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Thursday, September 29, 2011

U.S. Mortgage Aid Program is Shutting Down

From today's New York Times:

In summer 2010, Congress set aside $1 billion for a program intended to bail out people in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. It was estimated that the program, administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, would help as many as 30,000 households.

But the program is now ending after achieving lackluster results and stirring widespread recrimination.

Fewer than 15,000 households are expected to receive help despite enormous demand, and perhaps half of the money will go unspent.

The department attributed the program’s performance to the way it was set up by Congress. But Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, an author of the legislation, said the program’s failings were a result of poor administration and the department’s late start in rolling it out.

“They dragged and dragged their feet,” Mr. Frank said in an interview. “I believe it was not one of their priorities.”

The program, called the Emergency Homeowners’ Loan Program, or EHLP, was signed into law in July 2010 as part of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It offered people who were unemployed or underemployed up to $50,000 in zero-interest loans to pay their mortgage debts. HUD has until Friday to mete out the funds or lose the balance.

Yet the department did not begin the program until this June, and set an original application cutoff date of late July. Across the country, nonprofit housing groups and mortgage counselors who had been chosen to work with applicants rushed to meet the deadline, which ended up being extended several times.

The counselors also found the eligibility criteria complicated and overly restrictive.

Under the stipulations, applicants had to be at least 90 days behind on their mortgage payments. They also had to be earning at least 15 percent less than their 2009 income due to unemployment, underemployment or serious illness. The program subsidized mortgage payments for up to two years. But if the cost of the subsidies and the repayment of a homeowner’s mortgage debt exceeded $50,000, the applicant would be ineligible.

The combination of these rules, housing counselors said, disqualified a large number of people who had gone through their savings and fallen behind on mortgage payments. Nor have all of the applicants who met the qualifications been approved for the loan.

And with the Friday deadline, the clock is ticking.

At the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation of Fitchburg and Leominster, Mass., 31 of the 250 applicants who sought help met the program’s requirements, and by Wednesday, six had been approved.

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in Washington, took applications from 506 people. Of those, 49 met the eligibility guidelines, and 26 had been approved as of Wednesday.

Operation Hope, a nonprofit based in California, fielded queries from 1,200 people seeking help; of those, 25 were found to be qualified, and by Wednesday, five had been approved.

“It’s been a very discouraging process,” said Laurel Miller, director of homeownership at the Twin Cities agency. “It was almost like in order to qualify for this, it had to be the perfect storm.”

In states where housing costs are high, like New York, bitterness about the program was compounded by the fact that many homeowners were deeper in arrears than the program allowed. Of the 1,000 people who sought help through the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, only 74 qualified.

“It’s been a frustrating program,” said Bernell K. Grier, chief executive of the organization. “We wish we could have done more.”

HUD officials cited many reasons for the program’s slow rollout, saying the agency had to build the infrastructure to do direct lending, hire organizations to put the program into effect and create regulations for its operation.

Housing officials also said that nearly all of the eligibility guidelines came from a 1975 act through which the new money had been appropriated, and that they had interpreted the guidelines accordingly, leading to restrictions like the one involving the 15 percent income drop.

“No one could have anticipated how difficult the statutory requirements would make it to qualify homeowners, causing us to overestimate the number of people who could meet the eligibility criteria,” said Todd M. Richardson, director of the emergency loan program.

Yet Representative Frank said he never heard the agency complain about the statue guidelines’ being overly stringent. “They’re just trying to cover up their embarrassment,” he said.

John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which also processed applications, said the agency could have been nimbler, modeling its program on an existing one rather than creating its own and eliminating stringent requirements, when it became clear that hundreds of millions of dollars would not be spent.

Housing counselors had also been pushing to secure money for people who met the program’s qualifications yet might not be approved by Friday. Last week, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill to extend the deadline, but it was not voted on. 

1:35 pm cdt 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Few Fortunate Home Sellers Come Away With Profit

From Crain's Chicago Business:

When Devera Hayes and Eric Sucharski sold their Hinsdale home this month, they came away from the deal with something practically unheard of these days: a profit.

Ms. Hayes and Mr. Sucharski, both 43, bought the 90-year-old, four-bedroom, Craftsman-style home on Lincoln Street in June 2010 for just under $1.23 million before deciding late this summer that, though they loved the house, it didn't have enough outdoor space for their newly blended family. They put the home on the market in August and within four days had four all-cash offers. It sold at just under $1.26 million, and the couple moved to a Burr Ridge home on three acres.

At a time when many home sellers are taking losses as housing prices slip to levels last seen almost a decade ago, Ms. Hayes and Mr. Sucharski are among a lucky few—very few—who are pocketing gains.

Granted, these price appreciations are so small that they often don't cover the real estate agent's commission and closing costs. But in a market that's off about 30% from its peak in 2006 for Chicago-area single-family homes and 2007 for condos, according to the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller home price index, a profit on paper is considered a win.

“We know we're very fortunate in this environment, with so many people who can't sell,” Ms. Hayes says.

She isn't a stranger to relative success in a difficult market. Before buying the Lincoln Street home, Ms. Hayes essentially broke even on a house she sold in June 2010 for $825,000 on Justina Street in Hinsdale that she'd bought in August 2007 for $828,000. That home was on the market for eight days.

Ms. Hayes' agent, Cathleen Callen of County Line Properties Inc. in Hinsdale, attributes the success of the Lincoln Street sale to the home's ideal location, vintage charm and listing price. It isn't the biggest on the block and doesn't have a finished basement, she says, but it was unique, updated by a previous owner and meticulously kept.

During the year they owned the home, Ms. Hayes and Mr. Sucharski spent about $1,500 on it, Ms. Hayes says, buying paint, plants for the yard, light bulbs to make all interior lighting uniform and small touches such as drawer pulls. Proponents of doing it themselves whenever possible, the couple did all the painting on their own.

The home is ideally situated on one of the town's most attractive blocks, where every home is different, Ms. Callen says. “When people think of Hinsdale, they don't necessarily think of formula houses from the past 15 to 20 years,” she says. “They think of gorgeous old homes with wide lawns on heavily wooded streets. This block is like a slice of Americana.”

All the charm in the world won't help if the price isn't right, however. Now, when even the most perfect homes can sit on the market for months or longer, sellers and their agents need to nail the listing price the first time around.

Ms. Callen says Ms. Hayes and Mr. Sucharski could have listed the home as high as $1.35 million to try their luck, but they didn't—a decision that ended up being critical. “On the first day on the market, they had an offer in the first hour,” Ms. Callen says. “It was a perceived value.”


Like the Lincoln Street home in Hinsdale, whose classic appeal is difficult to re-create with new construction, vintage rehab condo conversions at a development in Old Town also have sold for a profit.

Jeanine Wheeler, an agent at @Properties in Chicago, last April sold her own three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in the development at the corner of Wells and Eugenie streets for $499,000, about $33,000 more than she'd paid for the unit in July 2007.

While she lived there, Ms. Wheeler, 38, stained the wood floors, had closet organization systems put in, had mounted stereo speakers installed and bought window treatments, spending about $20,000 total.

Though the condo was part of a large development, each unit and each building was slightly different. That vintage appeal, along with updates from the rehab, helped sell the unit, she says. “A lot of times with vintage, you're giving up something major, whether it be closet space or central air,” she says. “In this case, it really had it all and was a spectacular location.”

The condo was on the market 11 days before it sold, and Ms. Wheeler received three offers in that time.

Other units in the same development have had similar luck, including one sold in May for $495,000 by Molly Killen and Mark Kelley, who bought the home in July 2007 for $461,000. The condo was on the market for 13 days.

Ms. Killen attributes part of the unit's appeal to its outdoor spaces—a sizeable back porch and a second outdoor area in the building's original light well.

The couple, working with Brooke Vanderbok of @Properties' Lakeview office, sold the condo this year so they could move to Dublin, Ohio, where Mr. Kelley accepted a job as the manager of a private golf club. With twins born in November of last year, the quick sale and profit made the move much easier, Ms. Killen says.

“The speed with which we were able to sell was a godsend,” she says. “Lugging two babies out of the house every time there was a showing would have been a nightmare after a while.”

A speedy sale and small profit also helped a La Grange couple move to London earlier this year. Dan and Jennifer Shoemaker sold their 80-year-old home on Stone Avenue for $565,000 in December, after buying it for $550,000 in October 2008. It was on the market for 16 days.

“We knew we weren't going to make a lot of money, but it certainly was nice to get something,” Ms. Shoemaker, 39, says.

The couple and their four children loved the home and neighborhood, which is in walking distance of the Metra station, but needed to move when Mr. Shoemaker, 38, was offered a job as a London-based vice-president of international business at HireRight Inc., a company that provides pre-employment screening, she says.

“The fact that we weren't lingering because of a house that wasn't selling was a huge relief,” says Ms. Shoemaker, who worked with Shannon Kutchek at La Grange-based Smothers Realty Group on the sale.


While they owned the home, the couple put less than $10,000 into it, painting the interior and replacing the kitchen appliances and countertops and putting in new carpeting in a few rooms.

Beyond the fact that the home showed well, it was well-maintained and in a highly desirable location, Ms. Kutchek says—both factors that bode well for a good sale. “There was nothing challenging about the house,” she says. “It's the all-American house that everyone wants, next to train and town.”

Ms. Shoemaker stresses the importance of staging the home properly, noting that she followed a checklist of things to do before each showing that included turning every light on, putting a fresh roll of toilet paper in the bathrooms and making sure the home was immaculately clean.

With buyers having the luxury of being extremely choosy in the current market, a clean, well-decorated home can make a strong impression.

“I made sure my place showed like a model home—without a speck of dust on the floor,” says Shannon Harrigan, an agent at Dream Town Realty, who sold her own Wicker Park condo on Hermitage Avenue last year for a $15,000 profit. “It has to look like it's out of a catalog.”


Ms. Harrigan, 33, purchased the three-bedroom, new-construction unit in January 2010 for $455,000 before finding out she and her husband, Antony Mussell, 40, were expecting a second baby. She sold the unit in November for $470,000 after it was on the market for five days.

While they lived there, the couple spent about $4,000 on items such as window treatments and a custom flagstone fireplace. Mr. Mussell's father built a deck with a pergola and wrap-around bench for the couple.

Ms. Harrigan also had custom light fixtures put in the dining area, bathrooms and master bedroom to make the unit more memorable.

Indeed, lighting and paint color can have a tremendous impact, says Ms. Hayes, the seller of the Lincoln Street home in Hinsdale, who describes her decorating style as comfortable, kid-friendly and shabby-chic. Before selling, she and Mr. Sucharski spent $300 on new light bulbs and painted the home's interior warm, neutral colors.

They also replaced the electrical outlets and put in new light switches. “That's a big deal for people,” Ms. Hayes says. “When people see those funky old yellow toggle light switches, they wonder what's behind those walls.”

Ms. Callen attributes Ms. Hayes' successful home sales in part to her decorating savvy. “The way she decorates, you want to go in and sink into the furniture,” Ms. Callen says.

Against the odds, that combination of an inviting atmosphere, a charming home, an ideal location and the right price has worked for Ms. Hayes, even in a down market. “Her houses always sell,” Ms. Callen says. “She has the winning formula.”

1:38 pm cdt 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rates on Five Year ARM's Drop to Record 2.96%

Chicago MarketWatch reports today that the average rates on 5-year adjustable-rate mortgages hit a record low of 2.96% this week, the eighth week in a row the average rate has dropped, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey of conforming mortgage rates, released on Thursday.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid ARM averaged 3.07% last week and 3.54% a year ago.

Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage rates averaged 4.22% for the week ending Sept. 1, unchanged from last week and down from 4.32% a year ago, according to the survey.

The 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.39%, down from 3.44% last week and 3.83% a year ago.

And 1-year Treasury-indexed ARMs averaged 2.89% this week, down from 2.93% last week and 3.5% a year ago.

To obtain the rates, the fixed-rate mortgage required payment of an average 0.7 point, while the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage and both adjustable-rate mortgages required an average 0.6 point. A point is 1% of the mortgage amount, charged as prepaid interest.

“Weaker economic data reports eased upward pressure on mortgage rates this week and kept them at or near all-time record lows,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac, in a news release. “The economy grew at a slower rate of 1% in the second quarter than was originally reported due to a smaller increase in inventories and fewer exports. In addition, consumer confidence in August fell to the lowest reading since April 2009, according to The Conference Board.”

Nothaft also pointed out that the S&P/Case-Shiller index fell 5.9% between the second quarter of 2010 and 2011, a drop that reflects the largest yearly decrease since the third quarter of 2009. And pending sales for existing homes fell 1.3% in July, compared with June, he added. 



1:24 pm cdt 

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