The real estate and mortgage industries are trying hard to convince us that NOW is a good time to buy a home. They use low mortgage interest rates and the soon to expire First-time Homebuyer Tax Credit program (which I qualify for since I’ve purposely been a renter for the last 6 years) as their rationale.
Don’t expect unbiased advice from salespeople! What most won’t fess up to is that if I (or you) buy a home now, we’ll likely be throwing our precious money away because home prices are still under great pressure. I’ll wait until the knife stops falling, thank you very much.
We are done with subprime resets but… pay attention… there is a second wave of mortgage resets to endure. What is a mortgage reset? It’s when the homeowner, who bought a house with a low “teaser rate” and planned to refinance when the house price went up, gets a new payment that is far higher (not always, but usually). Many homeowners can’t afford these resets, especially with unemployment and underemployment rates at these levels. Lenders are cautious and tightening their underwriting guidelines so refinancing may not even be possible for many borrowers.
The first wave of resets was subprime. The subprime wave is over. Whew! That hurt! But Alt-A and Option ARM resets aren’t over and combined, they represent a much larger category of mortgages than subprime. Most of these mortgages are already underwater: the home has negative equity; the home is worth less than the mortgage owed. The combination of resets plus the underwater status will likely add fuel to defaults and foreclosures, putting yet more downward pressure on home prices.
Some argue that the problem with adjustable rate mortgages resetting to higher payments isn’t as important now because many of those loans defaulted early. Even so, we still face the major problem of shadow inventory: distressed mortgages facing foreclosure and bank-repossessed properties that have not yet reached the market. At the current rate of sales, it could take almost 9 YEARS to sell off all the foreclosed homes in banks’ possession, plus all the homes likely to end up there over the next couple years (according to LPS Applied Analytics).
Another knife that has the potential of slashing home prices further is the increasing prevalence of walkaways (strategic defaults): the decision by the borrower to stop making payments on a mortgage despite having the financial ability to make the payments. Walkaways happen after a substantial drop in the house’s price. The borrower is underwater so she decides to free herself from the burden of mortgage debt. Once free of the mortgage, she is free to use her income for other expenditures. The borrower, after deciding to not make payments any more, can live free of the costs of mortgage payments until the lender forecloses — which may take the lender from several months to years!
A study in September 2009 from the credit reporting agency Experian and consulting outfit Oliver Wyman estimated that close to a fifth of troubled mortgages in the U.S. involved borrowers who were strategically defaulting. While I haven’t looked for a more recent statistic, I can only guess that this number will climb as more homeowners get mad at Wall Street and as walkaways become less morally and ethically charged.
I’ve been told by countless Realtors that I should buy a home NOW because having been a renter for the past 6 years, I qualify for the First-Time Homebuyer’s Tax Credit. But what do you think will happen to house prices once the tax credit incentive expires? I’d say houses will not sell as well as they have lately (with the credit artificially propping the market up) which will increase the supply of homes on the market… and push down on prices.
I’ve also been told by Realtors that I should buy a home NOW because mortgage interest rates are so low. But I don’t worry about rates because I have the cash to purchase our next home outright if the interest rates move up. Even if I did need a loan it wouldn’t change my mind because as Patrick Killelea astutely points out,
It is far better to pay a low price with a high interest rate than a high price with a low interest rate, even if the mortgage payment is the same either way.
- Your property taxes will be lower with a low purchase price.
- A low price gives you the ability to pay it all off instead of being a debt-slave for the rest of your life.
- As interest rates fall from high to low, house prices increase.
- Paying a high price now may trap you “under water”, meaning you’ll have a mortgage larger than the value of the house. Then you will not be able to refinance because there you’ll have no equity, and will not be able to sell without a loss. Even if you get a long-term fixed rate mortgage, when rates inevitably go up the value of your property will go down. Paying a low price minimizes your damage.
Additionally, if interest rates rise, the number of borrowers who can qualify for a higher mortgage payment will drop. Less qualified buyers in the market means… you got it… more downward pressure on home prices.
In summary, I see no rational or compelling reason to buy a home right now. 2012 or after? We’ll see!
Note: This post was featured in the most creative Carnival of Personal Finance I’ve ever read — check it out! The Origin of the Piggy Bank by Well-Heeled Blog
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