Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Warning: Trial Loan Modifications can be Hazardous

The failure of the government's loan modification program, Home Affordable, has made a lot of news lately. Only a fraction of the anticipated number of homeowners have truly benefited from the program. Why do so many people start the mortgage modification process and end up getting denied or canceled? What are the hazards of getting involved in a trial modification?

Trial Modifications
About a year ago, under tremendous pressure from the government and consumer groups, home loan servicers (primarily the big banks) started using trial modifications in order to get more homeowners started in the loan modification process. Because of the mammoth volume of requests for modifications (Bank of America was receiving over 80,000 calls a day at the peak) servicers started homeowners on trial modifications, or temporary modifications, while they began processing and underwriting the homeowners qualifications for a permanent modification.

Often times the processing time to determine if a homeowner takes many months, up to a year. Meanwhile the homeowner continues to make trial modification payments at an amount lower than the payment on their mortgage note. The homeowner assumes if they make their trial payment on time, they will be approved for the permanent modification. They don't realize that homeowners are often denied a permanent modification regardless if they make all of their trial payments on time. Most of the time the reasons for denying a modification relate to the borrower making too much, or too little income.

Something has been happening as they have been making those lower, trial payments. The homeowner has been accumulating a past due balance for the difference between the note payment and the trial payment. The longer the trial period, the bigger that past due balance becomes.

Putting Homeowners in a Hole
Take the example of Stacey. She started a trial modification with Wells Fargo in August of 2009. She was told it would be a three month trial. She made all three months on time, but Wells Fargo was behind, presumably dealing with hundreds of thousands of other homeowners. So Stacey continued to make the trial payments as directed by Wells Fargo. Finally in July of 2010 she received notice that her modification request was declined because she didn't make enough money. We'll ignore the point at this time that Wells Fargo did not calculate her income correctly. So they sent her a letter letting her know she has to start making her note payment again. They also mentioned in the letter that Stacey had to immediately pay the past due balance of over $8,000. "Past due? But I made all of my payments on time," Stacey thought. Yes, but now she owes the difference between the trial modification payments and her note payments over the past 11 months. And she owes it now. According to the letter she must pay it now or face foreclosure.

Be Careful with Trial Modifications
The servicers need to be aware of the hole they are putting homeowners in when they start them on a trial modification. Likewise, homeowners that are on trial modifications need to take advantage of the lower payment and save some money each month so that if their request for modification is denied, they can pay the past due balance.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Immigration Policy & Real Estate

Nothing has been in the news more in Arizona recently than SB1070. In case you have been living in a cave, I am referring to an immigration enforcement law recently passed in Arizona that goes into effect on July 29. The law requires local law enforcement authorities to question individuals who have been stopped for an infraction and are suspected of being in the country illegally to show identification authorizing them to be in the country. This article will not debate the politics, the effectiveness, or the constitutionality of the law. My interest is in how the law will affect (or not affect) real estate in Arizona. So I will let others argue whether the law is racist and unconstitutional, or whether it is simply the state trying to enforce what the feds have failed to enforce.

What Drives Real Estate Growth?
Growth in real estate, whether in the form of increased home sales or rising values, necessitates a growing population. Arizona real estate has benefitted over several decades from the domestic migration from colder U.S. climates to the Sunbelt. That growth led to spectacular new home starts and rising home values from the early nineties through 2006. The overall economy sailed on a wind driven much by the real estate market.

A great deal of that growth took place beginning in 2000. From 2000 to 2007 the illegal immigrant population in Arizona is estimated to have grown by 70% according to a study by the Department of Homeland Security, while nationally that figure was only 37%. Illegal immigrants have to live somewhere, so they must also contribute to the real estate market. Many rent homes or apartments, which drove up rents and consequently increased property values. Many also purchased homes and even obtained mortgages with falsified identification. While illegal immigrants can’t claim to be the primary source for the rise (and eventual fall) of the real estate market, their impact shouldn’t be ignored.

This impact is more apparent in neighborhoods that are primarily Latino like the Maryvale neighborhood of west Phoenix and Glendale. Many illegal residence simply abandoned homes that they rented or had purchased when they made a decision to leave Arizona.

Why Are Illegal Immigrants Leaving?
Immigrants have been leaving Arizona for a couple of years. It started well before SB1070 was signed into law. In fact that law isn’t scheduled to go into effect until later this month. In 2008 about 100,000 illegal immigrants (18%) left Arizona according to DHS. If most of the illegal immigrants came across the border for higher paying jobs, it only makes sense that they leave when those jobs are no longer available.

The decline of a real estate and construction dependent economy began in late 2006, and was free-falling into 2007 and 2008. The result, the jobs held by many illegal immigrants simply vanished. Compounding the issue was another law that was passed in 2007, the Legal Arizona Workers Act. This law focused on employers that were hiring illegal workers. It placed very stiff penalties, including the loss of a business license, for those employers that knowingly hired illegal workers. While very few companies have been prosecuted under the law, it appears that employers have decided not to take the risk of losing their business.

One would think that Arizona’s dependence on real estate would result in a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the nation. Instead Arizona has been at or below the national unemployment rate in this recession. In fact the Phoenix metro area had 8.7% unemployment in May while the U.S. unemployment rate was a full point higher at 9.7%. I can only speculate that is because the Arizona workforce has shrunk as illegal immigrants choose to leave as their jobs disappeared.

SB 1070’s Impact
The most recent immigration legislation in Arizona does not appear to contribute to any population increase, nor is it designed to. It is designed to do exactly the opposite, at least in the short term. Proponents believe it will lower entitlements, thereby lowering government spending and keep tax rates low. That should provide a fertile ground for business growth and population, a longer term view.

The national and international attention for Arizona and this debate is extraordinary. The attention however has been mostly negative. The opponents of the law focus on racism to make the debate appear Anglo versus Latino. Not a good image for Arizona. Proponents of the law focus on the problems and crime associated with illegal immigration: drug and human smuggling, kidnapping, and executions. Also not a good image for Arizona. This recent immigration debate is not helping the cause to persuade people to move to Arizona.

In the short term it appears that SB1017 is hurting our real estate market. Immigrants that haven’t already left may choose to, creating more vacancies. In addition, a poor image of Arizona is being portrayed by both sides of the debate.

The long term consequences depend on what happens next. We will have to wait and see if Congress will pass any meaningful legislation for immigration reform. The law also faces court challenges including a suit from the U.S. Department of Justice. Interestingly, in this lawsuit my federal tax dollars will be applied to the plaintiff side while my state tax dollars will contribute to the defense.

How can immigration policy help the Arizona real estate market? Real estate growth needs population growth. Therfore it can be positively impacted by policy that allows for an increase in LEGAL immigration, specifically legal immigration from Mexico.