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

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

BofA opens office for foreclosure alternatives

Bank of America announced Wednesday it had opened an office in Seattle to allow distressed homeowners whose mortgages it services to meet face to face with specialists and consider alternatives to foreclosure.

Meetings are by appointment only, available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Bank of America customers can call the office at (206) 358-4338 to make an appointment.

The bank is also holding outreach events from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May 19-21 at the Meydenbauer Convention Center in Bellevue and the Spokane Convention Center. To register, go to www.bankofamerica.com/outreachevent or call toll-free (855) 201-7426.

Property-tax deadline looms; need some help?

With the first installment of property taxes due May 2, Barbara Alsheikh has her work cut out for her.

“For many people, it is the first time they have really looked at the property-tax bill,” says Alsheikh, supervisor for the King County Tax Advisor Office.

“And before writing the check, they have questions about the value of their property, the levy rate and the amount due.”

The Tax Advisor Office is independent from the assessor and provides residents with advice and assistance, including appeals.

“We are, in effect, a one-stop shop for property questions,” she says.

The primary complaint this year, says Alsheikh, is that a drop in house values did not result in lower tax bills.

“It is a very tough year for many taxpayers,” she adds.

The property-tax bill is not based on real-estate markets at all. Like Ohio, Washington state operates under a “budget-based” property-tax system in which taxing districts, such as fire departments and library and school districts, submit their annual budgets to the assessor, who then determines the taxing rate necessary to meet the adopted budgets.

King County Assessor Lloyd Hara says several factors are at play.

“The most common is that voters approve a property-tax measure, typically a school levy, and that increases the overall property-tax levy that is reflected on the 2011 bill.”

Taxpayers in King County, on average, will pay about 3.33 percent more in property taxes this year, according to Treasury Operations Manager Scott Matheson.

Only 17 percent (or $624 million dollars) of property taxes support King County purposes, says Phillip Sit, Department of Assessments communication and outreach coordinator. The other 83 percent is divvied up among state and local government.

While taxpayers cannot appeal their property taxes, they have the right to appeal the valuation (assessment) of their property — the basis upon which their taxes are calculated — to the King County Board of Equalization, an independent board made up of citizens appointed by the King County executive. Generally, this must be done within 60 days from the time official property-value notices are received.

Alsheikh said her office typically handles about 800 calls in the first two weeks after billings are mailed in February.

Assessed value should not to be confused with market value, which is defined as the amount a buyer, willing but not obligated to buy, would pay to a seller, willing but not obligated to sell.

Assessed value is determined by actual sales and the real-estate market, rather than the current market, notes Alsheikh; assessed values use historical data, which lags behind real time by one or two years.

“Like any business, the budget for a public service tends to increase over time as employees’ wages and benefits, energy costs, transportation and facilities’ costs increase. In addition, voter-approved ballot issues tend to increase the taxes each year,” says Alsheikh.

Meanwhile, taxpayers who are unable to pay their property tax in full are encouraged to contact the Assessor’s Office. Additionally, seniors or disabled persons, may be able to qualify for a property-tax exemption or deferral program.

Alsheikh, for her part, won’t be slowing down anytime soon. She says her busiest season will begin in a month or two, when new official (property) value notices will be mailed out.

“We strive to put each taxpayer on “equal” footing with the assessor’s staff,” she says. “But we don’t take sides; we aren’t out to ‘beat’ the assessor. The goal for all three agencies [including the Office of the Assessor, the Treasury, and the Tax Advisor] is the same: fair and equitable distribution of property taxes.”

Of the 6,000 to 7,000 phone calls the office gets, Alsheikh said, perhaps 10 percent are asking for research and appeal advice.

At the end of last year, nearly 12,300 accounts, including households and undeveloped property for a business, hadn’t paid any taxes for 2010; and just below 12,750 accounts paid only the first half of their taxes owed for the same year according to Scott Matheson, Treasury Operations Manager for King County.

Together, those figures represent 3.7 percent of the 681,757 accounts that were billed last year. “Our historical collection rate,” notes Matheson, “has held steady at around 98 percent for the last several years, and we don’t expect to see a change this year.”

Source: By Elizabeth M. Economou, Seattle Times (4/22/2011)

Lawsuit reveals how a middleman is blocking mortgage modifications for homeowners

Pamela Jeter, of Atlanta, Ga., has been trying to get a mortgage modification for more than two years. She seems like an ideal candidate. She has shown she can stay current with a reduction in her monthly mortgage payments. Everybody would seem to win. Even the investors who ultimately own her loan think she should be able to get one. So, why is Jeter facing foreclosure?

A bank that she didn’t even know is involved with her loan has thrown up a roadblock to modifications. At least tens of thousands of other homeowners have shared a similar plight. Jeter’s case is a window into a broken system where even though the actual investors, when asked, say they want to allow modifications, the bank that acts as their representative has refused to allow them.

Two big banks act as middlemen between the homeowners like Jeter who make payments and the mortgage-backed securities investors who ultimately receive them. The banks’ jobs were supposed to be relatively hands-off, devoted more than anything to processing homeowner payments. When the housing bubble burst, they faced new demands.

One of those middleman roles is well-known to homeowners: the mortgage servicer, responsible for collecting homeowner payments and evaluating requests for a modification.

But it’s another middleman that’s proved the real barrier for Jeter: the trustee, who is supposed to be the investors’ representative, making sure the servicer is maximizing investors’ returns and distributing checks to them. HSBC is the trustee for the pool of loans of which Jeter’s is a part — and it’s refused to approve any modifications for loans like hers, saying the contracts around the mortgages simply don’t allow it.

The good news for Jeter is that, in what seems an unprecedented step, her servicer OneWest has taken HSBC to court to allow modifications. It filed suit in June of last year.

But in a sign of just how convoluted the mortgage world has become, OneWest is also pushing to foreclose on her. A recent sale date was avoided only after her lawyer threatened to sue. (One day after ProPublica published this story in March, OneWest postponed foreclosure, saying that it wouldn’t attempt to seize Jeter’s home again for at least two months.)

Bundled loan syndrome

Jeter’s loan was typical of the boom years. To help pay for improvements on her home in 2007, she’d refinanced into an interest-only adjustable-rate loan. That loan was bundled with thousands of others by a Wall Street bank and sold off to investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and banks.

That’s where the trouble started. In Jeter’s loan pool and nine others, the contracts laying out the servicers’ responsibilities and powers contradict each other. OneWest’s lawsuit seeks to sort out that contradiction.

One document, a private contract between the servicer and the Wall Street bank that bundled the loans, explicitly forbids servicers from modifying loans in the pools in a way that would reduce homeowner payments. But other contracts — that investors could see — explicitly allow such modifications.

It’s become a familiar problem during the foreclosure crisis, dealing with the aftermath of the banks’ corner-cutting and sloppy paperwork of the housing boom.

No one appears to have tried to sort out this mess until 2009, when OneWest requested that HSBC, the trustee, allow modifications. The administration had just launched the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which pays servicers and investors subsidies to encourage affordable modifications. Under the program, modifications occur only when they will likely bring a better return to investors than foreclosure.

But HSBC refused to authorize any modifications, saying the contracts prohibit them. It’s obligated to act in investors’ interest, and it feared getting sued by those who didn’t want to cut homeowners’ payments. The dispute dragged on for months. Ultimately, HSBC offered to allow modifications only if OneWest accepted the risk of getting sued by investors, but OneWest wouldn’t.

OneWest was in an increasingly difficult situation, it says in its suit. It faced potential suits from investors if it modified loans, and if it didn’t, homeowners in the pool might sue.

In late June 2010, with HSBC still not budging, OneWest filed suit, asking a federal judge to decide whether modifications should or should not be allowed.

Eligible but not allowed

The case suggests that when investors themselves are asked, they will approve modifications. HSBC polled the investors in the 10 pools after the suit was filed. A large majority favored allowing modifications. Based on those results, HSBC said in a court filing in January that it did not oppose OneWest’s request for a judge to intervene and that if the judge declared modifications were allowed, that would be fine with them.

In the meantime, 3,000 homeowners like Jeter whose mortgages are caught up in the dispute have been unable to get any reduction in payments. When OneWest filed its suit, it said at least 800 of the loans seemed eligible for an affordable government-sponsored modification but couldn’t actually be modified because of HSBC’s stance. Those homeowners “are facing the possibility of losing their homes through potentially avoidable foreclosures every day,” it said.

It’s not clear how many of those homeowners have since been foreclosed on. OneWest said in a statement that it had no choice in pursuing foreclosure: It’s “contractually obligated to continue servicing loans in accordance with the terms of the underlying securitization documents.”

Foreclosure crisis

The suit is remarkable not only because it seems unique — close observers said they hadn’t seen another example of a servicer going to court against a trustee — but also because it lays bare a relationship that is usually a mystery to homeowners and investors in securitized mortgages.

It’s often hard for homeowners to tell if a servicer is correctly citing an investor restriction when denying a modification. Servicers have cited investor restrictions when denying modifications for at least 30,000 homeowners, about 2 percent of the 1.9 million total homeowners who’ve been denied, according to a ProPublica analysis of Treasury Department data. A Treasury spokeswoman said auditors examining such denials had found they were almost always legitimate. That’s not an experience shared by homeowner advocates.

In a number of cases, said Jeff Gentes, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, servicer employees have told his clients that there was an investor restriction, when a little bit of digging showed that’s not true. We reported on this problem last year.

Changes not pursued

In the cases when there actually is a restriction in the documents, the servicer is supposed to at least try to get permission. The HAMP rules require the servicer to send a letter to the trustee requesting that modifications be allowed.

In cases where there’s a clear contractual bar to modifications, the servicer and trustee could take the initiative to change the contracts by having the investors vote on it or, if voting isn’t required, amend the contract themselves.

But in general, said Gentes, the housing attorney, servicers are slow to investigate and eliminate bars to modification. Servicers are paid a low, flat rate per loan and are motivated to keep costs down. “The costs of removing an investor restriction are often borne by the servicers, and so extensive amendment rules often mean that servicers won’t pursue it.”

Trustees, who get paid even lower fees, are no different, said Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial Services, which specializes in mortgage-backed securities. “They’re very, very prone to inaction.”

Both, as middlemen, don’t bear the loss when a home is foreclosed on.

Source: By Paul Kiel, ProPublica.com (April 17, 2011)

Foreclosed? The tax man may want his cut

Did you lose your house to foreclosure this year? Did your lender forgive some of your mortgage debt because the house sold for less than it the mortgage balance?

If so, you could be facing a big tax hit.

It is IRS policy to tax forgiven debt you are personally responsible for as if it is income. Say, for example, your credit card company settled a $10,000 debt for 50 cents on the dollar. You’d have a debt forgiveness of $5,000, which the IRS would count just like your wages.

The same policy held true for most mortgage debt until 2007, when Congress passed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. That ended the liability for many homeowners — but not all.

In general, if you lose your home to foreclosure or short sale, where you sell your home for less than you owe, the IRS won’t add insult to injury by counting the difference as income, at least until 2012, when the act expires.

There are four major exceptions to the rule:

1. You did a cash-out refinance and splurged.

Many homeowners took cash out when they refinanced their homes and used the extra dough to pay for new cars, boats, vacations or other spending.

Say you did that and then got into trouble, losing the house through a foreclosure or short sale. Even if your lender waived the remaining debt, the IRS will treat as income the portion of the forgiven debt that you took out as cash and spent.

Only the funds used to actually improve your home won’t be taxed (plus the costs of refinancing the loan). Yes, even if you spent the money on paying off your student loans or credit cards.

The IRS’ reasoning is that only the money spent on home improvement actually added to your home’s value. And that, presumably, diminished the difference between what you owed on your mortgage and the value of your home when it was foreclosed.

Beware: Some lenders made refinancing offers contingent on homeowners paying off credit card debt, according to Kent Anderson, a Eugene, Ore.-based attorney and tax expert. If you took one of those deals, the refinance money will be reported to the IRS and you will owe taxes on it.

2. You have a home-equity line of credit.

The same rules that apply to refinancings also apply to home-equity loans: The IRS will only forgive the tax liability if the loan money was spent on home improvements. And, tax experts advise, be prepared to show receipts to prove it.

3. You lost your vacation home or investment property.

So the market tanked and you lost your vacation home. Unfortunately, if you didn’t use it as your primary residence for at least two of the previous five years, you’re going to pay the tax man.

More common, however, may be the case of investment properties gone sour. During the housing boom, buying homes for investment purposes soared, accounting for 28% of all sales during 2005, according to the National Association of Realtors. (Vacation homes made up 12%.) And many of these purchases were made with little down payment.

When the bust hit, second home prices cratered. The median price for investment properties fell nearly in half to $94,000 by 2010, according to NAR. For vacation homes, the median price paid dropped 26% to $150,000.

If an investor bought a property in 2005 at the median price and sold it in 2010, she could have run up almost $90,000 in forgiven debt. If she’s in the 25% tax bracket, that would add more than $22,000 to her tax liability. Ouch!

4. You owned a multi-million-dollar home.

It may be hard for Americans struggling in this weak economy to sympathize with anyone wealthy enough, at one time, to afford a multi-million-dollar home, but owners losing one could be on the hook for a huge tax bill.

Only the first $2 million in forgiven debt will be voided under the relief act; all the overage is taxable as income.

So, say, for example, you’re ex-ballpayer and self-styled stock-picker Lenny Dykstra and paid $18.5 million to Wayne Gretzky for a mansion in Thousand Oaks, Calif. When you defaulted on the loan in 2009 and the house was auctioned in 2010 for $10.5 million, you could be on the hook for $6.5 million of the $8.5 million in forgiven debt.

Other ways out

The good news? Even if you fall under any of these four scenarios, you may have a way out, according to Anderson. “If the taxpayer was insolvent at the time of the foreclosure, the forgiven debt can be excluded for tax purposes,” he said. “It can also be discharged in a bankruptcy and approved by court order.”

People like Dykstra could elude taxes because California is a “non-recourse” state. Lenders there accept homes as the collateral for the debt and when a bank forecloses, the loan is regarded as paid in full. Since there’s no debt to forgive there’s no taxable income.

It’s not always that simple, though. Many homeowners in California and other non-recourse states have refinanced their mortgages and refis are, as a rule, recourse loans, according to attorney Bill Purdy in Santa Cruz,. “A refi destroys your non-recourse status,” he said. If a big debt is forgiven, borrowers may owe taxes.

Purdy also explained that banks often file 1099 forms with the IRS that mistakenly list debt forgiveness when there was none.

“People need to regard the 1099s with suspicion,” he said. “I’ve had clients in here who have been making payments to the IRS when they had non-recourse loans.”

As long as the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act stays in effect, only borrowers for the most expensive properties in foreclosure will have to worry. After that, though, it may pay for any homeowner in foreclosure to be very aware of their tax exposure — and plan accordingly.

Source: By Les Christie, CNNMoney (April 15, 2011)

House Flippers Return, Still Finding Profits

More investors are taking on the risk of flipping homes, despite falling home prices and sluggish real estate markets across the country. But investors say there are still profits to be made in the house flipping business.

Nearly 1 million homes were bought as investment properties in 2010, according to the National Association of REALTORS®, and a record number of buyers purchasing properties with cash currently are flooding the market.

Flipping homes for profit is easier in rising markets, but not many markets are reporting increases in home prices, analysts say. In Washington, D.C., Justin Konz of RestorationCapital says his clients are going through four of five properties a month and are making gross profit margins of 35 percent or higher.

Where to Find the Deals

Flippers mostly are finding their homes through foreclosures auctions, REOs, and short sales. They seek homes at rock-bottom prices that will have low fix-up costs, no more than about 5 percent or 10 percent of the purchase price.

In Florida, where investors are finding it more difficult to flip homes because of the drastic drop in prices and high inventories, flippers are targeting inner-city properties that are being sold at steep discounts. For example, some of houses are selling for $30,000 when they once sold for $200,000.

Perry Henderson, a real estate agent and investor in Austin, Texas, says the biggest opportunities in flipping are the “ugly” houses that have lingered on the market or “old houses that somebody’s grandma lived in for 40 years and didn’t do anything to. Now, she’s passed away and her family wants to sell quickly.”

Real estate investor Brian Fuller, who with partners buys and sells more than 200 properties a year in the San Diego area, says he’s drawn to the “biggest eyesore on the block.” He says they then “ turn it into the best looking house there. We’re helping pull up values in the neighborhood.”

Source: “Vulture Investors Flipping Their Ways to Big Profits,” CNNMoney.com (April 13, 2011)