March 23, 2023

Housing Recovery Seems Still on Track

For now, though, builders are building, sellers are selling and mortgage lenders are less nervous about extending credit to buyers.

The heady price increases in the first half of the year slowed a bit in July, according to data released on Tuesday.

But in the face of pent-up demand and emboldened consumers, home values were still heading upward at a healthy pace, rising 12.4 percent from July 2012 to July 2013, according to the Standard Poor’s Case/Shiller home price index, which tracks sales in 20 cities.

A separate index of mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac showed an 8.8 percent gain in prices over the same time period.

Two national homebuilders, Lennar and KB Home, reported significant revenue growth and profits in the third quarter. Lennar said its third-quarter earnings rose 39 percent over the third quarter of last year, and KB said its profit had increased sevenfold.

“We still have a lot of young people that are going to start moving out and forming households and we’re going to have to find housing for them,” said Patrick Newport, the chief United States economist for IHS Global Insight. “There are shortages of homes just about everywhere.”

Higher home prices help the economy not just by strengthening the construction and real estate industries, but by making homeowners feel wealthier and more likely to spend.

While the number of Americans who lost the equity in their homes in the housing crash set records, rebounding prices have helped nudge more and more households back above water. According to CoreLogic, 2.5 million households regained equity in their homes in the second quarter.

Mr. Newport said the full effects of higher mortgage rates had probably not shown up in the numbers yet.

Rates increased from about 3.4 percent on 30-year fixed-rate loans in January to about 4.4 percent in July, according to a survey by Freddie Mac, and many loans were written at even higher rates this summer. But they remain well below typical rates in recent decades, and mortgage borrowing costs have already eased a bit from their recent peak now that the Federal Reserve opted last week not to begin a wind-down of stimulus measures.

Rising rates may not torpedo the housing market recovery, but they have made refinancing much less appealing.

The number of mortgage applications for purchases has climbed by 7 percent over the last year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, but refinance requests have fallen by 70 percent since early May.

As a result, banks have laid off thousands of workers in their mortgage units. Citigroup laid off 1,000 workers from its mortgage business, it said on Monday, following Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which have both done layoffs in recent months.

Refinancing also gave households more spending power as it lowered monthly payments.

Analysts offered a cornucopia of reasons for the continuing strength of the housing market: people rushing to buy before prices and interest rates increased further, a gradual relaxation of lending standards, an uptick in inventory, a smaller share of foreclosures in the sales stream and large-scale buying by investors looking to put houses on the rental market.

Still, some analysts questioned whether fundamental factors like job and wage growth would sustain the market and restore first-time buyers to the market. Others warned of a lurking shadow inventory.

“While recent results have been considerably better than those seen earlier in the cycle, and also better than we had anticipated, we have not given up on the argument that a large supply overhang of existing homes (factoring in all those in foreclosure or soon to be) promises to keep pressure on prices for some time,” Joshua Shapiro, the chief United States economist for MFR, wrote in a note to investors.

Once the backlog of demand is absorbed, continued strength will depend heavily on consumer confidence. That’s where politics, including a looming battle over federal spending and the debt ceiling, could stall improvement.

“The real test will come over the next few months, given the sharp drop in mortgage demand and the potential for a rollover in consumers’ confidence as Congress does its worst,” wrote Ian Shepherdson, an economist with Pantheon Macroeconomics.

On Tuesday, the Conference Board, a New York-based private research group, reported that Americans’ confidence in the economy fell slightly in September from August, as many became less optimistic about hiring and pay increases over the next six months. The September reading dropped to 79.7, down from 81.8 the previous month, but remained only slightly below June’s reading of 82.1, the highest in five and a half years.

Year-over-year prices were up in all 20 cities tracked by Case/Shiller, but the gains varied widely, from 3.5 percent in New York and 3.9 percent in Cleveland on the low end to a frothy 24.8 percent in San Francisco and 27.5 percent in Las Vegas.

The month-to-month increase in the Case/Shiller index slowed to 0.6 percent, after gains of 1.7 percent in April, 0.9 percent in May and 0.9 percent in June.

Asked if the slowdown in growth was alarming, Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who helped develop the home price index, said no. “I’m not worried,” he said in an interview with CNBC. “I think that would be a good thing.”

His greater worry, he said, was “more about a bubble — in some cities, it’s looking bubbly now.”

Still, Mr. Shiller said, even the bubbliest markets were still well below their peak.

Other analysts raised the same point. Prices in San Francisco are still only at 2004 levels, cautioned Steve Blitz, chief economist for ITG Investment Research. “For those who bought and still hold homes in 2005, ’06 and ’07, they may still be in a negative equity position, depending on the terms of their mortgage,” Mr. Blitz wrote. “Don’t let those double-digit year-over-year percentage gains bias opinion to believe all is all right.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 25, 2013

An earlier version of this article omitted a credit for several remarks from Mr. Shiller. He made his comments in an interview with CNBC, not with The Times. 

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DealBook: Ireland Mortgage Bill Aims to Aid Owners and Jump-Start Economy

DUBLIN — With its economy still reeling from the housing crash, Ireland is making a bold move to help tens of thousands of struggling homeowners.

The Irish government expects to pass a law this year that could encourage banks to substantially cut the amount that borrowers owe on their mortgages, a step that no major country has been willing to take on a broad scale.

The initiative, which would lower a borrower’s monthly payment, could prevent a tide of foreclosures, an uncertainty that has been hanging over the Irish housing market for years. If it works, the plan could provide a road map for other troubled countries.

Without the proposed law, Laura Crowley, a nurse who lives in a village 30 miles west of Dublin, figures she will lose her home. In 2007, Ms. Crowley and her husband bought a small home for the equivalent of $420,000. But they can no longer afford the $1,400 monthly payment. Her husband, a construction worker, is earning far less and her take-home pay has been cut by the country’s new austerity measures, which include new taxes. “This bill is the only light at the end of the tunnel for us,” she said.

Most countries that have suffered housing busts, including the United States, have made limited use of so-called mortgage write-downs, the process of forgiving a portion of the principal on the loan. The worry has been that some borrowers who can afford their mortgages will stop making payments to take advantage of a bailout. Banks have also been reluctant since they could face unexpected losses.

Ireland is different from the United States and most countries. During the financial crisis, Ireland bailed out the banks, and the government still has large ownership stakes in some of the biggest mortgage lenders. So taxpayers are already responsible for mortgage losses. In other countries, the burden of principal forgiveness would largely fall on privately owned banks.

But the debate is the same: whether to push lenders to take losses now, in hopes that things will get better faster, or wait for the housing market to heal on its own, which could cloud the economy for years to come.

Countries suffering from a housing hangover will most likely be watching Ireland closely to see how the law works. Spain, swamped with mortgage defaults, introduced a measure in March that allows for debt forgiveness, though under strict conditions.

In many ways, Ireland has to try something audacious. House prices are still 50 percent below their peak, compared with 30 percent in the United States. And more than half of Irish mortgages are underwater, meaning the house is worth less than the outstanding debt. While some of those borrowers can afford to keep making payments, more than a quarter of mortgage debt on first homes, roughly $39 billion, is in default or has been modified by lenders.

The housing market is now in a state of limbo as the government and the banks have made little effort to clean up the mortgage mess.

Unlike in the United States, Irish banks have foreclosed on very few borrowers. While Ireland’s leaders have considered it socially unacceptable for banks to seize large numbers of homes, they also feared the fiscal cost of foreclosures.

This approach creates doubt about the true level of bad mortgages at Irish banks. And borrowers, unsure of whether they will keep their homes, remain in a state of financial paralysis.

The new law aims to end this stalemate by overhauling Ireland’s consumer debt and bankruptcy laws.

While banks aren’t required to reduce the mortgage debt, the legislation gives them a powerful incentive to write down mortgages for troubled borrowers. Under the new rules, it will be less onerous to declare bankruptcy, making it easier for people to walk away from their homes altogether. As the threat rises, banks are more likely to reduce homeowners’ debt, rather than risk losing the monthly income and getting stuck with the property.

“For the banks, where there are losses, they have to be recognized,” said Alan Shatter, Ireland’s justice minister, who has sponsored the new law, called the Personal Insolvency Bill. “This legislation gives homeowners hope for their future.”

The legislation is intended, in part, to reach homeowners who are on the verge of running into trouble, as Geraldine Daly is.

A health care worker, Ms. Daly bought a home in 2009 in Belmayne, a new development in northern Dublin. Until last month, Ms. Daly said, she has been making her $1,200 payment. Then she fell behind after some unexpected expenses, including a car repair.

Ms. Daly estimates that her finances would become manageable if her monthly mortgage payments were cut to around $900. “Right now, I am a slave to this dog box.”

Critics contend the law could have unintended consequences.

One fear is that banks won’t have the money to absorb the potential losses on the mortgages. A big mystery is the level of defaults on so-called buy-to-let mortgages, loans that many Irish people took out to buy second homes to rent. In theory, the insolvency bill allows for write-offs on this type of mortgage, and analysts expect defaults on such loans to be higher than on first homes. Ireland’s central bank is expected to release the data soon.

To qualify, borrowers will have to prove that they are in a precarious financial position and cannot afford to pay. Analysts are concerned that the bill may actually be too restrictive and homeowners will continue to default. “There are so many layers that borrowers have to go through to get a write-down,” said Paul Joyce, senior policy researcher at Free Legal Advice Centers, a legal rights group that has supported moves to make Irish bankruptcy law more lenient. For instance, borrowers will most likely have to pay a big fee upfront to the person who handles their case.

John Chubb, a former construction worker who lives on a quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Dublin, isn’t too worried about the process right now. He just wants to save his home.

Since having an operation for colon cancer in 2004, Mr. Chubb has lived primarily on government disability payments, and the bank has allowed him to pay only mortgage interest. But the lender is in the process of deciding whether to foreclose.

“I am expecting the word any day now,” he said. “I don’t know if I will be out on the front path before the bill passes.”



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Bucks Blog: Big Downpayments Could Bar Creditworthy Borrowers From Market, Study Finds

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Requiring a minimum down payment of 20 percent, or even 10 percent, on home loans would push many creditworthy borrowers into higher-cost loans or out of the mortgage market entirely, a new study says.

Possible down-payment requirements are part of a debate in Congress and among a cluster of federal regulatory agencies, as they develop new rules for mortgage lenders following the housing crash.

As part of the reforms mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial law, the agencies (including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation., the Federal Reserve, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, among others) have proposed criteria for what constitutes a reasonably safe, high-quality mortgage–a “qualified residential mortgage,” or Q.R.M., in regulatory lingo.

Lenders issuing such mortgages will be able to sell them to private investors and avoid retaining any of the risk associated with a default of the loan on their own books. Loans that don’t meet the standards will be considered riskier, so the lender will have to retain 5 percent ownership. The goal is to encourage banks to thoroughly vet a borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

The agencies have proposed, among other requirements, that mortgages must have a down payment of 20 percent to meet the definition.  This has raised concerns among lenders, builders and housing advocates that such a requirement will unnecessarily hobble a healthy part of the housing market.

(Loans insured by the Federal Housing Agency, which can be obtained with small down payments, are exempt from the “qualified residential mortgage” mandates. Loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage companies that are the biggest players in the secondary mortgage market, are exempt. But the concern is that the new definition of a “safe” mortgage eventually will become the standard, applicable to loans backed by Fannie and Freddie too, said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending.)

To see what impact tougher rules for down payments and other criteria might have on borrowers, the University of North Carolina’s Center for Community Capital, Wayne State University and the Center for Responsible Lending examined home purchase loans issued before the housing bubble burst.  In part, researchers examined mortgages issued from 2004-8 that were in good standing as of last February.

The researchers found that imposing a 10 percent down payment requirement would eliminate 38 percent of creditworthy borrowers from the traditional mortgage market and that at a 20 percent down payment threshold, 61 percent would be excluded. The report also found that such down payment requirements disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos.

The added benefit of reduced foreclosures, the study found, did not “necessarily outweigh the costs of reducing borrowers’ access” to mortgages.

Simply restricting access to the riskiest type of loans that caused big problems during the housing mess, like interest-only loans or those issued with no income documentation, would reduce defaults while making loans available to a broader pool of creditworthy borrowers, the study found.

“While higher down payments do result in fewer defaults, the payoff is small relative to the number of creditworthy households who could be shut out of the market, the study shows,” said a statement from the Center for Responsible Lending.

Do you think a mandatory 10 percent or 20 percent down payment is reasonable, even if it bars otherwise creditworthy borrowers from qualifying for a home loan?

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Economix Blog: Casey B. Mulligan: Bankers, Too, Cast a Safety Net


Casey B. Mulligan is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

The combination of housing market events and the profit motive of mortgage lenders turned trillions of dollars of household debt into a huge safety net.

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

Household debt had been increasing during the 1980s and 1990s, but the rate of increase was extraordinary in the years leading up to the recession. By 2007, household sector debt had reached 114 percent of the nation’s personal income – more than $14 trillion. The change was almost entirely due to accumulation of home mortgage debt.

Normally, home mortgages are fully secured by a residential property, and when a homeowner fails to make the scheduled payments on time, the lender can seize the property and sell it to recover its principal, interest and fees. When the lender has this valuable foreclosure option, borrowers overwhelming either make their home mortgage payments on time or sell their property in an orderly fashion to obtain the money to repay the mortgage lender, even in cases when the homeowner is unemployed.

When residential property values plummeted in 2008 and 2009, a number of residential properties were suddenly “under water” — worth less than the mortgages they secured. In those cases, the lender’s foreclosure option was no longer valuable – selling the property would be likely to yield too little money to cover principal, let alone interest and fees.

Lenders needed a way to estimate which borrowers would still pay in full and a way for other borrowers to work out a mortgage modification that would give them an incentive to pay at least a bit more than their homes were worth.

Naturally, a borrower’s income is a factor considered – borrowers with high income can be expected to repay more than borrowers with low income. Thus, a partial solution to the lenders’ collection problem is to insist that high-income borrowers pay more of the mortgage amount due and allow at least some low-income borrowers to pay less.

From this perspective, the lenders’ desire to maximize debt collections (after the collapse of residential real estate values) causes them to create a kind of safety net program that gives low-income people more help with their housing expenses (much the way the federal food stamp program gives low-income people more help with their food expenses) in the form of modified mortgage payments.

To quantify the size of the loan modification safety net and its changes over time, I estimate the amounts that “home retention actions” (as the federal government calls these mortgage modifications that allows people to stay in their homes) actually changed mortgage payments from the original mortgage contract, which specified only payment in full or foreclosure.

To estimate those amounts for 2008-10, I first measured the number of residential properties in each quarter receiving loan modifications, lender permission for short sale or lender permission for deed-in-lieu of foreclosure.

Next, I multiplied the number of transactions by a $20,319 average value of each loan modification (a typical modification reduced monthly payments by $400 for a minimum of 60 months; at an annual discount rate of 7 percent, that’s a present value of $20,319). I do not have data on the number of home retention actions for the years 2006 and 2007, but I assume the dollar value of discharges those years were, as a proportion to discharges in 2008, the same as total mortgage loan discharges by commercial banks.

Because the home retention actions are necessary primarily when homes are worth less than the mortgages they secure, the amount discharged by home retention actions is much less in 2006 and 2007 when residential property values were still high. During 2010, mortgage lenders discharged more than $70 billion of mortgage debt through home retention actions. Seventy billion dollars for one year is small in comparison to the total amount that homeowners were under water but is more than the spending by the entire food stamp program for that year.

The last row of the table displays discharges on other consumer loans, such as credit card debt. Those discharges are smoother over time because they are not directly tied to the housing cycle but still totaled more than $70 billion in 2010. The combination of discharges of other consumer loans and discharges of home mortgages by home retention actions was almost $150 billion in 2010, which exceeds the peak spending for entire unemployment insurance system.

Bankers deserve a lot of blame for getting us into this mess, have dipped far too deeply into the United States Treasury to help themselves, and have been far too slow to modify mortgages. For these reasons, it’s remarkable that their own selfish pursuits have forced them to create a safety net of sorts that rivals the amounts spent by public sector safety net programs.

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