74.6 percent of homes affordable to median-income households, trade group finds

Housing affordability hit a new high in the first quarter, surpassing the previous high set in fourth-quarter 2010, according to the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo.

The Housing Opportunity Index found that 74.6 percent of new and existing homes sold in the first quarter were affordable to families earning the national median income of $64,400. That’s up from 73.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010, and it’s the highest level in the more than 20 years the index has been measured.

“With interest rates remaining at historically low levels, today’s report indicates that homeownership is within reach of more households than it has been for more than two decades,” Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), said after the index was issued last week.

“While this is good news for consumers, homebuyers and builders continue to confront extremely tight credit conditions, and this remains a significant obstacle to many potential home sales.”

The Seattle metropolitan area also became more affordable with 67.5 percent of homes within reach of those earning the median income of $85,600. That number is the highest recorded since the index started in the first quarter of 1999.

Before 2009, the national index rarely topped 65 percent, the association said. Last quarter was the ninth straight quarter the index was above 70 percent.

Indiana, Ohio and Michigan dominated among the most affordable metro areas. Among metro areas with populations under 500,000, Kokomo, Ind., was the most affordable area, with 98.6 percent of homes affordable to households making a median income of $61,400. The median sales price in the area was $88,000 in the first quarter.

California dominated among the least affordable metro areas. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, Calif., was the least affordable among the smaller metro areas with 47.6 percent of homes affordable to households making the median income of $72,500. The median sales price in the area was $320,000 in the first quarter.

Among metro areas with populations of 500,000 or more, Syracuse, N.Y., was the most affordable to households making the median income of $64,300. The median sales price in the area was $80,000 in the first quarter.

Another New York market, New York-White Plains-Wayne, N.Y.-N.J, was the least affordable among both the larger metros.

Less than a quarter of homes, 24.1 percent, were affordable to families making the median income of $65,600 in the first quarter. The median sales price was $425,000.

In other cities in Washington state, Spokane was the most affordable with 82.2 percent of homes within reach of those earning the median income of $60,300. Olympia recorded 81.8 percent; Tacoma, 78.5 percent; Bremerton-Silverdale, 70.1 percent; Bellingham, 69.7 percent; and Mount Vernon-Anacortes, 60.5 percent.

Source: By Inman News

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Renters finding landlords have upper hand in this market

Angi Ramos and her former college roommate Laura Waltner have been looking for months for a place to call “home.”

They’ve been trawling websites and have inspected a half-dozen units.

They’d prefer a newer building in Capitol Hill or Queen Anne — vibrant neighborhoods with lots of young people, restaurants and nightlife. Their search so far for a two-bedroom apartment under $1,500 a month has yielded only slim pickings.

“One unit had a great common area,” says Ramos, “but the washing machine was in the kitchen and the dryer was in one of the bedrooms.”

New, attractive buildings, such as the Illumina Lake Union Apartments, are full and expensive, says Ramos. Still, she says, the landlord suggests they check back every month to see when there might be an opening.

Similarly, when Hoa Do set out to find an apartment earlier this year, she says she did not expect to pay as much as $850 per month to rent a vintage studio near Seattle University. What’s more, the college senior regrets that her landlord would not relent on a nine-month lease.

“As a student, I prefer to pay month-to-month, because I never know if I will be studying abroad, or going home to visit family,” says Do, who is from Vietnam.

It’s a story being repeated all over Seattle. As vacancy rates dip below 5 percent, landlords are raising rents and offering fewer concessions or perks.

According to Apartment Insights, a web-based information service, the vacancy rate in the Seattle metro area hasn’t been this low since the latter part of 2007, and rental incentives are drying up in downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill and downtown Bellevue.

“The rental market is changing quickly from a renter’s market to a landlord’s market,” says Cassie Walker Johnson of Windermere Property Management, Lori Gill & Associates. Vacancy rates in highly desirable neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Fremont, are about 3 percent, the lowest in Seattle, she notes.

In contrast, rental markets with vacancy rates above 6 percent include SeaTac, Federal Way and Kirkland, according to Apartment Insights.

Landlord Christopher T. Benis, who is also a partner in the law firm Harrsion, Benis & Spence and represents tenants and landlords alike, calls the market “balanced.”

“We are raising rents now that we can, but all we are doing is trying to get them [rents] back to 2007 levels,” says Benis, who owns rental properties in Seattle.

Tenants ought to shift their attitudes to reflect the changes, he says. “If they [tenants] think they can look at 20 properties and then come back to the ‘best one,’ that best one will probably be long gone.”

Little in the way of new development and declining home values contribute to a tight rental market.

Tom Cain, president of Apartment Insights, says fewer than 1,870 units are scheduled for completion this year, about 60 percent of last year’s level, and less than one-third of the 6,349 units built in 2009.

Walker Johnson, who specializes in leasing single-family dwellings, condos and small apartment buildings, says population growth is also driving down vacancy rates.

“About 75 percent of my new tenants are moving here from all over the nation to work at larger corporations who are hiring in our area,” she says.

Telltale signs of just how far the pendulum has swung include tenants plunking down more than the list price on rental homes and signing longer leases to qualify for a desired property.

“We are starting to see multiple applications in some situations,” says Walker Johnson, who expects to see hikes of up to 10 percent for rental homes from May through September.

For a Queen Anne family, the possibility of a rent increase on a four-bedroom Craftsman, where they’ve been living for nearly a year, weighs heavy.

“We feel the renewal negotiations are a huge strategy game, and we are fearful we will have to leave ‘our home’ or accept an increase that we simply don’t feel comfortable with economically,” say the husband and wife, who are not being identified due to ongoing negotiations with their landlord.

“This year, you have to jump when you find the right home, unlike a few years ago when properties languished on the market, for months, in some cases.”

Lawyer Lauren Sancken, who signed a one-year lease in April for a Capitol Hill flat with a patio garden and a spectacular view of the Space Needle, says she wishes she had signed a lease extension to lock in her rate.

“It is far more competitive than I expected, especially when several people are willing to submit applications and deposits right away. I found myself offering cookies, muffins, just to try to get a bit of an advantage on places that I really liked,” says Sancken.

Not surprisingly, tenants with limited means are being hit the hardest, says Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.

“Many low-income tenants displaced by the foreclosure crisis, sometimes evicted by no fault of their own due to a landlord’s default on their mortgage, are now finding an even tighter market, while many former homeowners are returning to renting after losing their homes,” says Grant.

Adding insult to injury, many of those low-income tenants will have an eviction on their record from the foreclosure, further complicating their ability to secure housing, he says.

Ramos says she is not daunted. “We are willing to wait for a good one,” she says.

 Source: By Elizabeth M. Economou, Seattle Times

Mortgages, foreclosures top agenda at BofA meeting

Foreclosures and home-mortgage modifications took center stage at Bank of America annual meeting last week.

Outside the headquarters of the nation’s largest bank, protesters held signs and gave testimonials about their own foreclosure experiences.

At the meeting, which was held inside the bank’s new 32-story building adjacent to its headquarters, shareholders confronted CEO Brian Moynihan about mortgage woes in their communities.

The Rev. Clyde Ellis, a pastor from Virginia, said Bank of America should take responsibility for its role in the foreclosure crisis.

“Come to Prince William County and I will show you disaster,” Ellis said.

Losses and litigation related to foreclosures and poorly written mortgages have haunted Bank of America for several quarters. In its latest quarter, the bank’s income dropped 39 percent on higher costs related to mortgages and legal expenses.

At the end of the first quarter, the bank had $2 billion of foreclosed properties on its book, and its customers were late by 90 days or more on $24 billion of its total loans, which included commercial and residential properties.

Moynihan tried to separate the rest of the bank’s business from its mortgage woes. He described the company as being made up of two stories, with the mortgage business on one side and all its other business units on the other.

“The power of the franchise is held back by the mortgage challenges we face,” he said.

The bank’s stock is one of the worst performers of the S&P 500 index this year. Recently, the stock slid after the Federal Reserve rejected the bank’s capital plan and its request for a dividend increase.

BofA was the only bank among the country’s four largest that didn’t pass a stress test from the Fed. The central bank examined the 19 largest banks in the country to see if they were strong enough to withstand another economic downturn. BofA will submit a revised plan later this year.

Moynihan said the bank will pay dividends once it resolves more of its mortgage issues and submits a plan that is acceptable to regulators.

Some shareholders want the bank to scrutinize itself more closely. Michael Garland, who was representing several large public pension funds at the meeting, said he had written to BofA’s audit committee asking that it conduct an independent review of mortgages and foreclosures to show they conform with the laws.

Garland said that audit committees of other banks responded soon after he sent them a similar letter in January.

He said was disappointed that there had been no response from BofA’s audit committee until just five days before the annual meeting.

The plan didn’t get enough votes to pass on Wednesday.

“If this is your response to shareholders with a $1.3 billion stake in the company, I can only imagine how you treat your residential-mortgage customers,” said Garland, who was also representing the New York City Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the public pension funds of New York.

Source: By Pallavi Gogoi, Associated Press

Commercial Real Estate Slowly Turning Around

Sales and leasing volumes in commercial real estate have turned a corner and are heading up, but because the past few years have been so difficult, the upturn barely feels like one. However, the sector is expected to strengthen more over the next couple of years, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun told commercial real estate practitioners on Thursday at the 2011 REALTORS® Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington.

Financing remains a major stumbling block, with little commercial mortgage backed security activity happening, but banks — particularly regional banks — are stepping in with portfolio loans, said Yun.

That’s a bit surprising, because the big-four national banks — Wells Fargo, Citibank, Chase, and Bank of America — are in a far better position to make loans. Not only are they sitting on piles of money, but because they’ve grown to the point where they’re too big to fail, they have a de facto implicit federal guarantee, Yun said.

A big concern looming is inflation. It remains low, about 2.9 percent (excluding energy and other volatile components to the economy), but inflation could rise and hit 5 percent by the end of the year and 6 percent in the early part of 2012, Yun predicted. If that happens, interest rate costs would also rise. For the federal government, a 2 percent increase in rates could wipe out a lot of any deficit reduction steps the government might take between now and the end of the year, because in some analyses, that could translate into $2 trillion in increased debt service payments for the government.

In the individual commercial sectors, multifamily housing has been the standout over the last year. Vacancies hit historically normal levels last year at about 5-6 percent with solid rental rate growth. Look for 4 percent higher rents nationally by the end of this year. That figure could be considerably higher in some first-tier markets like Washington, D.C., where rental rates have been rising at almost a double-digit clip.

Those gains might ease in the next year or two, though, as residential home sales improve. The high rental rate increases could tip the scale for some renters to consider home ownership. Yun has said on other occasions that almost 40 percent of the renter population today has the financial ability to become home owners, but for now are choosing to rent.

In the office market, vacancy rates are expected to decline steadily, from 16.5 percent in the first quarter of this year to 16 percent at the end of the year. Rental rate increases could turn positive for the first time in a while, too, to maybe 5 percent from a negative 2 percent. Offices are benefitting from recent job gains in professional service-type jobs like accountants and lawyers.

Among markets tracked by NAR, New York City has the lowest vacancy rate at a little over 8 percent. Washington, D.C., with its federal government-fueled activity, also has a relatively low vacancy rate. Pittsburgh, which has been steadily transitioning from an industrial city to a high-tech and professional services city, is among the metros with relatively strong office trends.

Industrial markets are also expected to improve, with vacancy rates projected to decline from 14.2 percent to about 12.9 percent at the end of the year. Yun is predicting positive rental rate growth of about 2 percent this year. Los Angeles, with its big Asia import-export trade, has the lowest vacancies at 7.5 percent.

Retail markets continue to struggle, with consumers still retrenching in their spending. In the long run, increased savings by consumers is good, because it boosts household financial stability, Yun said, but in the short term retail properties are getting little relief. Vacancy rates are only expected to improve marginally, from about 13 percent to just slightly better by the end of the year. Even so, the sector might see some improvement in rental rate growth, moving from a negative 1 percent to 1 percent in positive territory by the end of the year. San Francisco is in the best shape among major metro areas with a vacancy rate of about 6.7 percent.

You might not “feel the impact of the recovery,” Yun said. “The hole was so deep, it might still feel like we’re in a hole.”

Source: By, Robert Freedman, REALTOR® Magazine

In Time for Buying Season, Rates Reach Yearly Lows

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, a popular choice among buyers, sank even lower this week, matching its yearly low of 4.71 percent from January, reports Freddie Mac in its weekly mortgage market survey. Last year at this time, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the 15-year fixed-rate hit a new yearly low of 3.89 percent this week. Last week, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.97 percent. The 15-year rate averaged 4.36 percent last year at this time. It reached its lowest level on record in November when it averaged 3.57 percent.

The one-year adjustable-rate mortgage averaged 3.14 percent, down from last week’s 3.15 percent. Last year at this time, it averaged 4.07 percent.

“Weaker economic data reports reduced Treasury bond yields and allowed mortgage rates to drift lower for the third consecutive week,” says Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac’s chief economist.

Source: “30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Matches Yearly Low of 4.71 Percent,” Freddie Mac (May 5, 2011)

Bailing on Mortgage Not a Good Idea

An estimated 11 million home owners owe more on their mortgage than their property is currently worth. That’s made more home owners consider walking away from their mortgage and home ownership, even those who can still comfortably afford to make their payments (known as “strategic default”).

Walking away from a mortgage usually results in either a short sale or foreclosure. So what are the consequences of walking away? There may be far more consequences than what most home owners ever considered.

The consequences include everything from badly affected credit to potential tax consequences and deficiency risks. There are even possible professional implications, Justin McHood with Academy Mortgage in Chandler, Ariz., warns in an article at Zillow.com.

Home owners’ credit scores will be badly hit regardless of whether they attempt a short sale or have their property foreclosed on. (See How Missed Mortgage Payments Hurt Credit Scores)

There also could be the potential for deficiency risks when walking away from a home, which largely varies from state to state. (View anti-deficiency laws by state.) In some states, lenders may sue you for the difference between what you owe and what your short-sale or foreclosure proceeds are, McHood notes.

Home owners considering walking away also should weigh the potential difficulty they may face from moving too. For example, if moving into a rental property, they’ll have to convince a landlord to rent to them after they have the red flag of missed mortgage payments on their credit record. And paying for moving expenses — which many walkaways fail to consider — can quickly add up too.

Plus, home owners may find professional consequences from walking away from a mortgage, as the number of employers eyeing employees’ credit profiles continues to grow.

Source: “The Consequence of Walking Away,”Zillow.com (April 27, 2011)

Contracts for home sales rose 5.1% in March; mortgage rates drop

WASHINGTON — More Americans signed contracts to buy homes in March, but sales were uneven across the country and were not strong enough to signal a rebound in housing.

Sales agreements for homes rose 5.1% last month to a reading of 94.1, according to the National Association of Realtors’ pending home sales index, released Thursday.

Signings are more than 20% above June, the low point of the housing bust. But the index is below 100, which is considered a healthy level.

Sales rose in every region but the Northeast.

Source: By AP, USA Today (April 29th, 2010)