Jumbo Market Inching Back to Health

The jumbo mortgage market is taking small steps toward normalcy.

In the first few months of 2010, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and U.S. Bank have become more aggressive in originating jumbo mortgages, says A.W. Pickel, president of LeaderOne Financial, a mortgage lender in Overland Park, Kan. “If you underwrite carefully and cautiously, a jumbo loan is a very good money maker for a bank,” he says.

Last week, Redwood Trust Inc. announced plans to sell mortgage-backed securities based on high-quality jumbo loans, one of the first private firms to do so since 2008.

If the program is successful, it could lead to more investors taking the leap and a loosening of the jumbo market, says Michael Fratantoni, vice president of research and economics for the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Source: MarketWatch, Amy Hoak (04/26/2010)

Fannie Adds Incentive to Avoid Foreclosure

Beginning in July, Fannie Mae will allow financially troubled home owners to complete a “deed in lieu of foreclosure” or a short sale and be eligible to apply for a new Fannie-backed mortgage in two years.

Currently, borrowers who have completed a deed-in-lieu must wait four years to apply for a loan that Fannie will purchase. Home buyers who go through foreclosure must wait five years.

All these waiting periods can be reduced further, if the potential buyer can show extenuating circumstances. “We are beginning to think about post-recession, how you address borrowers who became unemployed through no fault of their own … and now deserve the right to re-enter the housing-finance system,” said Federal Housing Association Commissioner David Stevens.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Nick Timiraos (04/26/2010)

Bank of America wants to suspend mortgage payments for jobless

Bank of America wants to give struggling mortgage customers collecting unemployment benefits up to nine months with no mortgage payment.

That’s right. Zero payment.

Customers would have to agree that, if they haven’t found a job within the nine months, they will sign over their house to the bank. The Charlotte bank would give them at least $2,000 to help with moving expenses.

The proposal needs regulatory approval, and the bank doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.

Some experts say the plan could become an industry model and is the most substantial, creative approach yet to addressing the fallout from stubbornly high unemployment, which is driving mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures.

More relief

The plan also could provide families with faster relief, allow them to save money and provide a timetable for making decisions. The bank could avoid millions in collection and foreclosure expenses.

“It’s an innovative way for Bank of America to demonstrate it’s working with its customers,” said Mark Williams, a former Federal Reserve bank examiner. “Regulators should view this as a positive step as well.”

The $75 billion federal mortgage-aid program, announced in February 2009, has struggled to fulfill President Obama’s estimate of helping millions. Through March, only 230,000 families had received final mortgage modifications under the Home Affordable Modification Program, called HAMP.

The program holds few options for the jobless, even as the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent. The Charlotte area’s rate is near 13 percent. And more than 6.3 million people nationwide have been out of work longer than six months.

“It’s something I would have done,” said Bill Sagy, a Bank of America mortgage customer laid off last June from his management consultant position. “That would definitely have worked.”

Instead, he spent months working with the bank for reduced payments that he thought would become a long-term modification. But that didn’t happen, making him one of a growing group of homeowners who spent scarce resources that didn’t ultimately save their homes.

Sagy’s Huntersville, N.C., home, which he bought for $253,000 in 2006, has shed value and is unlikely to sell for what he owes. Without a modification, he’s behind on payments and says the bank wants to foreclose.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Sagy, who with his wife is considering relocating.

Mark Pearce, a leader in national foreclosure-prevention efforts, called the plan a step forward.

“This seems like a new idea that offers a lot of positives for both the homeowners and the bank,” said Pearce, an North Carolina deputy banking commissioner. “There’s a nice balance, giving people more breathing space but with a date certain for moving to the next step if things don’t work out.”

Reducing worries

In addition to reducing worries, the program could, for example, mean families are able to keep current with a car payment and avoid repossession. Losing a car makes it harder to find or keep a job. Borrowers also might be better able to afford expenses such as child care, freeing them to attend job fairs and interviews.

Steve Obendorf, who works in the credit-counseling unit of Family Services, a Gastonia, N.C., nonprofit, likes the idea of giving people “a breather.” But the bank also needs to make sure people understand they’re agreeing to sign over their homes if they can’t get a job. Otherwise, he speculates, there could be a wave of homeowners begging for a reprieve.

Obendorf, who works with people facing foreclosure, said unemployment is the key reason people seek free counseling services. He recommends saving as much as possible during any grace period to build a cushion.

Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, said the bank “deserves high marks” for the effort but questions how many the program could help. The self-employed, for example, don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Homeowners with a lot of equity aren’t likely to sign up because they would not want to risk losing their home

The bank has 1.44 million customers who are 60 days or more past due, nearly 14 percent of the 10.4 million mortgages it services. But it hasn’t broken out how many of those might be helped by the proposed plan. Many details, such as eligibility and the application process, also haven’t been finalized because the bank can’t go ahead without regulators’ approval.

Also unclear is whether zero would really mean no payment at all.

That’s the goal for Jack Schakett, who is leading negotiations for the bank. That would mean the bank pays bills such as property taxes and insurance during the nine-month break. That’s what happens now when a customer is delinquent.

Bank of America, like most servicers, has faced criticism for inept handling of the modification process. Several lawsuits allege the bank hasn’t delivered on mortgage modifications. More broadly, the industry is under pressure from lawmakers and the public, angered by financial firms’ role in the national meltdown.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers, by Stella M. Hopkins (04/25/2010)

New-home sales jump 27%, biggest gain in 47 years

Sales of new homes surged 27% last month, bouncing off the previous month’s record low and blowing past expectations as better weather and government incentives boosted sales.The Commerce Department said Friday that new-home sales rose in March to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 411,000. It was the strongest month since last July and the biggest monthly increase in 47 years.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a sales pace of 330,000. February’s results were revised upward to 324,000, but remained an all-time low. Sales had been especially weak over the winter, partly due to bad weather in much of the country.

The median sales price was $214,000, up more than 4% from a year earlier but down more than 3% from February.

The new-home sales report reflects signed contracts to purchase homes rather than completed sales and thus gives economists a feel for how many buyers were out shopping for new homes in a given month.

It is likely capturing consumers who are trying to qualify for federal tax credits that will expire at the end of this month. The government is offering an $8,000 credit for first-time buyers and $6,500 for current homeowners who buy and move into another property.

To qualify, buyers must have a signed contract complete by the end of next week and must complete the transaction by the end of June. Nearly 1.8 million households have used the credit at a cost of $12.6 billion, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The rise in new-home sales was seen nationwide. Sales grew a whopping 44% in the South and 36% in the Northeast. They also rose about 6% in the West and 3% in the Midwest.

The number of new homes up for sale in March fell 2% to 228,000. At the current sales pace, it would take nearly 7 months to exhaust that supply.

Source: Associated Press, by Alan Zibel (04/26/2010)

New Home Sales Jump in March

Sales of new homes rose 27 percent in March compared to February, the U.S. Commerce Department announced Friday. It was the largest monthly increase since April 1963, when sales jumped 31.2 percent.

In addition, the National Association of REALTORS® reported last week that sales of previously owned homes rose 6.8 percent.

Economists attribute the figures to buyers taking advantage of the $8,000 tax credit scheduled to expire at the end of this month.

“In simple terms, housing is a bargain again, and buyers are responding,” Michael D. Larson, a real estate and interest rate analyst at Weiss Research, wrote in a research note. “That is unambiguously good news for the market going forward.”

Source: The New York Times, Christine Hauser (04/23/2010)

Northwest MLS brokers report 51% jump in pending sales

Home sales around Washington state surged last month, with brokers reporting activity at levels “like we haven‟t seen in a while,” according to the owner of a Seattle brokerage. Northwest Multiple Listing Service members reported 8,605 pending sales during March for a 51 percent increase over the same month a year ago.

Notably, while entry-level home sales have been driving the market, brokers also reported strong activity at the upper end of the price spectrum. Last month, 91 residences (76 of them in King County) sold for $1 million or more; twelve months ago only 40 homes and condos fetched $1 million or more.

Pending sales (offers made and accepted, but not yet closed) in the four-county Puget Sound region rose 60 percent from twelve months ago, led by Snohomish County where the number of transactions jumped more than 77 percent.

NWMLS director Diedre Haines, regional managing broker for Coldwell Banker Bain in Snohomish County, said her network of three offices broke a nine-year old record for the most transactions in a single month. She attributes the gains to several factors, including tax incentives and the return of jumbo loan financing, but also noted an uptick in activity for parcels of land.

“We are once again representing buyers in the purchase of both raw undeveloped land and platted lots,” Haines remarked, adding, “This is the first time we have seen land purchases in over two years.” Of the buyers, she said some intend to start building now and others are buying for investment.

 MLS brokers also reported year-over-year increases in the number of new listings added to inventory and in the volume of closed sales. Members added 12,994 new listings to the system last month, up 26.7 percent from the year-ago total of 10,252 new listings.

Last month‟s new listings included 11,041 single family homes and 1,953 condominiums. Those additions brought the total inventory to 38,716. That compares to 39,825 total active listings at the same time a year ago, a decrease of about 2.8 percent.

Closed sales outpaced year-ago totals by a wide margin. Members reported 4,972 completed transactions during March, a gain of 1,590 sales for a 47 percent increase.

Prices for last month‟s closed sales of single family homes and condominiums (combined) were down about 2 percent system wide. Since January, however, prices have inched up almost 1.8 percent.

Within King County, price changes from a year ago ranged from double-digit increases for homes on Mercer Island (up 26.9 percent), Central Seattle (up 14.9 percent), and Vashon (up 10 percent), to double- digit declines in some parts of South King County.

“Homes that are positioned well – at every price range – are selling quickly,” commented NWMLS director Pat Grimm, the owner/designated broker at Windermere Real Estate/Capitol Hill, Inc. in Seattle. Among examples he cited was a Medina home that sold for its $2.35 million asking price in seven days. It drew three quick offers with escalation clauses. At the lower end of the price spectrum was a 2-bedroom Capitol Hill condo listed at $230,000. It also received multiple offers and sold for full price in three days.

Some buyers have to make offers on multiple properties before they win, but they‟re still reticent about paying more than the list price, according to Grimm. He noted buyers are not waiving inspections, but said some bidders are doing pre-offer inspections.

“Sales activity is at a high level like we haven‟t seen in a while, but still not the frenzy we saw a few years ago,” Grimm remarked, adding, “And that‟s a good thing.”

Condo sales across the 21 counties in the MLS system showed significant improvement from a year ago. MLS members reported 1,199 pending sales last month, which compares to 645 sales for the same month a year ago for an increase of almost 86 percent.

Condo prices still lag year-ago figures. The median price for last month‟s completed sales was $225,000, down about 7 percent from the year ago figure of $242,000. Within Seattle, however, prices are up. The median price for last month‟s completed sales of condos in Seattle was $291,000, an increase of 5.8 percent from a year ago when the median sales price was $275,000.

“The Seattle surge has returned thanks to the opportunities that have been afforded to homeowners through the federal tax credit, historically low interest rates, and increased affordability,” observed J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate. “As predicted, there is a surge of sales activity in the „more affordable‟ price ranges which is causing a chain reaction of sales up the price points,” he reported. Scott said he expects the momentum to continue in the coming weeks as the April 30 expiration of the tax credit approaches.

Source: NWMLS (04/05/2010)

Real Estate Investors Optimistic

Real estate investors worldwide are convinced the market is at or near bottom and about to shoot up, according the Colliers International’s first survey of global investor sentiment.

Investors from Asia, Canada, Latin America, and Western European say financing is increasingly available, while investors in the Middle East and Eastern Europe make the opposite observation.

While there was considerable disagreement about what “normal” is, the majority of respondents say their respective markets will return to “normal” within 18 months.

Globally, rents are anticipated to hit bottom this year – the first quarter of 2010 for the office sector was the most frequently offered response, followed by the second quarter of 2010 for industrial, and the third or fourth quarter of 2010 for retail.

Source: Colliers International (04/14/2010)