Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tips on Mortgage Math

I have been writing this month on what has gone wrong in the mortgage industry and mistakes lenders and homebuyers have made. Here are some tips about mortgage numbers that consumers should know to protect themselves.

Home Prices: Speculation abounds in the media on when the mortgage market will bottom. My research suggests that the magic number for a fair sustainable housing market is 3. That number is the ratio of the median home price to the median household income in the United States. An examination of census data shows that from 1987 to 2002 that ratio remained unchanged at 3, even though home prices and income rose steadily during that time period. In 2002 home prices began increasing much faster than household income causing the ratio to shoot up to nearly 5 at the peak of the housing market in 2006.

The fact is home prices cannot rise substantially faster than household income or soon everyone will be priced out of the housing market and there will be no more buyers. At the beginning of 2008, the U. S. median home price—$195,900—divided by the median household income—$50,233—was equal to 3.9. That means more time is needed for income to rise and/or home prices to fall for that ratio to go back to its historical average of 3.

Monthly Payments: The number 3 is important in another way. Total monthly payments for principal and interest should not exceed 1/3 of after-tax household income. Many people think that at higher income levels a greater fraction of income can be allocated toward the mortgage. My last post profiled people who were willing to allocate more than half of their take-home pay to monthly mortgage payments. I imagine they thought that their income was so large that all additional living expenses could be funded with 30% - 40% of take-home pay.

But, ownership costs scale with the price of the home. The more square footage bought, the more it costs to heat, cool, maintain, insure, furnish and pay property taxes. All of those additional costs rise with inflation. If you take out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and live in the house a long time, there will come a day when the monthly cost of owning the home will exceed the monthly mortgage payment. That will be true for just about any size home.

Mortgage Options: Creative financing has risks. Recent years have seen an explosion of exotic mortgages. You can choose ARMs, interest-only mortgages, 40-year mortgages, mortgages with balloon payments and many other combinations and payment structures. But, the common element in all of these financing schemes is to make the initial monthly payments as small as possible by postponing actual debt reduction. That’s not a problem in a rising market, but it can be a disaster in a falling market. When prices fall it’s easy to find yourself “upside down” meaning that you owe more than the house is worth, while payments adjust upward to level that you can’t afford. If you are considering a mortgage without a fixed rate, figure out what the monthly payment will be in a few years after the interest rate adjusts. If you can’t afford to make that higher payment now, chances are you won’t be able to afford to make it in the future.

Plan for maintenance: Set aside money equal to about 1% – 1.5 % of the value of the home each year for maintenance, repairs and improvements. It’s easy to be optimistic, but the fact is things will break on a regular basis. When you think of all the things in a house with finite lifetimes that are essential—furnace, water heater, air conditioner, refrigerator, roof, plumbing—you realize that repair and replacement will be an on going expense. It is better to budget ahead of time those expenses with money set aside in a separate bank account. Repairs should not be a financial emergency requiring borrowed money every time they happen.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Motivations Behind Bad Loans

I’ve written columns for the Baltimore Sun on the mortgage crisis and the emails I received from readers included these comments:

“It is hard to feel sorry for folks who got in over there heads, knew it and now what us to bail them out.”

“You are omitting the fact that the majority of subprime borrowers are in their current situation due to fiscal irresponsibility or carelessness.”

My response to these comments is that the goal of my writing is to educate consumers so that they are able to make better decisions. Markets do not work as intended if the consumers do not understand the contracts they sign.

But, for the people who write these comments, their underlying assumption is that homebuyers do know or at least should know what they are doing when they sign a loan agreement. The mortgage crisis is the result of character defects—greed, irresponsibility, over consumption, and so on. Pick one or several character flaws from a list and that explains the problem.

Of course, attributing misfortune and/or good fortune, on one’s character is as old as the Bible. Outcomes do depend on character, although not always. More personal failures and successes result from chance than most people would like to believe.

But the issue of character is an interesting one and I’ve been pondering it after recently reading two profiles of homebuyers facing foreclosure. In both cases the numbers involved in the loan agreements were so outrageous, it’s hard to believe any reasonable person would be party to such a contract.

A July 30, 2008 article in the Baltimore Sun profiled Veronica Peterson, a single mother of four who operates a home daycare in Columbia, Maryland. She is loosing her $545,000 home to foreclosure after the rate adjusted from 8.25% to 11.25%. The article provides few other details on her income and mortgage payments. However, if I work with the numbers provided and assume a 30-year loan, such an increase would mean monthly payments changing from $4094 to $5293 per month, an increase of $1199 per month. This does not include taxes and insurance that must add an additional $500 to each monthly payment.

I cannot image how a home daycare operator could generate the kind of income needed to support monthly payments that high; especially since the State of Maryland limits the number of children home daycare providers can care for to no more than eight. The average cost of daycare in Columbia, Maryland is about $1000 per month. That means by law she cannot gross more than $8000 per month and she must still pay income taxes. Living in a half-million dollar home while paying no taxes is sure to raise questions from the IRS. She said her mortgage broker inflated her income. I wonder what number was stated for her income on the loan application and how it compared to her tax return.

Another profile I read was in Jay Hancock’s August 8 column on Kimberly Thomas who showed up at a closing to find the interest rate on her mortgage from Wells Fargo Bank changed from 7.13% to 10.65%. The change resulted in the monthly payment going from $3000 to $4667. Her monthly take-home pay is $5000. The title company agent conducting the settlement told her to sign the documents anyway. It was 6 PM and no one else was present or available to contact. He assured her the bank would correct the “mistake” the next day.

But the next day Wells Fargo insisted that there was no mistake and that she was bound by the terms of the agreement. Because she couldn’t afford the terms, she ended up not taking possession of the house or making a single payment. The mortgage went into foreclosure immediately. She sold the house for which she paid $505,000 for a $95,000 loss and spent tens of thousands on legal fees. Eventually a jury agreed that Wells Fargo had acted fraudulently and awarded her $1.25 million in damages. Wells Fargo maintains they did nothing wrong and are appealing the verdict.

So what is it about the character of these people that results in situations where the numbers in the agreements are so ridiculous as to be unbelievable? My own take is that it is a combination of optimism bordering on wishful thinking, wanting to please others, and willingness to trust people presenting themselves as “professionals.” Homebuyers want to believe what the agents and brokers are telling them. And, the agents and brokers are very good at telling people what they want to believe. The fake friendships that develop allow the brokers and agents to take advantage of people who want to please others. Homebuyers do not want to anger people by scuttling deals at the last minute and willingly believe that everyone is acting their best interest.

Brian Paul, the lawyer for Kimberly Thomas, said: "She honestly believed there was a mistake in the terms that could be fixed after the fact."

I remember my own experiences with home buying. The real estate agent told me: “It’s impossible to overpay for a house because it has to be appraised. The bank will not allow you to pay more than the appraised price.” I’m sure all the homebuyers he works with get that same line and many believe it.

I remember a refinance of my house where the day of closing, a settlement sheet was faxed to me with a completely different set of numbers than previously agreed to. I took a hard line telling the broker the deal would not happen unless the numbers were changed back. Within an hour a new settlement sheet appeared with the original numbers. But many people are reluctant to “cause problems” at the last minute. It is also easier to walk away from a refinance than a home sale.

So, is believing the best about ourselves and others a character flaw? It can be when it allows us to be taken advantage of and enter into agreements not in our best interest. As I warn in my book The Two Headed Quarter, the lender and realtor profit from immediate sales, not the long-term financial health of the borrower. If the government, or some other investor backs the loan the lender is at no risk. That means homebuyers must look out for their own interests. Don’t believe the agent when he or she tells you that a bank would never loan you money if you couldn’t repay it.

In fact the real crux of the mortgage problem is the ability for agents, brokers, and executives to profit by gambling with money that is not their own. That is the point I made in my previous post. Wells Fargo and its agents don’t care if a loan is paid back because they will collect commissions and fees while selling the loan to other investors. The loan would become somebody else’s problem, not theirs. The homebuyers might have character flaws but the behavior of the lenders in these cases is criminal.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Dream World of Mortgages

I dreamt the other night of being at a casino. I sat at a $5 per hand blackjack table and began playing. As the dealer flipped the cards across the felt strange events started to happen. Each time I lost a hand the other casino patrons would take up a collection to cover my loss. Then someone would rush over to add more chips to my stack. But each time I won I got to keep the money. I simply put the chips I won in my pocket. Wow, I thought; I should try this at a more expensive table.

I moved to a $10 per hand table and the same thing happened. Next I tried $50 per hand and then $100. No matter how large a bet I placed or how long a particular losing streak lasted, the lost chips would magically reappear. But, any win was mine to keep and no one seemed to care. An attractive waitress came to offer a drink. I asked for some Grand Marnier and tipped her with a $100 chip. She rushed back with the drink, a seductive smile and a food menu. I kicked back and doubled-down on a hand blackjack players call a hard-16. (Yes, I know that is a stupid play, but I might win and it doesn’t cost me when I lose.) I think I’ll just stay here. No need to go back home and return to that activity called work.

Then I awoke and regained my senses. Real life isn’t like that; or so I thought. I made some coffee and as I sipped and savored the aroma my eyes focused on the morning newspaper. I read about the government bailing out near bankrupt companies with names ending in Mae and Mac. Wait, I must still be dreaming. Is the caffeine working this morning?

Indymac, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were run as private companies with stockholders and highly compensated executives. The executives made a series of large questionable bets on real estate that for several years paid off handsomely. But now fortunes have changed and the bets are losing big time. Like many problem gamblers, these executives did not know how to control risk, stay within a budget, or quit before going completely broke. But it didn’t matter to them because while they got to keep their winnings for the bets that paid off, ordinary citizens are being forced to take up a collection to cover the bets that lost.

Government talk and action on the financial crisis caused by bad loans is completely disingenuous. Political leaders extol the virtues of free, unregulated, private enterprise motivated by profit seeking executives and corporations. But when these private businesses fail, our leaders tell us that taxpayers must step in to prevent the entire financial system from collapse. It turns out that the Maes and Macs performed a necessary public service, much like a utility. But Marylanders already know what happens when utilities are deregulated and run for profit. We pay extra on our electric bills every month for that improvement.

IndyMac grew rapidly during the real estate boom by specializing in so-called “Alt-A” loans. These loans did not require homebuyers to actually document the income or assets they claimed. After its failure the FBI launched an investigation of the company for possible fraud. I’m just shocked, shocked to think that without documentation, bank officials might have just made up the numbers on loan documents.

Private enterprise works well with private money. But, in the mortgage business we have a system that allows private gain to accrue from risking unlimited amounts of taxpayer money. The result is that since March authorities have indicted more than 400 people who worked in the real estate industry. We the taxpayers are now footing the bill for massive amounts of collusion and outright fraud.

In Maryland, I know of no legal blackjack games. Neither the state nor federal governments trusts its citizens to play the game responsibly. But, while casino blackjack is stacked against the player, at least it’s regulated in states where it is allowed. Many tax-paying citizens were financially ruined in the poorly regulated real estate market. But, the government says that they should have made more responsible choices. Do they think this is a dream world?

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy