Friday, March 29, 2024

Mortgage rates are stable, Buyers agency in jeopardy

The mortgage rates over the last few months have stabilized with the usual fluctuations in the market but a generally flat trend curve. Stability is almost as important as the rates themselves as buyers do not have to make rush decisions to try a lock a low rate. 

Recent legal matters based on a proposed settlement between the NAR and Federal regulators could lead to poor representation for buyers. Buyers may find themselves in a situation where they have to choose between paying an agent for their services or going it alone with the seller or listing agent. 

As is typical in these types of suits the plaintiff either doesn't understand the arrangement and purpose of the MLS or they don't care. In a nutshell an antitrust suit was filed against the NAR and it seems some of the plaintiffs accusations were true. But rather than simply fixing the problem this settlement is an egregious overreach and will ultimately end up hurting buyers and sellers alike.

There were apparently several areas of the country where the NAR had a fixed commission requirement for the buyers agent rather than a negotiable amount. If this is true and it seems like in some areas it was, then the antitrust suit on that charge has merit. The settlement however as proposed is likely to make things worse, not better. Here in Washington State for example, commissions have always been statutorily mandated as negotiable. We should not have to make any changes here. Yet we may have too. 

The idea of the MLS was to move away from the car dealership style of home selling that was rampant in the early 20th Century. People would go to a broker's office and look at houses they had, if they didn't like them they would go to another broker and so on. It was tedious and it often led to aggressive behavior by agents just like we see at car dealerships. The MLS idea was to have brokerages share their commissions with other brokerages. Under this arrange a Weichert Realtor could show properties listed by other brokerages such as RE/Max and still be paid for their efforts. The buyer was now represented with their own agent that at the least had a fiduciary responsibility to work in the best interests of the buyer. In Washington State it is not only a fiduciary responsibility it is a statutory responsibility. 

The plaintiff's claim was that the seller should not have to pay for the buyer's broker. That seems logical until you dig deeper. The seller is paying indirectly. The commission is solely the listing brokerages fee. The listing broker chooses to share it with another broker to help sell the home faster and for the highest possible price. The listing broker could keep the whole commission for himself and try to find a buyer on his own. In our county we have nearly 2000 agents. Why would I want to keep that property from those agents. They may have the buyer that loves the property so much they are willing to bid it up higher than any other buyer.

The seller agrees to pay a fee that is fully negotiable to the listing brokerage. The seller is not paying the buyers agent fee, they are paying the listing agent's fee. The listing agent is choosing to share that fee with another broker if they bring the highest and best offer to the table. How the listing agent chooses to use that fee is her business. She could donate the entire fee to charity, she could go on vacation to Hawaii, she can put it in her retirement account. It is hers to spend as she sees fit. Most listing agents choose to place the property on the MLS and share their fee to help get the highest price and best terms for their client. On the MLS the home will sell faster and for more money almost every time.

Feel free to reach out in the comments section if you have any questions about how agency works in the state of Washington. You can text "waloa" to 360-364-5621 to receive a link to the Washington State Law of Agency official pamphlet. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

High end market seeing cash deals

I have noticed many high end properties closing with cash listed as the payment method. With mortgage money costing about as much as investment earnings, some well heeled buyers are choosing to part with cash in the short term rather than borrowed funds. Someone earning 4% to 5% on conservative investments may rather invest that cash into real estate which may not earn 4%-5% in the current climate but will still be better than borrowing at 7% or more. The stock market has been somewhat volatile lately and that may be part of the cash movement in high-end properties lately. Cash has always been common in deals where someone is downsizing a large home into a smaller home. This is typical in retirement. Lose the giant house on the huge lot and move into a smaller condo or townhouse to eliminate a large portion of the maintenance. 

There can be advantages to borrowing however. Mortgage interest is deductible in most cases from income tax. Sometimes this makes strategic sense. Carrying a mortgage does encumber the property and thus makes it a bit more difficult to sell if market conditions soften up, but generally in the high end market larger downpayment are common. 

Cash is king and people choosing to use cash to purchase can always do a loan against the property later should they need access to their cash. There are a many different angles when making a real estate purchases and it seems that cash is just popular right now for those making purchases of more expensive properties.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Is Real Estate Headed South?

Many people are concerned that real estate values may take a dive as some analysts are bearish on real estate. The way I see it, the analysts pulling the alarm on real estate are the usual suspects. The same people that are always trying to promote other investment vehicles, like precious metals, looking at you Robert Kiyosaki.

Most industry insiders feel that the market will experience a soft landing correction and so far that is exactly what it is doing. Inventory is gradually creeping up and buyers are seeing some relief on pricing. Although prices are not falling locally the asking prices are lower and that may lead to lower median prices as the year wear on.

Presidential election years traditionally have some economic turbulence as investors react to polls and predictions about what the future administrations and congress will do. Typically once the election is over and the results are in things settle down. If we follow this pattern real estate will likely continue its soft and gentle landing with eventually median prices dropping by 5%-10% over a year or so. 

Of course it is important to note that massive corrections can and occasionally do happen. We had just such a scenario back in 2009. That correction came on the heels of many different issues with the stock market, lending markets, and housing. A great deal of legislation was enacted to keep that trifecta disaster from happening again. There has not been a significant relaxation of those laws, so I think we are unlikely to see that level of collapse in the near future.

Buying a home is still a very solid way to build wealth and equity over time.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Have interest rates made renting more affordable than owning?

Back a few years ago when we had all time lows for mortgage interest rates it was absolutely more affordable to own than rent. The numbers were very convincing, but now with interest rates in the 7s is it still the more affordable approach?

I have spent some time on the rental websites looking at rental properties advertised locally and have found very recent sales of similar homes in the same neighborhoods to see if I can tackle that question. Affordability comes down to more than just the monthly payment. Renters generally do not have to pay for repairs and upkeep whereas homeowners do. These are expenses that should be calculated in to be fair. But homeowners also have the benefit of building equity through a combination of reducing the monthly principle on the loan and through market appreciation over time.

The number one advantage of renting is mobility. Typical lease commitments are one year. When choosing to buy a home you should be committed to at least four years. The disadvantage to renting is you run the risk of not getting a new lease at the end of your current lease. The owner may choose to sell the property. With apartments, this is rare, but with houses it happens fairly often. 

So operating under the notion that we are committed to staying in the property long term and we have a small to medium sized dog. Let's crunch some data.
The first property is a rental house about 25 years old and nicely updated in NE Vancouver. The home is a very common house that many builders built in that time period. It has 2080 SF with four beds and 2.5 baths. It sits on a typical 6000-7000 foot lot. It is listed for rent at $2850 per month. The upfront cost is two months rent and a security deposit. Pets are allowed but with a larger deposit of an extra $500 and an extra $100 per month.  So we have to come in with $6200 and our monthly payment is $2950. This home has a classic 1990s two story floor plan with the living room up front, kitchen, dining and family room in back with a 1/2 bath down and all four beds and both full baths up. Renters insurance will run between $50-$100 depending on how much coverage for loss you choose. Total monthly expense is $3000

The comparable home to purchase closed late last year at $475,000 and the seller paid $7000 in buyers closing costs. This home was also updated but not quite as nice on the inside as the rental house. The exterior is a little nicer and it is located just a few blocks away in the same neighborhood. Its floor plan is a near clone of the rental but with slightly less space at 1960 SF and four beds with 2.5 baths on a 6000-7000 foot lot. For the sake of comparison I'll assume an FHA buyer with 720 credit score, 3.5% down, and $7000 in closing costs. Buyer will need to come in with $16,625 and will have a $3887 monthly payment including taxes and insurance. I found several similar homes currently for sale a little further away but less than 2 miles in this general price range. This home had a newer furnace and newer roof.

It is quite evident that the cost to buy a single family detached home is substantially higher than the cost to rent it at the moment. But let's fast forward ten years. Trends in rental properties over the last several years have shown increases of roughly 2-3% annually but are tracking a bit less lately so I'll operate at 1.5% annually so rent would be roughly $3500. Property taxes will fluctuate based at least partly on the market. Vancouver is currently experiencing very modest price appreciation and will likely remain flat over the next couple of years. The historical post war (WWII) appreciation over a ten year period has been about 70%. Since we are currently trending lower than the historical average I'll run the next 3 years flat and then historical average for the remaining 7 years. That would yield a 50% price appreciation over ten years for the owned home which is conservative barring a recession with the severity of 2009-2012. The only likely increase in the mortgage payment would be in taxes so that payment would look like $4100. Home value at $712k with equity at about $280k. Repairs and maintenance costs would run about 1% annually on this house as most of the expensive bits are new. Much of that could be performed by the homeowner to save money, yard work, minor repairs, light painting, etc. Over tens years assuming half of maintenance DIY would be $25,000 so net equity is still more than $250,000. If interest rates were to drop during that decade a refinance could lower the payment and eliminate mortgage insurance. The payment after six years if rates are 5% could be lowered to $3000. Obviously there is no way to know if rates will go back down or go the other way. If they do the latter then the homeowner is sitting pretty with a sub market rate.

The moral of the story is that long term home ownership will benefit the buyer immensely but for short term, renting is often the superior option. I have lived in my home since 2002. I paid $200k for it with $40,000 down. I could sell it now for $600k. Over the 22 years I have put roughly $50,000 into the house for maintenance and upgrades including a roof, furnace, and kitchen remodel. All told I have paid into the house including said maintenance, upgrades, and principle, interest, taxes and insurance, $441k. This includes three refinances one of which had cash out to clear a home equity line I used to pay for some upgrades. My first loan was at 7.5%, the second loan was at 5% the final was a rate and term refi at 2.9%. All those payments including my down payment over the 22 years and the maintenance costs adds up to $441,000. If I sell the house today I would walk away with $274,000. That means I lived for 22 years in this house for a total real cost of $167,000 and that works out to $632 per month. This is why long term, buying is the only way to go. It's not all peaches and cream, as the market can be volatile at times and early on in your homeownership, it can be expensive to move. Sometimes you can feel trapped in the house when the market is soft or when rates are much higher than your current rate. If I sold my home for $600k and used the 274k as a down payment on a smaller house at say $450k my payment would be about the same because the smaller mortgage at a higher rate works out about the same as my current larger mortgage. So I am staying put, for now. 

Friday, March 1, 2024

Homeowners Insurance Getting Complicated

In the aftermath of a series of really bad claims cycles insurance companies have tightened their belts in the Western US. The biggest claim culprit has been wildfires particularly in California. Insurance companies are now using fire line data to determine eligibly and/or cost for insurance. Most of California, Eastern Washington, and Easter Oregon have high fire line scores that affect insurability of homes in the area. Generally homes in cities and suburbia have manageable fire scores but once you venture out in the countryside things can get dicey. 

If you are buying a home with a bank loan you will be required to have adequate homeowners insurance. This can get very expensive and your qualifying for the loan includes the cost of insurance. Flood zones will require additional flood insurance which can be expensive. If you are buying a home along a creek or river be prepared to encounter more expensive insurance and keep in mind it could affect your ability to qualify for financing.

As for the fire line ratings you can go to risk and enter your address or an address you are interested in to see the rick factors from flood, pollution, fire, etc. Fortunately here in Clark County the vast majority of homes even in the mountains are below fire rating of 6 which is the number that starts making insurance companies nervous. The scale is 1-10 with ten being severe. Here in Western Washington we have a long wet season that provides for a lot of fuel for fires, but the dry season is short enough that our fire season is pretty short. We tend to stay green for most of the year and that provides some protection from major out of control wildfires. We are by no means immune but I have't yet found an address with a rating above 5 in Clark County, let's be clear I have only run a couple of doezen dresses through the system. Up high on Rawson Road in the cascade foothills was brings 4's and 5's where as my suburban Vancouver home is a 3. Washougal River Road address were also bringing 4-5's. 

I'm not saying there are not any high risk addresses because there probably are some. But I would recommend looking into this when you are deciding to write an offer. You don't want to be blindsided by an insurance problem after you have paid for an inspection, appraisal, etc only to have to kill the deal over insurance.