Thursday, January 31, 2008

What's Going On With Increasing the Conforming Loan Limit?

Update 2/12/08: See my post with more recent information here.

Original Post:
The mortgage market is in a state of flux, with multiple proposals floating around Congress regarding a potential increase in the conforming loan limit. That limit, currently $417,000, is the congressionally mandated maximum loan size that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--the largest players in the secondary mortgage market--can purchase. That helps keep rates lower for buyers in that bracket because there's an active place for banks to sell those loans. However, as many of you know, in this area that amount doesn't always buy much. An increase in the limit would make higher priced properties more affordable because a new and liquid secondary market would exist. (Jumbo rates, i.e., loans for more than $417K, run about 1% higher than conforming, though all rates change all day, every day, according to market conditions.

So what's all this about raising the limit, and what are they raising it to?

Nancy Pelosi first published that the limit would increase to $625,000 as part of the stimulus package. Then immediately she clarified to say that the new limit would be $729,750, an a similar (but permanent) increase for FHA limits. The difference is that the higher limit would be restricted only to certain high cost areas. Rep. Barney Frank then later added that the limit would be the lesser of $729,500 or 125% of the median home price, and only until the end of 2008, but for FHA any changes would be permanent. (FYI, the median home price for Washington's MSA according to OFHEO is $438,000, meaning our new limit would be $547,500 under that proposal) Other variations of the bill are floating around, disputes are ensuing, and some in Congress are saying any change needs to be part of a GSE reform bill.

The bottom line is that nothing is final yet, just as with the entire stimulus bill.

In related news, there have been several Fed rate cuts this month; first a 75bp emergency cut, followed by another 50bp cut this week. For those playing rate roulette, this last cut actually caused rates to increase, though they are still lower than a year ago. Read about why Fed cuts don't directly impact mortgage rates in my blog post here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Fed Rate Cut - Why Didn't Mortgage Rates Fall Much?

The Fed's emergency three-quarters of a point rate cut didn't have much impact on mortgage rates...or did it? Well, it did and it didn't (don't you love answers like that)? The bottom line is that the Fed Funds rate certainly impacts mortgage rates, but sometimes indirectly, and surprisingly, sometimes they can move in opposite directions! This is a very high level and over-simplified discussion of the whys and hows -- it's tough to fit this in to one post though, and I'm not a mortgage banker, so bear with me, and feel free to contact me directly if you want to discuss more. Here we go:

The Fed Funds Rate is the overnight borrowing rate between banks. Banks are required to have certain reserve funds at the Fed each night to cover their deposits (remember reading about the Depression and runs on banks?) Sometimes banks don't have the funds so they borrow from other banks who have excess funds. The rate is an important policy tool of the Fed--it helps keep the balance of economic growth vs inflation in check. That's the key trade-off that the rate helps control--if rates are too low, we'll get inflation. If rates are too high, it prohibits growth.

The FFR is a very short term rate (overnight), whereas mortgage rates are more aligned with longer term instruments like bonds. After all, a buyer is theoretically borrowing money for 30 years (the length of a mortgage, though the lenders all know that most borrowers sell or refinance long before that time.) Bond yields, which impact 30 year mortgages, are tied to long term investor market expectations.

So which loans does the FFR impact?

30 year fixed -- Not directly impacted, though they often move in tandem because of shared expectations about long term growth of the economy. But if the FFR drops too low and investors get too worried that it will result in inflation, then mortgage rates can actually move in the opposite direction.

ARM loans -- These are generally tied to short term (1 year) treasuries, and so likely are impacted by rate cuts, but only if it varies from what was "expected" (see more below).

HELOCS -- These are generally tied to the prime rate, which moves in step with the Federal Reserve.

Subprimes -- Depends what index it's tied to, but they are often tied to LIBOR. LIBOR rates have been falling this month.

How markets move after FFR changes depends on expectations; the Fed meets on a regular schedule and many pundits predict their every move, so there are expectations "built in" to interest rates. If the Fed acts "as expected", then there are minimal changes following an announcement. Yesterday's announcement was a surprise mostly in the timing--many pundits had already predicted a half point cut later in January. So the impact was not overly dramatic.

NB: Not covered in this post is the differences in impacts between "Jumbo" and "Conforming" loans -- the magic number there is $417,000 because that's the mandated upper limit of loans that Fannie and Freddie can purchase from banks and re-sell--with a guarantee--to investors, creating a very liquid secondary market. Liquidity and guarantees lowers risk for banks, which helps keep rates lower for buyers in that bracket.

Update: In conjunction with the just released stimulus package comes news that Congress is evaluating whether or not to raise that $417K limit to $625K. If implemented, this will do a ton to create more affordable mortgage options in the DC area...more to come.

Read more: How do Fed rate cuts affect adjustable mortgages?

Read more: A slightly dated article that still does a nice job explaining impacts on different mortgage types.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Unique Risks in Buying New Construction Condos

There are risks in any real estate transaction, but buying new construction has several unique ones:

1) Contract Risk - builders use their own contract and rarely (if ever) allow changes. Obviously the contract is written in the builder's favor, but how will you know which terms are commonplace in the local market and which are uniquely theirs?

2) Financing Risk - If the building isn't ready to be delivered yet, the buyer assumes any financing risk between contract date and delivery. If interest rates double between now and then, for example, it's the buyer's problem. Similarly, any change in the buyer's status (e.g., job loss) is rarely accepted as a reason to get out of the contract. Best case is that you lose your deposit and walk away.

3) Delivery Risk - Again, with buildings that aren't complete, builders write in a clause that give them a specific time frame-often 2 years in this area-in which they can deliver late with NO consequences. If a buyer's lease is up or they have no place to go, that's the buyer's issue. It also adds to the Financing Risk (see #2)

4) Sales Risk Part A - If the builder doesn't sell out, then it's nearly impossible for a resale owner to price competitively. Consider the math--a buyer purchases, and has to mark it up to cover their own sales costs. How will a resale ever compete with a builder that doesn't have that markup?

5) Sales Risk Part B - If a builder doesn't sell out, and money is getting short, they may decide to "repartment" the building - that is, convert partially to apartments. That's a bad situation for owners (who now have tenants in their building) as well as for re-sellers (who would buy in a building when they can rent for much less in the very same building?)

6) Fees - Not really a risk so much as an FYI. Don't get too excited about that huge closing cost credit with use of "preferred lender and settlement attorney." They're "preferred" because the fees are higher in the first place. Know what a reasonable fee is so you can make an informed decision.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

FAQ: Buyer's Closing Costs

Many buyers are aware that they have fees related to the purchase of a new home—a rough guide is 2.5%-3% of the transaction value--but what are these fees, and are there ways to minimize them?

First, a few clarifications. Both buyers and sellers have closing costs in a transaction; the sellers’ are typically much higher (because they pay both real estate brokers) than the buyers’. These fees are typically paid at closing—they come out of the sellers’ proceeds, and the buyer can either pay cash, or can negotiate to have their portion of the closing costs paid by the seller (read more here.)

For this post, I’ll focus on the buyer’s fees. A lender should provide you with a Good Faith Estimate (GFE) when you apply for a loan. This GFE is essentially an estimate of your “HUD-1” form, which you will receive at closing. Each lender has their own preferred format, but you should be able to compare apples-to-apples by looking at the section headers, or, even better, the line item numbers. It’s important to note, though, that lenders only control certain sections, while others may be simply based on their own experience. When comparing lenders, it’s important to focus only on the line items that the lender actually controls.

The fees vary by jurisdiction, broker, and settlement attorney, but a good way to categorize them would be:

  • Prepaids – These are generally required by the lender, and may include prepaid insurance, prepaid property taxes, and prepaid interest. Another common prepaid item is condo/HOA fees. These vary based on the day of the month that you close, since they are pro-rated between buyer and seller.
  • Points – A point represents 1% of the loan balance and are charged by lenders. This, along with the fees, can easily amount to thousands and thousands of dollars, so it’s important to discuss this with your agent and your lender.
  • Fees – These are fees charged by real estate brokers, settlement attorneys, and lenders, and are the toughest to judge for "reasonableness" without experience. These vary widely, particularly among lenders. Some real estate agents will pay their broker’s fee on your behalf—be sure to ask them. For lenders, whose fees can be substantial, it’s important to know early in the process what they’ll charge. These fees can generally be found on your Good Faith Estimate in the 800 section, but look in the 1300 “Additional” section too. Broker's and attorney’s fees are scattered throughout the closing statement sections.
  • Title Insurance – This is paid by the buyer and, depending on the policy, can amount to thousands of dollars. It’s a one time charge that covers you in the event of a problem with the chain of ownership. See my post on how to save some money with title insurance here. This is in the 1100 section.
  • Government and Transfer Charges – Paid to the local jurisdiction. These can be quite substantial—for example, in the District of Columbia, the transfer (paid by the seller) and recording taxes (paid by the buyer) are 1.1% each. Northern Virginia sellers just had big increase (from $1 per $1000 in value to $5 per $1000) in their transfer taxes.

Read more about how to spot “junk fees” in my post here. This is just a high level summary of some of the most common items on a HUD-1, so be sure to ask your agent to walk you through the expenses and strategize with you on how to keep them to a minimum!