web site for a week-long free trial), you don't have to pay an online membership fee to find them. Title companies, real-estate agents and lenders -- including credit unions -- all have information on homes in various stages of foreclosure.

Homes that are being auctioned are listed in the legal notices section of the main local newspaper and can usually be found on the newspaper's Web site.

But generally, you will get a better deal if you buy a house before it goes to auction, or after -- if it doesn't sell on the courthouse steps. Bidders at an auction sometimes get caught in the heat of the moment and push up prices.

For a simple and up-to-date explanation of the foreclosure process, you may want to read "Finding Foreclosures" by real-estate investor Danielle Babb and mortgage broker Bill Nazur (Entrepreneur Press; 2007). But keep in mind that the book was prepared with RealtyTrac, an online database of foreclosure and pre-foreclosure properties, and promotes that Web site heavily.


-- June Fletcher is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal and the author of "House Poor" (Harper Collins, 2005).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Risk of property defaults growing

The Financial Times
By Daniel Pimlott in New York and Gillian Tett in London

Published: February 5 2008 18:47 | Last updated: February 5 2008 18:47

There is a growing risk of defaults on loans on commercial property this year, in a trend that could spill over into tumbling values and create more jitters in the credit world, analysts and bankers warn.

US property companies that took out big short-term loans to finance acquisitions in the past couple of years at low-interest rates are now struggling to refinance this debt, as banks curb lending and commercial property prices fall.

EDITOR’S CHOICE
Squeeze halts sales in office property - Jan-25Insight: An international approach to commercial real estate - Jan-16Banks gloomy on commercial property debt - Jan-14Punitive barriers ‘threatening progress’ - Jan-11Singapore’s GIC builds stake in British Land - Jan-10Savills defies gloom with upbeat outlook - Jan-09In recent days, Harry Macklowe, the New York developer, has failed to refinance $5.8bn in short-term loans he used to buy seven Manhattan office towers from Equity Office Properties last February. Deutsche Bank, which provided the loan, has taken control of the buildings and will put them up for sale, a person familiar with the matter said.

Analysts warn of a pattern that could spread. US commercial property prices have fallen 10 per cent in some markets since August, after rising more than 90 per cent since 2001, according to Real Capital Analytics.

“For [recent] loans coming to maturity this year . . . it will be very difficult to acquire refinancing,” said Sam Chandan, chief economist at Reis, a property re-search company.

Signs of growing stress also exist in the UK commercial property sector. Tomorrow, UK group British Land is expected to announce a sharp writedown in the value of its commercial property. The Bank of England highlighted its unease in its recent quarterly bulletin, noting that “commercial property prices fell sharply” in recent months, and “returns on commercial property slowed significantly”.

Most analysts think the scale of problems building in the commercial property sector are far smaller than in the subprime loans market. However, if the sector produces tangible losses this year, this will be deeply unwelcome for banks and investors in commercial mortgage-backed securities

One area of concern revolves around property companies that have taken out floating rate loans in the past couple of years.

This year $22bn out of a total $38bn in outstanding floating rate CMBS is coming due, according to Wachovia Capital Markets data, of which $2bn faces the greatest risk of default because it has a final maturity this year with no option to extend.

Worried Sellers Splurge on Home Renovations

By June Fletcher
From The Wall Street Journal Online

Christina Lee just spent $150,000 to remodel her house -- for a stranger.

Ms. Lee has lived in her 19th century New York City brownstone for nearly three decades and in that time did just one major upgrade -- a $25,000 makeover of a kitchen 13 years ago. Now, the attorney wants to relocate her law practice to Seattle and sell her place -- which she bought in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan back in 1979 for $70,000. So for the past few months, the 4,400-square-foot house has been a frenzy of contractors, who have refinished floors and woodwork, overhauled her second kitchen, changed two bedrooms into sunrooms and redone a bath, complete with vessel sink, new shower and recessed lighting.

The modernistic redo doesn't quite match her own taste. But it did mimic the d├ęcor in newspaper real-estate sections. Ms. Lee says she hopes it will cement a quick sale when she puts her house on the market at "something north" of $2 million. "If I didn't do this, I wouldn't get my best price," she says.

Add another hassle to the headache of home selling: the last-minute renovation. With the housing market continuing to weaken, many sellers are going beyond the usual cleaning, painting and "staging" with flowers and pillows, by taking on big-ticket projects.

Payback Time

Selected remodeling projects with average estimated percentage of costs recovered when home is sold.

Some experts warn that sellers are unlikely to get their money back from extensive renovations. But owners often feel they have no choice if they want to sell, especially when builders of newly constructed homes are throwing in hardwood floors, finished basements and other free upgrades.

"There's so much competition, you need to stand out," says Brian Goe, a waterproofing-company owner. He spent $28,000 to upgrade a Bedminster, N.J., house that he bought in 1987 for $187,000. Before it hit the market a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Goe had contractors add pickled oak flooring to the dining room and new carpeting. They installed skylights in the living room, new stainless-steel kitchen appliances and separate sinks in the master bath. He had the interior walls painted in faux finishes.

Such are the decisions homeowners make in a market where the news, for sellers, goes from bad to worse. According to the National Association of Realtors, the pace of sales of existing homes fell 22% in December compared with a year earlier. The median price fell 6% to $208,400.

The depressed market is hurting remodeling overall. Homeowner spending is expected to fall at an annual rate of 2.6% through the third quarter this year, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The center doesn't break out separate home-improvement spending by owners preparing to sell. But Kermit Baker, director of the center's Remodeling Futures Program, says, "I suspect that there is a fair amount of this happening, given the softness in the housing market."

An online poll of 445 contractors conducted last week for The Wall Street Journal by ServiceMagic, a national contractor-referral service in Golden, Colo., indicates last-minute renovating is propping up a sizable chunk of the remodeling industry. According to the poll, 26% of contractors said they had been contacted in the past year by prospective home sellers looking to do substantial work. Of those contractors, 48% said such work had boosted their business by 20% or more.

Extensive presale remodeling is often fraught with conflicted decisions, because homeowners are making aesthetic choices they hope will please people they don't know. Tracey Born Fitzgerald, a marketing consultant, recently spent weeks visiting 20 open houses, buttonholing real-estate agents and watching makeover shows on TV to figure out what to do to the 1930s Los Angeles house that she and her two sisters inherited from their mother. She discovered that it wasn't important to install top-of-the line appliances. Instead, she put in good-quality, matching appliances and new countertops -- she had them tiled in seafoam green -- and replaced cabinet fronts, carpeting, doors, faucets, fixtures and lighting in a traditional style that didn't clash with the English Tudor home. All these upgrades cost her $55,000.

Ms. Fitzgerald says it was essential to let go of her personal preferences for the house, which she is planning to list "in the upper $3 million range." "I had to think, if I were a buyer, what would I want?" she says.

No matter what the upgrade, homeowners aren't likely to recoup all the money spent when they sell. According to Remodeling magazine's annual Cost Versus Value Survey, the overall return for remodeling projects is on the decline, falling to an average of 70% in 2007 from 86.7% at the market peak in 2005.

For a project using midrange products, the best returns come from putting on a new deck, replacing the siding and sprucing up the kitchen; the lowest returns come from remodeling a home office, adding a sunroom or putting in a backup power generator.

Tricia Sinn, a Ladue, Mo., remodeler who recently oversaw a seller's $24,000 last-minute redo, says rather than splurge on major upgrades, it is often better to remove aging window treatments and other dated features and to selectively replace worn and "icky" items, such as countertops, shower doors and hardware. "A comprehensive, clean look is better than one newly renovated area," she says. The house she worked on sold at the first open house for $645,000 -- $4,900 less than the asking price.

Some sellers aren't worried about recouping what they've spent. Carl Frederick, a landscape-lighting company executive, spent $23,000 preparing to sell his four-bedroom Boston Heights, Ohio, home. It was only nine years old, but Mr. Frederick replaced laminated countertops with granite, installed new sinks with brushed-nickel faucets, replaced light fixtures -- and put the house on the market in April for $879,000.

Several contracts fell through before it finally sold for $775,000. Mr. Frederick paid $700,000 for the house five years ago -- leaving him with little profit after the agent's fees and closing costs. But he has no regrets. "At the end of the day, I sold the house," he says.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

You May Not Want to Wait to Refinance That Mortgage

TheStreet.com Market Features
02/03/08 - 12:17 PM EST
Terry Savage

With all the headlines about Federal Reserve rate cuts, it's easy to jump to the wrong conclusion: that you can afford to wait to refinance your home. But that's a dangerous position to take. It's one thing to speculate with interest-rate futures.

It's quite another to gamble with the roof over your head.

Last week, mortgage rates ticked slightly higher across the board, from fixed-rate 30-year loans to adjustable-rate mortgages. The bond market, and the mortgage market, may be looking across the temporary decline in rates to the inflation that is likely to follow this current round of Fed easing.

Dangers of Playing the Refi Game

There are two important reasons not to "game" the mortgage rate if you know you need to refinance, or are one of the very few still buying a new home.

First: The Fed does not "control" long term rates! The Fed can pump liquidity into the system, and can set short-term rates. But it can't control the longer-term bond market, where trillions of dollars of debt are freely traded each day. In that bond market, the very sophisticated participants are considering the impact of all that liquidity -- and its potential to create inflation down the road.

Typically, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage tracks the yield of the 10-year Treasury note (because very few mortgages are actually held for 30 years). It is not the same rate as 10-year treasuries, of course, because individual mortgages have a higher degree of risk -- as we've all seen lately!

Inflation Fears Push Rates Up, Bond Prices Down

If bond buyers are worried about inflation, they're going to demand higher rates to compensate. In reality, if they sniff inflation coming, they start to sell the bonds they own, pushing prices down and yields up.

Remember, in bonds, the yield moves inversely to the price. A bond may have a fixed rate promise to pay off the principal in ten years, and a promise to pay a certain interest rate every year until then. But though the face value of the bond may be $1,000 -- which you'll get back at maturity -- the trading price of the bond may be much lower.

When you purchase a bond at a lower price than face value, your "yield to maturity" is higher than the interest rate on the face of the bond. That's how existing bonds trade to compensate for fears of future inflation. So even "old" 10-year Treasurys may be trading to give a higher yield as sellers push bond prices down.

Here's the simple rule to keep in mind: When interest rates rise, bond prices fall.

That's something beyond the Fed's power to control over the long run. The market is bigger than the Fed when it comes to long-term interest rates.

Which brings us back to your mortgage.

What Could Happen to Mortgage Rates

Mortgage rates might fall a bit farther if there is a deep recession, lowering the business demand for money. Or, there could be an economic recovery because of all this liquidity, with renewed growth causing rates to rise.

But the worst case is that the liquidity the Fed is pushing into the economy now doesn't create growth, but does create fears of future inflation. That creates the possibility of stagflation -- higher rates, but still a slow economy.

That's the first and main reason why you want to refinance as soon as possible into a fixed rate loan. Don't try to beat out the bond traders, because the upside risk on rates definitely exists, and could be devastating if you still have an adjustable-rate mortgage.

The Other Risk: Home Prices Fall Farther

I mentioned that there are two reasons to lock in rates now. The second reason is that if we do have a continued economic slowdown, the appraised value of your home could fall still farther. In fact, if you don't have enough equity in your home, you simply can't refinance -- as millions of homeowners have already learned. They're stuck in adjustable rate loans, worrying about the possibility of higher monthly payments.

Take advantage of this possibly temporary dip in mortgage rates to start the refi process now. And as you start the process, get a written rate guarantee from your lender.

If rates drop again, and your house retains its value, you can always refi another time. But if rates rise, you may not get this chance again. And that's The Savage Truth!

Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book, The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need? in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.