May 2007 Archives

United 300, a hilarious spoof.

"Tonight, we dine in Cleveland!"


Air-Car Ready for Mass Production

No, it's not a flying car, but it is a noteworthy piece of eco-technology, assuming it's real. I found myself checking the date to make certain it wasn't April 1st while reading the article.

The article does note that it's not likely to come to the US due to lack of crashworthiness. Wouldn't that be a political fight to watch from the sidelines: Global warming true believers versus the same lawyers who make so much money in class action suits against automakers for safety flaws. I also suspect the compressed air tanks would be likely to fail catastrophically in many crashes, even ones that wouldn't be particularly dangerous in an unmodified Pinto (BOOM!)


Asymmetrical Information on trends in projected social security deficits. Getting marginally worse, not better, in a period of economic expansion.

With many people pushing various "cash back to the buyer" schemes in real estate, a note of caution is needed. Actually, it's more like an entire symphony of caution. Because if there is a loan involved, you run the risk of committing fraud.

Some people reading this won't care. "What the lender doesn't know won't hurt them," is something I've heard and seen too many times to count. After all, that lender is just some nameless faceless megacorporation, not anybody they care about.

To those people, I say, "The FBI will make you care." Given the spate of abuses, and the current level of panic at many lenders and investment houses, even if your transaction comes off without a hitch and the lender gets repaid in full, you may find yourself on the business end of an investigation. The kinds of real estate and loan places that are willing to pull so-called "harmless" fraud are also willing to pull no holds barred fraud where the entire idea is to defraud the lenders. Where you have the lenders losing money, and a pattern of abuses, you have potential for the FBI to become interested in all of a businesses transactions, and once the FBI starts looking, rebate fraud is so easy to spot that my seven year old could probably do it. They find a known shady brokerage, and it becomes what military pilots call a "target rich environment." It's worth the resources to investigate all of that brokerage's transactions.

Here's what happens. A wants some cash to fix the property up, and so arranges with B to jack the price enough higher so that B can rebate the difference to A. A then procures 100 percent financing on the increased price, B gets the increased price, and rebates it to A.

Alternatively, A writes an offer with a real estate licensee who rebates part of their commission, while providing lesser "services". Usually, the question I want to ask those rebaters I encounter is "Why do you make more than minimum wage?" The answer is because suckers who think in terms of cash in their pocket don't understand what they're getting into.

In either case, this cash back somehow doesn't get disclosed to the lender, and it needs to be. Because if the official purchase price is $X, but B is giving A back $Y under the table, the real purchase price is $X-Y. If the lender knows about the cash back, they will treat the purchase price as being $X-Y. At the very most, for 100% financing, they will only lend $X-Y. Since this defeats the purpose of the cash back, the sorts of people who do this predictably will not disclose it to their lenders.

This is fraud. Even so-called "harmless" fraud where the people fully intend to repay the entire loan (and eventually do) is still fraud. The lender doesn't have to lose a single penny in order for you to have committed fraud. The definition of fraud is "An act of deception carried out for the purpose of unfair, undeserved, and/or unlawful gain, esp. financial gain." The legal definition is a little more complex, "All multifarious means which human ingenuity can devise, and which are resorted to by one individual to get an advantage over another by false suggestions or suppression of the truth. It includes all surprises, tricks, cunning or dissembling, and any unfair way which another is cheated," but essentially similar. Had you told that lender about the cash back, they would have treated the purchase price as being less than the official price. Hence, fraud.

Now there are all manner of crooks out there encouraging people to do this. I've seen numerous advertisements for various "real estate investment systems", and people who represent themselves as real estate professionals and real estate investors and real estate authorities and even real estate licensees who urge people to commit federal felonies for various reasons on the surface that always reduce to "So the crook can make money." Whether it's through a commission they wouldn't have because the client can't be persuaded to do it the legal way, or money they intend to make selling their "Foolproof System!" to thousands of pure deluded fools, they do a lot of damage. Nor does it get you off the hook if you were following the advice of alleged professionals, as lots of people in federal prison can testify. Even if you didn't know it was illegal, even if people you had reason to trust told you it was legal, you are still responsible.

The rebate itself is not illegal, according to my best understanding. Once again, I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV, so check that out thoroughly, but it is my best understanding. The illegality happens when you deceive the lender, either by omitting information a reasonable person would agree is relevant, or by actively saying something that isn't true.

It's more than possible to get cash back and be compliant with the law - it just defeats the purposes most people have in mind with cash back, which is to make the lender think they paid more for the property than they really did, and so lend a greater amount of money or on more favorable terms, or both, than the lender otherwise would have, had they known about the cash back.

If you inform the lender, they will treat the purchase price as being the official price less the rebate. So if the official price is $400,000, but you're getting $20,000 back, the price the lender will lend based upon will be $380,000, and it doesn't matter if the appraiser says it's worth $400,000, or $400 million. $380,000 will be 100% financing, not $400,000, $360,000 will be 95% financing not 90%, and I'm certain you can figure the rest. Lenders evaluate property based upon the LCM principle, which is Lesser of cost or market. You only paid $380,000 in real terms, which makes it a $380,000 property at most. It doesn't matter whether this rebate is direct from the seller, or some third party. They look at it in terms of "How much of your hard earned money are you actually going to part with?" If some cash is coming back to you, you aren't really parting with whatever number is on the purchase contract, are you?

Where most lenders will cut a certain amount of slack is in closing costs. If the money is not actually coming back into the buyer's pocket, but instead being used to pay for costs of the purchase transaction or costs of the loan, most lenders will give that their reluctant blessing. Because all parts of the transaction are subject to negotiation as to who gets what and who pays what, the lender will usually understand that in order to get that price, the seller agreed to pay this cost or that cost. I don't expect this to last forever because I can point to a lot of abuses that are happening, but it happens to be the case right now. I believe that sooner or later, lenders will clamp down on this practice and refuse to allow it, but for right now, most of them are still willing to do so.

Even the most forgiving of lenders, however, draws a bright and hard line if any of that cash finds its way back into the buyer's pocket. So make certain it doesn't. And make certain that the lender has been notified in writing of every penny that's paid on the buyer's behalf by anyone else for closing costs. Because you don't have to be directly involved in a conspiracy to get drawn into a fraud investigation, and once it gets started, you can never be certain you won't be sitting in a courtroom somewhere, charged with fraud and conspiracy and anything else they can think of to throw at you. Even assuming you win, it's going to be a big hit to your wallet and a bigger one to your reputation.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

My shoulder is hurting less than it was, although it's not fully healed yet, as Tuesday proved.

Went to Sea World with my older daughter's first grade class as a parent volunteer. Talk about herding cats! Having done the "class field trip" thing twice now, I can testify that divvying up the class three or four students per volunteer (what the teacher did last time) seems to work a lot better than trying to keep the whole class in one big gaggle. For one thing, I could learn three or four faces and keep track of them, but I found learning all but the couple I already know that quickly to be beyond me, with the upshot being that the parents could count the students, but had no real idea if students from another class had gotten mixed in. Only the teacher knew for sure if the count matched the members of the class.

I'm hoping to start up with more extra articles again soon. I put one up earlier today. I'm working on an Iraq post, off and on. We'll see how it works out. My shoulder is improving, but it still gets to hurting sometimes. I've also been very depressed about Thing. I still miss that little dog something fierce. I'm looking forward to things stabilizing enough that I can buy another puppy (or two - one for me and one for Hilda)

I've been using enough bandwidth that it's worthwhile to upgrade the service plan the site is on. 23 gigs of bandwidth so far this month - all text. One would think that 135,000 visits from almost 40,000 unique visitors so far this month would result in more income from Blogads - or at least more loan and real estate inquiries for me. With two days to go in the month, looks like the site is headed for another traffic record this month, despite the relative lack of new articles. My point is this: the expenses of this site are not huge, but they're not trivial either. If you like having the site here, please send me your friends who are Californians for loans, or better yet, San Diegans for real estate, so that I can justify the time and expense, not just to my wife but in my own mind as well. Or, if you don't want to do that, come here to do your google searches where you're going to click on some paid advertising link anyway (but please, no phantom clicks. People clicking on stuff they're not really interested in doesn't really help, and it's cheating to boot. I appreciate the thought, but let's not cheat the advertisers, even those that may be scum of the earth).

(Or you could just hit my tip jar at top left, although with less than $100 in almost two years, that's not going to pay my mortgage - or even bandwidth bill - any time soon)

My business commercial is here, for those in San Diego or California.

I want to make it crystal clear that the United States needs immigrants. Legal immigrants, with skills and willingness to work that know English (or want to learn!) and become taxpayers and citizens and be an asset to our country. Never mind the influx of ideas they bring (which are also valuable). The expansion of our economy requires more people to work in it, and our current citizens are just barely replacing ourselves. If not for immigration, our economy would be a lot less vibrant than it is.

We do not need potential immigrants who don't want to learn English. They get established in segregated ghettos and create more and more problems as time goes on. Most of western Europe is finding this out the hard way right now.

We do not need potential immigrants who may not be able to pay for their own medical care, or pensions. Our system of social services is already overburdened and is actuarially certain to suffer massive failures in the next decade or so. Every person we add who becomes a net drain on the system makes those failures occur both sooner, and more disastrously.

We definitely do not need potential immigrants who are unrepentant lawbreakers. We might as well tell the people who spend years on applications and waiting lists and patiently crossing t's and dotting i's to come here legally that they are stupid victims of a con game meant to keep them out.

The whole immigration issue makes me feel like a spouse that's been cheated on one time too many. Except that it's more like 101 times too many.

My whole life - and I'm getting close to 50 - we the citizenry of this country have been sold one bill of goods after another on immigration issue. Every time, the powers that be tell us that they'll Really Enforce The Law This Time, and get the borders under control. Tom Lehrer was writing satire on Senator George Murphy back in 1965, when I was four years old, that included this very issue. The issue keeps getting recycled, and every time the people with incentives to keep the borders open tell us that if we'll just give them this one more chance to do what they want, they'll stop for good this time. Kind of like the Palestinians and the Israelis, except that even the Israelis have finally wised up.

The issue has become one huge festering tragedy of the commons, because so many people have a finger in the pie of illegal immigration, they don't realize what it's costing them.

Big business is obviously one. Higher supply of unskilled labor means lower prices for it, not to mention the fact that they can use illegal status as a lever against their employees who are violating the law. It's a reason why they can't complain about any number of employment law violations. From the employer's viewpoint, not only do they get cheap labor, but they don't have any reason for complying with the OSHA, FLRB, etcetera. Who's going to complain? Measures meant to protect the health and safety of the public at large, not just the workers, go unenforced because illegal workers don't want any kind of law enforcement anywhere around. Where legal American workers would complain about substandard construction, unsanitary food processing, etcetera, illegal workers won't.

Minority advocacy groups obviously understand that in a democracy, numbers translate into power. They want as many members of their group as possible, and they want to keep them segregated and out of the American mainstream. Ideal is if they can keep the new arrivals and their children for the next six generations from understanding everyone else, so that they will have no choice but to use the self-appointed advocacy groups as their mouthpiece - because that's the only possible interface between this group and the rest of the population.

Skilled workers see unskilled ones as a personal benefit. Why? Because unskilled workers aren't competing for technologically challenging jobs, while it means that they can get their lawns mowed for $5 on Sunday afternoon while they watch the game.

Politicians, for their part, are simply afraid to offend anyone for fear it may somehow cost them an election some time. This is why immigration advocacy groups tell so many lies about the Minutemen and similar organizations - because it shows the beginnings of political organization which might cause politicians to heed those who want to close the borders.

The upshot is that those with reasons to want the immigration laws to go unenforced have influence out of all proportion to their actual numbers in the electorate. This isn't a racial hate issue, no matter how various organizations try to paint it as one. When you talk to hispanics who are citizens, they want the borders controlled even more than the most rabid white supremacist - who doesn't mind Jaime or Jose mowing his lawn for $5 provided they know their place. The hispanics who are already citizens and members of our society understand how the flood of illegals hampers their nephew who is also a US citizen but couldn't afford college or their cousin still in Mexico who is patiently awaiting their turn legally. The same thing applies to groups from elsewhere, I suspect, except that I don't know as many of them personally. But painting it as a racial hate issue lets advocates shut down the rational debate.

It comes down to this: I don't believe they'll enforce the borders. Like I said, I feel like a spouse that's been cheated on 101 times too many. The immigration issue comes around at pretty regular intervals, and every time, those with an incentive to want illegal immigration tell us they'll Really Enforce The Borders This Time if only we'll give them what they want One Last Time. It happened in the mid 60s, it happened in the early 70s, it happened again in the late 70s, it happened yet again in 1986, it happened one more time in the 1990s, it came up again in the election of 2000, and here we are still dealing with it, again, for the Nth time, and not once since the Eisenhower administration has there actually been anything done on all the promises about controlling the borders - For Real This Time!

Well, since September 11, 2001, we can no longer pretend that people here in the country who should not legally be here cannot hurt us. Our non-existent immigration enforcement, fueled by people whose bread is buttered by lack of enforcement, is the unindicted co-conspirator of terrorism in this country, past, present, and future. The economic damage done by illegal immigration itself may not be so obvious, but it is grievous, endemic, ongoing - and growing - trivially more than the destruction of the World Trade center annually in increased costs to us as a society.

At this point, I'm pretty much with those who, like the Isrealis with the Palestinians, have had enough. I want to see the borders enforced so that people born in this country who couldn't afford college can get jobs that pay a living wage. I want to see the borders enforced so that jobs are available to relatives of people who are already citizens and they can be granted a the Visas they have waited decades for, secure in the knowledge that they'll be able to get a job, not see it go to some illegal working under the table for half the wages. I want the borders enforced so that the workers who are here legally can be secure in reporting their employers for violations of the rules and regulations we have agreed are necessary, not be worried about the cops deporting them while they're investigating. I want the borders enforced so we have some kind of clue who might be in the country with the idea of doing us harm (Can you prove Osama isn't hiding in Detroit? "Homeland Security" can't!). Most of all, I want the borders controlled because I'm an American, and all of this politically correct non-enforcement isn't fair to good people the world over who have learned our language, learned skilled professions, want to become Americans, and have spent decades trying to come here legally.

In short, once we've got the borders under control, I'll be willing to talk about letting even more folks in than we absolutely need right now. But like the Indians of the old frontier, I've been the victim of too many broken promises to control the border later.

No more broken promises. Get Our Borders Under Control NOW!

I have questions to ask you about the loan for house. I have been work with one broker since DELETED and I just tell her on the phone that I chose her and that she can start to do the escrow but I didn't sign any application and papers for her. Two weeks later, the appraisal had been done. Can I stop to work with her because she promised me to look for lower rate later, but she didn't do anything about it. If I stop to work with her, do I have to pay any fees for the appraisal and bank approval for the loan and how much it may costs? (she had only done the bank approval and ordered the appraisal). Thank you very much for helping me.

This is pretty open and shut. Usually it's less clear. You haven't signed anything committing you to the loan. She probably has civil recourse on the appraisal - if she wants to spend thousands in lawyer fees to recover a few hundred. Since that's silly, I don't think it's likely she'll pursue it. Her case hinges on her having ordered it because of your verbal representation you wanted the loan. One more thing in your favor is that the date on the Good Faith Estimate or California MLDS needs to be within three days of the date she ran your credit report, not to mention the Truth In Lending Advisory and everything else. Not likely, if you haven't signed anything.

Most loan providers, ethical or otherwise, won't start work without a loan application package. Ethical ones because they've got legal obligations to meet, less ethical ones because there will be an origination agreement in there obligating you to pay their expenses if you don't go through with it.

If you have signed such an agreement, there's probably something in there obligating the loser to pay the prevailing party's legal fees. Since you're likely to lose if they push their case, this shifts the presumption as to what you want to do, which is pay the appraiser. You can fight it in court if you want to, but you're likely to end up paying for both sides legal expenses in addition to the appraisal bill. Since the chances of you winning in court are pretty minuscule, you would be well advised to just pay the appraiser.

I've said it before, but it's likely that lenders who promise to pay for an appraisal are going to more than recover those costs elsewhere in the loan. Suppose you've got a $300,000 loan. If all you see is the fact that you're not writing a check for $400, that loan provider can, by being willing to loan you the $400, trivially make two extra points on the loan, or $6000. Just because you're not writing that check directly doesn't mean you're not paying every penny of it via higher rates, or higher origination. Furthermore, they're not likely to pay for the appraisal without an origination agreement that obligates you to make good their expenses.

The true low cost mortgage providers won't pay for the appraisal. If you've got a low cost provider, they're either going to have to absorb the costs of the appraisals that don't pan out, or they're going to have to charge their clients whose loans fund for the ones who don't. In either case, this means a higher loan margin. Usually, there's a good margin there on top of the appraisal. I can point to providers who use the fact that they pay for the appraisal as a wedge to extract thousands of dollars in junk fees as well. Most of the people for whom that is a selling point only understand money when they write a check or fork over cash. They don't understand about how money they roll into their loan balance is every bit as real.

If you do decide you don't want a loan, the appraisal is the vast majority of the money you should be out, because that and the credit report (somewhere between $13 and about $30) are the only third party expenses. This doesn't mean that the less ethical won't try and soak you for other fees, because they will, and junk on top of those fees. Depending upon the origination agreement you sign, you could be on the hook for thousands of dollars - more than a low cost provider would make if they actually fund the loan.

I need to say this again, also: Just because you paid for the appraisal, and are therefore entitled to a copy, does not mean you are entitled to take it to another loan provider. The appraisal must be in the name of the correct loan provider, and if the prior loan provider does not release it, the appraiser will not re-type it. The games that are played by loan providers who refuse to release appraisals are legion. Most will want money to release it, money such that you may be better off getting another appraisal. Even the most ethical will not likely release the appraisal just because you find a better deal - or think that you have. They've spent anywhere from hours to days of time - time they have to pay for, even if they can't show a receipt - on your loan. Expecting a loan provider to release the appraisal without money is like expecting your mechanic to release your car without being paid. Therefore, you want to be the one that controls the appraisal, if you possibly can. Some appraisers don't like this, because it's in their interests for you to pay for more appraisals, but the law in most states isn't nearly so hard nosed as most appraisers would like you to believe.

One final thing: As of the date of this writing, rates have risen quite a bit in the last few weeks. I have a purchase client whose transaction hit a snag in a defect that has to be corrected before any loan can be funded, and it's much more cost effective for them to pay for rate lock extensions than it is to float the rate. A tenth of a point per five calendar days is a lot less than the almost half of a percent re-submitting the loan to a new lender would make in the rate. Any reasonable loan that's been locked for a couple weeks is likely to be better than anything available today. I can look for a lower rate all I want. It's not likely to be found, unless their current provider is pretty high margin.

Caveat Emptor

article UPDATED here

The answer is yes.

Consider the situation from the seller's point of view, and the answer becomes obvious. Here is someone who is proposing to not put any of their own money into the deal. What's their motivation to consummate the deal? Not much, when you come right down to it.

Mind you, no listing agent in their right mind is ever going to counsel their clients to accept a "zero deposit" offer. It costs money to give this person the only shot at a property for thirty days (or however long the agreed escrow period). At an absolute minimum, that seller is risking the money to pay their mortgage, taxes, and insurance for thirty days. On a $400,000 property, that's well over $3000. This is money that is gone and they are not going to get back, all based upon the buyer's representation that they want the property. If the buyer isn't putting any cash at risk, there's no disincentive for them in trying to try for a property there's no way they'll qualify for. Meanwhile, the seller is out money on a daily basis from the time they agree to lock the property up in escrow.

Some of you are no doubt asking about pre-qualification or even pre-approval. The problem is that whatever the loan officer said, there's no real way to back it up. It is dancing right on the borderline of illegality to ask that prospective buyers be pre-qualified or pre-approved with a given lender or loan officer - a strong case can be made that just the simple request is a RESPA violation. I have said repeatedly that the only pre-qualification or pre-approval that I trust is one that I did - but I can't require prospective buyers to do that, and any decent agent is going to learn to ignore the request.

The only thing that means anything to that seller in the way of a guarantee for buyer performance is cash - a cash deposit from the buyer that is at risk if they can not or do not consummate the deal in a timely fashion. This is even more the case than usual if the buyer isn't putting any of their own hard earned money into the deal itself. If a buyer is willing to put 5%, 10% or more into the deal, they ought to understand the effort that that money represents, whether it's through saving it or just through having it not earn 10 percent per year of thereabouts in the stock market. If you're putting up cash you've spent years saving, you understand what that money represents. If you haven't made the sacrifices to save such a down payment and you want to just waltz into a property without putting down a deposit, well, odds are that you've got a rude awakening coming. Because I'm estimating at least thirty percent of all purchase escrows end up falling apart. So if I'm acting on behalf of a seller, one of the first questions I'm going to ask is "What evidence is there that this person can consummate the sale in a timely fashion, and what are they putting up that they're willing to lose if they change their mind or can't qualify?"

Pretty much every agent who's ever had a listing has had offers come in that were rejected on the basis of "not enough deposit," or that were acceptable in every particular but that. The intelligent thing is counter for a higher deposit or fewer contingencies on it.

Some folks are going to ask about substituting a higher purchase price. The issue that you're going to run straight into is the appraisal. In most cases, offers that include 100% financing are a little inflated anyway. When you add still more money to that, a sufficiently high appraisal becomes difficult. Even if the appraisal comes in high enough, though, we come full circle to the obvious question, "What good is that higher purchase price if you never get it?" If the buyer can't qualify or changes their mind, you don't get that price, and since there is not much penalty for such an outcome, there is no reason for them not to tie the property up in escrow, where nobody else can buy it, either.

Caveat Emptor (and Vendor)

Article UPDATED here

I got a search for how one spouse could sign while the other was out of town, and act on their behalf. Since both spouses usually need to sign real estate papers, this is a real concern.

Actually, almost anybody you designate can sign for your real estate transaction, whether or you're available. The usual thing is you're out of town for some reason when closing happens, and so your spouse signs for both of you, themselves in their own right, and you by Power of Attorney, but it covers all kinds of situations, and not just real estate.

The document required for this is called a Power of Attorney. You must sign it and have it notarized that it was really you that did so. In it, you designate one particular person who has the right to undertake an action or group of actions, and they then act on your behalf, as your "attorney" for this matter.

Powers of Attorney can be made for all sorts of things, not just real estate transactions. For instance, pretty much everyone should have a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. Powers of Attorney can be very broad and ongoing or limited to one specific action in a limited range of time. You set this up at the point in time when you execute it. Whatever terms you set up when you signed it are binding, both upon you and the person you designate. Most stationery and office supply stores have ready made ones where you just fill in a few blanks and you're ready to have it notarized. I've seen ones with check marks, but those are dangerous in my opinion, as when a precise check mark was placed on there is a matter for considerable legal dispute.

It is a misconception to believe that this person must always be an actual licensed attorney. In general, they need not be an actual attorney, only a competent adult. I'm sure there are circumstances when being an attorney is necessary, but it is not necessary most of the time. There may be circumstances where you may want a licensed attorney even where it is not legally necessary, but there's a major difference between being legal and being smart.

I've seen not only spouses used, but other relatives, close friends, and professionals such as accountants and attorneys. Note that the person you designate does not have to accept, and does not have to act even if they accept. The idea is to get their consent first, and make certain they know your mind in the matters you designate them for.

Extremely important: You really need to trust the person you designate to act in your best interest. If they sign something that you would not have, you are still stuck, as long as it is within the mandate of that power of attorney. Whatever contract they signed on your behalf, you have to live up to the terms. Your designate doing something you would not have is a side issue between you and the person you designated. That person with your power of attorney designate's signature on a contract can force you to live up to that contract, which is how it should be. Otherwise, nobody would accept powers of attorney, and they would be regarded as one more way to run a scam. They're not supposed to be a scam at all, it's intended to be a way for one person to do another person's business legitimately.

Caveat Emptor

On a fairly regular basis I get email asking what I think of this or that loan calculator on the web, this or that predictive model for real estate prices or loan rates, etcetera.

Loan calculators are pretty simple when you get right down to it. Numbers go in, other numbers come out. It's just math - except that you've got to be careful about the numbers going in. Just because your balance is $400,000 now does not mean it'll be $400,000 after the refinance. It's very possible to do a zero cost refinance that adds nothing to your loan, but most people don't do it. Furthermore, I know I've said this before, but the only calculator out there that I trust is one that I know the provenance of. I've caught more than one company that had programmed its calculator to low-ball the payment. There's no way to tell for certain except using your own calculator, and if you have your own financial calculator, why are you using the web? You can cross check, however, because it's rare that two calculators will be programmed to yield the same wrong answer. Also remember to add in closing costs and prepaid interest and escrow accounts, if you're going to have one, and always figure the cost of any points after everything else is added in there, because that's what the bank is going to do. Finally, don't take it for more than it's worth. Just because they tell you, "nothing out of your pocket," does not mean there are no closing costs. They exist. Somebody is paying them, somehow. Unless you know for a fact otherwise because you've discussed it and know where the money is coming from, I'm guessing that "somebody" is you, and they're getting rolled into the balance of the new loan. I've had people bring me paperwork from other companies showing new loan balances thirty thousand dollars higher than they were expecting, with correspondingly higher payments. (I've also told people to never shop for a loan based upon payment a few times, also)

For spreadsheets, what you can get is usually an analysis of one variable per spreadsheet. I've programmed a loan comparison spreadsheet, but it only compares two alternatives at a time and it's not really suitable for use with the public, because you have to understand the limitations and GIGO factor. Just like I've got spreadsheets that answer the "rent or buy" question, among others, but you have to understand the limitations on the results imposed by your model.

As a computer programmer, I make a pretty decent loan officer. In order to compare financial information via spreadsheets, you have to understand what points of comparison the calculations are meant to compare. If your data is out of whack, if your assumptions are away from reality, or if you're trying to apply the comparison outside its design limits, what you get is useless.

I have several spreadsheets I have programmed and use. All of them have limits that need to be understood in order to get useful information out of them.

The first is a rent versus buy spreadsheet, that I first talked about in Should I Buy A Home? Part 3: Consequences. In that article, I spent a good paragraph telling you what my assumptions were in cranking the numbers. I think they are good and reasonable assumptions for the markets I have seen in my area in my lifetime, but many people might not. I just had someone make a comment to the effect that "rent doesn't increase with inflation." Well, it hasn't been keeping pace with the cost of buying of late, but that's not the same thing as not increasing roughly with inflation. Furthermore, we've gone through a period these last few years when landlords were keeping rental rates low in the attempt to have someone else pay most of the mortgage of their investment property. Judging by the "loaf of bread" or hourly wage comparisons, or anything else except the price to buy, local rents have increased by a factor very close to general inflation over my adult lifetime. Whatever you think of my numbers, though, the fact remains that they are assumptions, and if they do not correspond to future numbers, the conclusions they reach have no bearing on the real world.

The second limitation upon this sheet is that it's assuming smooth increases. This is not what happens, as anyone over the age of ten ought to know. Over longer periods of time, the data may tend towards an aggregate average, but that says nothing about any given year. In reality, some years are plus thirty percent while other years are minus twenty. Even if my assumptions for averages are good, the spreadsheet that predicts the next thirty years is useful mainly to predict overall level of the market many years out. The numbers for any particular year are so much garbage, as far as the real world goes, where a 5% differential between estimate and actual is often enough to render something worse than useless. Even if my assumptions for average return are right on the money (and if I didn't think they were pretty close, I'd use others), any particular year could be at the top of a peak or the bottom of a market trough. If you know what state the market will be in in a particular year three decades out, why the heck aren't you richer than the ten richest billionaires in the world combined? Knowing what the market was going to do these past few years is a lot easier than knowing what it'll be like thirty years from now! I have what I think are good predictions based upon good models, but I don't have any god-level knowledge of where any part of the economy will be thirty years from now, and neither does anyone else. We see the future dimly, reflected through the present and the past.

Speaking of which, let's drag one of the standard disclaimers out and air the dirty laundry. "Past performance is not indicative of future results." Averages of past results may be the only way we have of predicting the future, but those results depend upon unknowable factors. Somebody could invent something tomorrow that utterly changes the face of housing thirty years out. You think the urban planners of the 1920s foresaw urban sprawl? I know for a fact that they didn't. What no model of the future can predict is unforeseen factors. I can't tell you what they will be or what effects they will have, but I can promise you there will be some. In 1894, Michaelson (who first measured the speed of light) said, "Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth decimal place." This just a few years after the formulation of Maxwell's equations, and within a year Rutherford had changed the atomic model forever, while the basis of quantum mechanics was being laid, and less than ten years later were Einstein and relativity. Michaelson was right in a technical sense that precise measurements were the key to unlocking future discoveries, but wrong in the sense he meant it, that all the major discoveries had already been made. My predictive model is more detailed than most, and I do my best to include all of the factors I see, but I have no way of including factors that I can't see, and one thing I can promise you is that there are some. It may work out that I guess right anyway, but that doesn't mean there weren't any unforeseen factors, just that I got lucky despite them. The further out the model goes, the more it is dependent upon subsequent events no one can predict. Someone could announce man-portable fusion power tomorrow, or "Star Trek" transporters, or any of dozens of new potential technologies that could alter the world, and that's just the technological possibilities. Politics and demographics will utterly change in the next thirty years (In 1977, more people were predicting the world conquest of communism than the collapse of the communist system. Mr. Carter's presidency was not the United States' shining hour).

Just because we know that the precise numbers are wrong, however, doesn't mean that those numbers have no value in predicting the future. The way the numbers will move relative to each other is much more important information. Population is increasing and will continue to increase. Demand in major urban areas and desirable areas will continue to rise faster than supply, and since such areas are where most of us live or want to live, the price of real estate will quite likely continue to increase faster than inflation. Particularly types of housing which are universally desired, such as detached single family residences sitting on a certain amount of land owned basically fee simple. PUDs and townhomes are less desirable for most folks, true condominiums less desirable yet, and below that are apartments. Offer most people the chance to move up on the ladder of desirability, and they'll take it. Since the only thing preventing most people from doing so is price, price is what's going to make it ever harder to make that transition to more desirable housing. Living space in a desirable location is a scarce good. Living space, desirable location or not, is a limited good. The only way to change this is to somehow manufacture more space or arrange to have fewer people to share it. I'm not aware of any plans to manufacture enough space to make a difference to the billions of people on earth, so I'm guessing that barring worldwide nuclear or biological warfare, population density is going to increase, demand for housing is going to increase, and supply is going to stay pretty much right where it is. Nonetheless, this is only a guess. My guess is that housing will be about four to five times as expensive as it is today thirty years out, If it's only twice, we'll all still live in million dollar houses. If it's eight times, we'll be in four million dollar houses. The wider the net, the more probability I have of being right - and the less useful the information is. Unless the price right now is something like two cents, nobody sane is going to invest money for that long without a better idea of what the payoff will be.

Whether I'm right or not is something nobody knows right now, or even how close. Actually, not being quite that much of an egotist, the question in my mind is more akin to "how far off will I be?" But the data is still useful, because it tells me that as long as my assumptions are anything like real, we're all looking at living in million dollar real estate - the only question is exactly when. It tells me what people will be need to be able to pay every month, at least in a general sense, and it tells me that more and more people are going to get priced out of real estate, or down into less desirable housing, and that real estate is therefore going to be a quite satisfactory vehicle for creating personal wealth.

On the other hand, no system of projecting the future is better than the limitations imposed upon it by limited foresight. If the population of the United States drops to 1789 levels all of a sudden - or 1607 levels - all bets are off. Of course if that happens, most of us won't be here to worry about it, and the ones that are will have bigger problems than the price of real estate. It's pointless to waste time worrying about the price of real estate in such possible circumstances, where the price of real estate will be the least of our worries.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

The local dog target gave discounters several hundred thousand dollars of free puffery recently.

I'm not against discounters. I'm perfectly willing to do a discounters work for a discounter's price. Fifty percent for the pay for less than ten percent of the work and almost none of the liability is a real win as far as I'm concerned. The difference is that I'm not willing to pretend that you're getting the same value from me. In fact, the amount of value the buyer receives from their alleged "agent" is pretty much negligible.

Let's illustrate with a real example from last week. Some full service clients of mine had gotten interested in a property. They wanted a fixer property with potential and a view, and they asked me to check this one out. Yes, it had a view, but the view was of a high school stadium, making peaceful enjoyment of the property rather hit and miss, subject to the local sports schedule. It had some potential, true, but every surface in every room needed to be redone. It is going to take $100,000 to get that potential, and the property would only be worth maybe $40,000 more than the owners are asking. Leave out those pesky numbers and a less capable agent can make it seem like a great bargain. If all you're thinking of is that $5000 rebate check, which can be fraud for reasons similar to these, you may think you got a deal.

If they had been clients of a discounter, they would have been in escrow on the first property right now. Too bad about that $100,000 they'd have to spend to get $40,000 benefit. On the other hand, I found the same people a property not far away that needed about $40,000 worth of work to be worth $120,000 more than the asking price. What does a discounter do? Write the offer on the first property. Now you've got a property you need to put $100,000 into to make it usable, that's worth only $40,000 more than you paid. Money the discounter would have rebated: roughly $5000. If they didn't have a full service agent to compare with, it even looks like a great deal, because none of the value I provided these folks shows up on the HUD 1 form, or anywhere else as numbers on paper. The value is still there, as my clients know.

If you know enough about the state of the market, what problems look like and what opportunities look like, you may spend less with a discounter, or get a rebate, that doesn't cost you several times that difference. If you know everything a good agent does, there is no reason not to put that money in your pocket. But if you know everything a good agent does, why is the discounter making anything? Why aren't you doing your own transaction? Why aren't you in the business yourself and getting paid for your expertise?

A full service agent goes a long way past filling in the blanks on Winforms and faxing the offer. When I go out looking at 20 to 30 properties per week, I'm not just finding individual bargains. I'm also learning about the general state of the market, what things to look for in a given neighborhood, what common problems are with a given model of house. I know what's sold in the neighborhood recently, and I know what it looks like because I've been inside it, and I know how it compares to other stuff that's out there now. I have a pretty fair idea of what it's going to take to beautify properties, and I know what they'll be worth when the work is done, because I know what other stuff that already looks like that has sold for recently.

Real estate is a career. It may not absolutely require a college education, but many agents have one, and know many things you can't learn in college - because the professors don't know, either, unless they're active real estate agents. A good agent spends a lot of time and effort not only learning their local market, but keeping their knowledge base updated. This thing changes constantly, and it doesn't even change uniformly. How did La Jolla get to be La Jolla? I assure you it wasn't some random seagull anointing the neighborhood as having higher property values. Rancho Santa Fe doesn't even come close to the ocean, and it's the highest mean property value zip code in the nation. How did your neighborhood get to where it is? Is it likely to change, and how? What are the known and probable upcoming changes in the neighborhood? How is it likely to effect your prospective property? Wouldn't you like to know about that redevelopment zone - or the railroad tracks they intend to drive through the area?

Full service can be a very hard sale when all that you consider is the numbers on the HUD 1. There just isn't any space for "Agent kept you from making a $60,000 mistake," let alone, "Agent showed you an $80,000 opportunity." But people who know property know that there is a lot more to every transaction than the numbers on the HUD 1. If you're dubious, may I suggest this experiment when you're ready to buy: Find a couple full service agents willing to work with a non-exclusive buyer's agency agreements, and sign them. Then compare what happens as compared to the service of the discounter you use for properties you find yourself. There is no need to sign even a non-exclusive agreement with a discounter, by the way, as the sales contract will note the agency relationship for that transaction. Like I said in How to Effectively Shop for a Buyer's Agent, let the ineffective alternative select itself out.

I'm perfectly willing - happy, even - to do discount work for "discounter" pay. I only make half the money, but I can service a lot more than twice the clients for a much smaller level of risk and still be home in time for dinner. I'm even a better negotiator than dedicated discounters, because unlike them, I know what's really going on in the areas I serve. However, saying "full service at a discount price," does not make it so, and I refuse to pretend that it is. Furthermore, the people who approach me for discount work usually end up understanding that a real professional is worth a lot more than the extra money I make, and are happy to pay it. Most people have no problems understanding that the reason a good car commands a higher price than a bad car, let alone a skateboard, is because a good car provides more value. People will pay $100 per seat for decent - not great - musicians in concert when you couldn't pay them enough to attend a garage band practice session. Why should this principle holds any less true for expert help in what is likely to be the biggest transaction of your life?

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

I read a lot of the info. you have on your web page ... thank you.

I don't live in San Diego so I'm not looking for a home.
What I am trying to decide is whether to sell or refinance.

I live in DELETED. My mortgage payments are now approx. $2,400. I cannot afford to refinance into a fixed rate mortgage or interest only. I wanted to reduce my payments and I was recently offered a neg-amortized loan.

While I do have plenty of equity in the home, I balk at the thought of using my home as a piggy-bank. It's just not my style. I feel like I made a terrible mistake. I had a very modest home ... fairly low payments & property taxes ... but I wanted more, so I sold it.

I bought a good-sized lot with the proverbial "fixer-upper." Mistake #1 I should have thought of it as the "MONEY PIT."

Anyway, five years later and I've just survived a remodel but I'm still struggling.

Do you have any sound advice/suggestions?

First off, despite your market being somewhere I am licensed, each area's market is significantly different. Unlike the loan market, each commuting area has enough of its own concerns that nobody can keep track of more than one - not really. If someone called me out of the blue and asked me to list a property even a few miles outside my normal area of San Diego County, I would not have a good idea what it should list for. I can do a comparative market analysis, but that's just cranking numbers, and there's a lot more to market knowledge than cranking numbers. I can point to a dozen properties I've looked at in the last week where the listing agent priced it wrong. Sometimes they're under, sometimes they're over. Whichever it is, it's not good for the owner. Some agents will tell you there's no harm in being high, which is a premeditated lie. Properties that sit on the market because they are priced too high will sell for less money than the owners could have gotten, and that's if they sell.

Some properties are money pits, while others are vampires, charming on the surface, while they embed their fangs permanently in your wallet. The best opportunities, however, are all fixers. The reasons a good buyer's agent is worth more than they will ever make are legion, no matter how much our local dog-target keeps pushing discounters. I just got a call from one pushing a property I previewed last week. Yes, it had a view, but the view was of a high school stadium, and every surface in every room needed to be redone. It's got potential, but it's going to take $100,000 to get that potential, and the property would only be worth maybe $40,000 more than they're asking. Leave out those pesky numbers and a less capable agent can make it seem like a great bargain. On the other hand, I found the same people a property not far away that needed about $40,000 worth of work to be worth $120,000 more than the asking price. Money the discounter would have rebated: roughly $5000. Difference in outcome: $80,000 in prospective equity and $60,000 of wasted work. Prospective differences in listing agents are every bit as large.

Now, let's consider the kinds of issues that might give you a better idea about what to do about your situation.

You say you've been through a remodel and have significant equity. That's good news in that you are not "upside down", but should be able to sell the home for more than you owe on it. That's better than a lot of folks right now.

However, the unavoidable fact is that it costs money to sell. A good listing agent is going to cost money - and a bad listing agent will cost you more, and this cost is no less real for the fact that most of it won't be on the HUD-1. A good listing agent is going to tell you to offer a good buyer's agent percentage, also. Furthermore, you're going to buy a home warranty, and a policy of title insurance. I warn my fixer clients that it's going to cost about eight percent of value to get the fixed up property sold at a good price - so they might as well include that estimate in the calculations of whether the property is worth buying in the first place. I'd rather work a little harder, and have a client that keeps coming back to me because they keep making a profit worth making. So figure eight percent of value in addition to the fact that this market is very soft for sellers, although I'm seeing indications my local market may be firming up. Your market may be softer or not so soft. The softer it is, the less you're going to need to be prepared to accept if you sell. Around here, if you've got a property that appraises for $500,000, you may only get $480,000 or less on the purchase contract - and you may have to give allowances on top of that. $480,000 less eight percent is $441,600, and if you have to give a $15,000 allowance for closing costs, that's $426,600. So you can have a good amount of equity on the face of things, and be upside-down in fact when it comes to the actual sale. Even if you have $100,000 in equity, it just turned into $25,000 to get you out from under a loan you can't afford. That's my local market. Yours may be different, of course.

On the other hand, given the fact that you cannot afford your payment, your alternatives do not include doing nothing. If you try to do nothing, you will have your credit ruined and lose the property as well as quite likely get a 1099 love note from the lender that says you owe taxes and possibly (depending upon whether or not your loan has recourse) a deficiency judgment. So doing nothing is not an option.

The other alternative is a negative amortization loan. I don't know what numbers you would get, so I'm going to assume something fairly middle of the road. A 1% payment on $400,000 would be $1287, saving you $1100 per month in cash flow. On the other hand, if your real rate is 7.75 (reasonably median), at the end of two years you owe $433,500, and that's no including the prepayment penalty. After three years, when most negative amortization penalties expire, you owe $452,000, assuming rates stay exactly where they are, which I do not expect them to. Even if you got the loan for zero cost, you spent $1450 per month of your equity. In order for you to come out even, you'd have to net almost $479,000. That means a little over $520,000 sales price in three years if you don't have to fork over that $15,000 allowance, or $537,000 if you do.

It's true that you don't have to make only the minimum payment every month. Nor do you want to. However, let's be honest with ourselves. For most people, most of the time, they will. Even if they had it to spend on the mortgage, the kids need shoes, they "need" a new car, or they "need" a vacation. My understanding is that less than 5 percent of the people who have negative amortization loans make bigger payments than minimum more than five percent of the time. So whereas you won't necessarily owe this much in three years, it seems a pretty good bet to me.

Now here's where people helping people in situations like yours get grey hairs. We're guessing at where the market is going to be in three years. Not only about what we think the general market will be like, but what we think this property will be worth. Some things are consistent. For instance, un

Carnival of Personal Finance

Carnival of Debt Reduction

Sorry, just carnivals once again. This week is looking really hectic, so I may only have one or two completely new articles.

Just carnivals once again.

RINO Sightings

Consumer Focused Real Estate

My shoulder is better than it was, but it still starts hurting for no apparent reason from time to time. It would sure be nice to heal like a 20 year old again!

I got a question about what the number one obstacle is to most people qualifying for the loan on the property they want.

The answer is "existing debt." Credit cards, student loans, car payments, etcetera. It seems like more people than not have a reasonable idea of the property people making what they are making might be able to afford. Whereas I do get people who want a four bedroom house despite only making enough to be able to afford a two bedroom condo, it seems that more folks than you'd think really do have an idea what people making what they do should be able to afford. They can be lured down the primrose path of negative amortization, but even most folks who fall for it, know on some level that it's not real. They may not realize exactly how nasty it is, but they know it's not the whole truth.

The real hurdle faced by most buyers is that they owe too much money to too many other people for too many other reasons. Every dollar you have in monthly obligations is another dollar you can't afford on your house payment.

Let's say that Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer make $120,000 per year between them - $60,000 each. They are making $10,000 per month. By the calculations for A paper fixed rate loans, they can afford total monthly payments of $4500 per month. This is a forty five percent debt to income ratio. If housing is their only debt, they easily qualify for a $500,000 property with zero down payment. As of the time I'm writing this, $2367 first at 5.875% with one point, thirty year fixed rate first mortgage, $752 second at 8.25% 30 year due in 15, $521 per month prorated property taxes, and $120 per month for a good policy for home owner's insurance. Total: $3760. They're $740 under their limit. They would actually qualify for a significantly larger loan if they had no other debt.

However, Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer still have student loans, because everyone knows you don't pay your student loans off. Right? But because Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer owe $50,000 between them, and they're paying $180 each, for a total of $360 per month, that's $360 in housing costs they can't afford.

Now Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer both have $30,000 automobiles they're making payments on. On five year loans, Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer are paying $600 each. He has four years to go, she has two. That's still $1200 more in housing costs they can't afford.

Ms. Homebuyer charged their vacation trip to the Bahamas that cost $10,000 to their credit card, and Mr. Homebuyer put the furniture he bought Ms. Homebuyer on an installment plan. The credit card is $500 per month, the furniture is $400. Net result: $900 more that they can't afford for housing payments, because they have to pay it out for existing consumer debt.

By the time Mr. and Ms. Homebuyer have paid all of the monthly payments they already owe, the lender calculates that they can only afford $2040 per month in housing payments. Now, instead of easily affording a $500,000 house, they don't even qualify for a $300,000 condo. $240,000 first at 5.875 is $1420, $466 for the second at 8.625% (below a price break), $313 property taxes and $240 in association dues. Total: $2439! They're $400 per month short!

For people who have a down payment, often the only way they are going to qualify is by spending it on their pre-existing debt. If they don't have a down payment to pay existing debts off, they are not going to qualify "full documentation," which is a fancy way of saying that the income they can prove isn't enough to qualify them for that loan. Furthermore, the manner in which you pay that debt off can be restricted. Sub-prime lenders don't really care as long you can show where you got the money and the debt gets verifiably paid off. "A paper," however, has to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines, which are less forgiving. A paper guidelines are that you cannot pay off revolving debt to qualify, and even installment debt is at the discretion of the underwriter. In short, once your credit has been run, what you can pay off to qualify "A paper" is limited. A lot of folks end up stuck with sub-prime loans because of this. Higher rates, shorter term fixed period, pre-payment penalty. Some folks just flat out will not qualify unless they go "stated income," and state more income than they make.

Indeed, this is probably the most common reason why people do stated income loans. However, stated income loans mean that your rate is higher, and you might not be able to use all of the money you were intending to as a down payment, because you've got to have reserves for a stated income loan. Finally, and most importantly, stated income loans are dangerous. The debt to income ratio is not just there for the lender's protection - it is also there for your protection. Stating more income so that you can get around the limits on the debt to income ratio is intentionally disabling an important safety measure, meant to keep borrowers from getting in over their heads with loans and payments they cannot really afford. You make $X, which equates to being able to afford total monthly payments of forty five percent of $X. You state that you make an additional $Y per month so that you qualify for higher payments, and you are intentionally defeating that safety precaution. You are going to have to make those payments. The people who loaned you the money want their payments every month! Where is the money going to come from? I would be very certain I could really afford the payments before I agreed to a stated income loan!

So you should be able to see some of the issues that existing debt can cause. Existing debt quite often means that you do not qualify for a property you would easily be able to afford - if only you didn't have those pesky consumer loan payments every month. It can force you to undertake a less desirable loan type, it can force you to accept a pre-payment penalty, and it can prevent you from being able to qualify for the property you want. Alternatively, it can force you to choose between not buying at all, and intentionally defeating one of the most important safeguards consumers have, the debt to income ratio.

Caveat Emptor

The first thing you need to understand in reading any property advertisements is that agents write them to get people to call. They are trolling for clients. Except in the case of someone who doesn't accept dual agency advertising a listing they actually have, they are written purely with the idea of dangling something out there that clients want. Since most agents like dual agency just fine because it means they get paid twice for the same transaction, understand that only a tiny percentage of the ads that are written out there are written for any purpose other that to get potential clients to call.

Keeping this fact firmly in mind, there are two sorts of places where people go to search for property: Some that are based on MLS, and others that are not.

If it's in MLS or coming from MLS, it better be good information. I can (and do) file violations on liars in MLS. So do others - every time somebody wastes our time by saying the property has something that it doesn't. Filing violations in MLS is simple, it's effective, and after a certain low number of violations, the offender's input access gets restricted. They can't put properties in MLS and they might as well be out of business. Note that they can still "puff" a property significantly; but number of bedrooms, square footage, anything with a number or a yes/no associated with it had better be right. The big violation I'm finding most of recently is advertising it in MLS as "fee simple" when it should be either "PUD" or "Condominium". If it's got homeowner's association dues, it's not fee simple.

Everywhere else, everything that is not based on MLS, take all advertisements with a respectful amount of caution - Like at least equal in weight to the building. Once you get outside the domain of MLS, there are few sanctions possible for even the most outrageous puffery - or even advertising a property you do not, in fact, have. Or anything remotely similar. Some agents won't put anything out there that isn't as close to gospel truth as they can make it, but others are not nearly so fussy, and you really want to avoid the latter sort.

Non-MLS based property advertisements may now be pending, it may be sold, or it may in fact never have existed. The agent put that ad in trolling for buyers. What they want is your signature on an exclusive buyer broker agreement, so they can lock your business up. We know you shouldn't sign exclusive buyer's agency agreements, because that's a poor way to get a good buyer's agent, but most people don't know that and most agents are laying in wait for the ignorant.

Quite often, I have clients who should know better, as I've explained this to them - often more than once - ask me about this fantastic possibility they see somewhere else. About as surprising as gravity, they turn out to be in some way non-factual. 2 bedrooms when it's really one. 1 bedroom when it's really a studio or loft. And sometimes, they actually had it, at that price, six years ago. And then I call the agent listed on the ad, look it up on MLS, and voila! the deception becomes apparent.

There's nothing wrong with responding to such ads, and there's nothing wrong with working with the agents who advertise them, so long as you limit yourself to a nonexclusive agreement, so you can get rid of them when it become apparent they're not guarding your interests. But even with a non-exclusive agency agreement, I'd be asking myself "If they lied to get get me to call, what else are they going to lie to me about?"

I just had a client send me three prospects from one of the non-MLS based search services. All three of them were non-existent, posted by a lead generating service as bait so they could sell everyone who respondended as a lead to agents. They didn't have it, they never did have it, it wasn't even for sale, and hadn't been for over 10 years. But that's how they get leads, which they then sell to several agents.

Here's another sneaky trick: Services advertising themselves as foreclosure specialists go around to all the properties that have a trustee's sale happen. They illegally put a sign in the yard, relying upon the fact that the property is vacant, directing passersby to a phone number. On the phone number, they put the puff description from whatever the last time was that it was in MLS, whatever they can see, or something they can pull from assessor records. They say they have an exclusive listing. What they really have is nothing. I've tried contacting lenders before their new lender owned property gets listed. Even if I have a buyer willing to make an offer, they usually don't want to hear about it. What the places who claim they've got "foreclosures before they're listed" are doing is trying to get suckers to call - in other words, trolling for clients. They simply know that the lenders are eventually going to put 99.999999 percent of these on the market within a few weeks, and they can fend you off until then. They aren't offering anything real. They don't have anything real. They are doing nothing beyond trolling for clients who will generate easy commission checks. They don't have to even sell you that one. If they had anything real, when I call for a client they should be falling all over me, like the agents that really do have foreclosures. Those agents who really do have lender owned listings are falling all over themselves to get back with me. The troll services take my information and say, "We'll have to call you back," and they just don't. I call again, they do the same thing. I ask who's the listing agent responsible for a property and what number to call to contact them, they don't have an answer. Then it comes up on the MLS, and the agency that's been advertising it is nowhere in sight. This is different from people who are buyer's agents who have legitimately gone out and found bargains - because they'll tell you they want to act as buyer's agents. In the first case, they are claiming to have a listing that they do not, in fact, have. In the second case, they are claiming to have found a bargain, and are telling you quite straightforwardly that they are looking to represent buyers. that's what I do. But when you're acting as the agent for the seller, you're not supposed to say anything that violates a fiduciary relationship - in other words, a listing agent is supposed to pretend this property is the greatest bargain since the Dutch bought Manhattan. It's in the job description, not to mention the contract.

So be aware before you respond to property advertisements that quite often, advertisements don't exist. To avoid leads services, look for specific names of the agent in the advertisement. To avoid problem agents who require an exclusive agency agreement before showing, simply refuse to sign exclusive agreements. Dual Agency is a very bad idea for buyers. If they have the listing, they're going to get paid when the property sells regardless of whether you signed that agreement. If they don't have the listing, they still risk nothing with a non-exclusive buyer's agency agreement.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

I just saw a rather clever video someone did called, "That Last Dip's a Doozy!" Someone took housing prices 1890 to present and graphed them to a roller coaster ride. Just before the end, he turned the track around so that you could see where you had been and saw how high up you were. The thing was a work of genius; and yet it is still both misleading and wrong, in that a sense of "what goes up, must come down" permeates and becomes the basis for thinking.

In the real world, this is correct. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. Everything that does go up has to come back down to some sort of supported, stable resting position before it breaks down, runs out of gas, etcetera. Furthermore, roller coasters have to go all the way back to their exact starting point, or used coaster cars are going to start piling up somewhere!

The problem with this thinking is that the graph of housing prices takes place in a mathematical construct world, not on Planet Earth. It's a Cartesian Plane, not a jet plane. Indeed, if you'll remember all the way back to beginning algebra, we can choose any origin and any orientation we like, and the representations are still equally valid. There is absolutely no mathematical reason we can't choose today's prices as our origin. Are there then some sort of magical restorative forces then created that bring us back to our new origin of today's relatively high prices? Not likely! Or we could choose 1000% of today's median price as our origin. Would that cause prices to be inexorably drawn upwards by a factor of ten? Absolutely not. The concept of the origin is a useful one, but don't take it for more than it is. The prices of 1890 were the prices of 1890 because that's where supply and demand were in equilibrium under conditions pertaining at that time. The equilibrium that prices would attain today has precisely nothing to do with those conditions. Do you think we're going back to the days of the federal government selling land at $1.25 per acre under the Homestead Act of 1862? I don't, not even adjusted for inflation or cost of living. Those market conditions no longer apply, therefore there is no rational reason to expect housing prices to return to that state.

Nor are housing prices determined nationwide. We do not have one nationwide housing market. We have a mathematical amalgamation of hundreds of local housing markets. The amalgamation has its virtues and gives us some information, but don't exaggerate their usefulness. Just because some clever person draws us a mathematical picture of a roller coaster that's going to have to fall further than any material known to man can rescue it from and retain structural integrity, does not mean it has any relationship to the amalgamated real estate market in the United States of America, Planet Earth, or any of its component local markets.

This is not to say that housing prices cannot slip further or go down. In fact, we very well may see more of a decline than even areas like my own locality have already seen. But the forces which decide that are purely economic ones (mostly bad loans, at this point). The only role gravity plays in housing prices is in physical structure requirements, a comparatively minor component. There is no requirement to return to the mathematical origin, nor are there restorative forces pushing us in that direction.

The big factors are, as always, supply and demand. When somebody tries to tell you something questionable that has to do with economics, go back to the basics of supply and demand and it is unlikely that you will go wrong.

Supply and Demand. We've done just about everything conceivable to stimulate the demand for housing, and just about everything conceivable to constrict the supply of housing, and people wonder why houses are so expensive?

I'm trying not to be one of their folks with their heads You-Know-Where considering the consequences of people being unable to afford housing, or just barely being able to afford it. I originally wrote The Economics of Housing Development back in 2005, and I've updated it since. But blithely assuming that this whole high housing prices thing is just some kind of bad dream and that it'll all go back to normal soon, is not likely to be correct and is not likely to be of benefit to those folks who are getting priced out of housing. Indeed, basically everyone is likely to get priced out of housing at some point if we keep our collective heads You-Know-Where long enough.

Supply and demand. Let's go over the major factors that make up supply and demand, and see the effects they are likely to have.

Consider demand first. What are the major components of demand? Population, how desirable an area is, and how wealthy the population is. Our population is growing. We just hit 200 million in 1967, and less than 40 years later, we've got another 100 million net. That's a fifty percent gain in a generation. This is a good thing for the most part, but every time we gain a person without a corresponding dwelling being built, we price someone out of the housing market by driving the price beyond what they are willing and able to pay, and the population is growing considerably wealthier in the aggregate. The average house of the 1930s was about 700 square feet. The average house being built today is over 2000. The family of the 1930s might or might not have one automobile, while the average number per family now is over two - and for smaller size average families. Clothes, dishes, appliances, vacation time, average distance from home on vacation, every standard of living has increased, faster in the last twenty-odd years than previously. A time traveler from the 1920s would have recognized more of the lifestyle in the late 1970s than a time traveler from the seventies would recognize now. We can all afford to pay more for a place to live, and most of us are doing so, particularly in the more desirable areas. In fact, those areas seen as desirable or scarce have led the charge up in values. Manhattan Island most of all, but southern California, Florida, southern Arizona, the San Francisco Bay area, the Sun Belt and the coastal areas in general, and of course anywhere especially handy to some popular form of recreation. The population crowds into these places especially and demands housing, as a result of which, the average price of housing in those areas rises faster, while it has more effect on the average citizen simply because an ever larger proportion of the citizenry lives in these places. If going surfing 365 days of the year is the most important thing to someone, they'll do what it takes to live where they can go surfing 365 days a year. If you haven't noticed, a very large proportion of the population seems to want to live within an easy commute of the ocean, and seems to be willing to pay whatever it takes, both in terms of smaller less desirable housing and in terms of spending more to get it. The effect causes prices to increase far more than linearly.

Now let's talk about constrictions on supply.

Sheer room. If every available square foot has already been built on, there isn't any more housing coming without demolishing some other existing building first. There aren't many areas yet where this is a real issue. We've still got lots of open space in this country, but let's consider Manhattan Island, which is completely built over. Every buildable square foot of Manhattan is covered, almost all of it more than one story deep. Prices of Manhattan real estate have been legendary for decades. You think they're coming down to what average everyday folks can afford any time soon? I'll bet you any amount you care to name that's not going to happen. The average folks get pushed out to Brooklyn and the Bronx and Staten Island and the rest of New Jersey. The well off who control or are valued by the cream of the Corporate headquarters, and get paid hundreds of thousands or even millions per year, can afford to pay, will pay, and have been paying for decades. Because those who are financially powerful congregate there, others who are wealthy want to be in the same location. It's worth the extra money to them, and they have it to pay. The demand is not only there, supply is so highly constricted despite everything that can be done that the prices are and will remain sky high by the standards of the rest of the world.

Ability to acquire regulatory approval. If the city, the county, or the state aren't going to allow it to happen, it's not going to happen. Period. It's pointless and expensive to try and force it, and very few people try any more, while every year the hurdles to get permits are higher, tougher, more expensive.

Environmental regulations have taken on a whole new life of their own since 1973. Tests, reports, studies. It can take over a decade to get approvals to build new housing, and if it fails any of the tests, studies reveal any likely issues, or people use environmental issues as a cover for NIMBY or BANANA behavior and sue in court, the whole thing goes down the drain. I happen to agree that we need environmental regulations, but they need to be re-written with more consideration that all economic choices are trade-offs, because the way they are written right now, they form an excellent basis for anyone who wants to stop any development at all to do so legally. Every time we stop a new development, the people who would have lived there need to find some other housing somewhere else. Going along the chain of A prices B out, who then prices C who is lower income than B out of lesser housing, every time we have a new American without building new dwelling space for them, somebody is going to end up homeless, and the price of housing goes up incrementally.

Open space requirements are a big thing in California and around here specifically. Not just open space, either, but maximum building densities. A large part of San Diego county has a maximum building density of 1 building for 40 acres. Well, if you have a maximum building density of 1 building for 40 acres, the only people who can afford to buy that property are those who can afford to buy 40 acres of land. Those who could barely afford a condo - if there were condos there - don't have that option. At some point, if you have too many people competing for too few condos, the price of condos goes up to where those people cannot afford them. And if there's no buildings at all, well it doesn't take a genius to see that nobody can afford to live there, unless it's under a bush or in a tent.

Many building materials have become much more scarce of late, as it's getting harder to obtain them. Lumber, Drywall, etcetera. Every time the materials get more expensive because they're harder to obtain, the price the builders need to charge for the same number of the final product also rises. If they can't make that much, fewer dwellings get built until they can. Nobody is going to build if they know they're going to lose money in advance. If they can make more than that, more dwellings get built.

Last and most importantly, Cost, which most of the others also contribute to. The more it costs to build a dwelling, the fewer that will get built. The cost of the permits isn't just the money the city charges so they can do the inspection. It's the cost of having someone fill out all the paperwork, having someone else make certain that all the requirements are adhered to before that, and of designing the requirements into the construction before that, which not only costs money for the architect, but also for the reduced benefits to the builder. All of this takes time, which means it has what economists call opportunity costs, as well as actual costs. If I can get a better return on the money doing something else, I'm not going to build housing. If I have a hundred acre parcel for dwellings, and the regulations say I have to set aside half of it for other uses besides actual dwellings, then I can only build dwellings for half as many people. If I try to cut the size of the individual dwellings in half, the plans don't get approved, people don't want them, and they don't buy. What this means is that I can only get half as much revenue as I might otherwise get. What the decreased potential revenue means is that projects which would be profitable at full density would lose money at half density - and therefore don't get built.

I've already touched upon Manhattan real estate. Coastal Southern California isn't there yet, but you can see the trend if you watch. In San Diego, there is essentially no more dirt to build on. Open space requirements, minimum lot size requirements, maximum density regulations, and we're hemmed in on about 330 degrees of the circle by four obstructions: Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, Camp Pendleton, and Cleveland National Forest. The I-15 Corridor is one of the few places new development can go, and it's solidly populated all the way to Riverside now - over 100 miles. But people still want to live here, and there are still jobs here, some of them highly paid. We can build higher density housing or we can price people out of ownership and into apartment buildings - and rent is going to get more expensive as well. The highly paid professional doesn't particularly suffer - it's the $15 dollar per hour worker who gets stuck unable to buy, even a condominium, with an ever larger percentage of the paycheck going towards rent.

No matter what market you are in, prices are not going to come crashing back down because that is what will enable you to buy a house. Prices did get over-inflated in a lot of places for reasons I went over in Fear and Greed, or How Did The Housing Bubble Get So Big?. But just because they're higher than they should be now doesn't mean they are going to come crashing back down any further than the place were demand meets supply, and that place is higher than most bubble proponents are willing to admit. The pricing support is there for $350,000 to $400,000 starter homes in San Diego - a family earning two median incomes can afford it. A family earning less than two median incomes can afford it. Furthermore, unless our local housing policy develops a sudden massive attack of rationality, houses are going to start getting less affordable once again as soon as the excess inventory has cleared. Thirty years from now, tiny 1 and 2 bedroom condos will be going for more than that, even adjusted for inflation and standard of living, simply because nobody can build and the demand keeps going up. "Low income housing" and similar things are nice for the beneficiaries, but they are basically a band-aid on a severed carotid artery. The only effective way to fix the problem is to build more housing, period. There are three ways to motivate someone to leave or not to live here: love, money, and force. As long as San Diego has sun and beaches, people are going to love it here. The second way is pricing them out of the market, which is what I'm talking about and what has been happening: People decide that their standard of living would be so much higher elsewhere that they are leaving for economic reasons. The third way is force, and unless you want to see the United States ordering people to move at gunpoint the way Arab countries kicked their Jewish populations out in 1948 (I don't), pricing is by far the preferable way to do it. Pricing people out is ugly, but it's a lot less ugly than the alternatives. Unless we decide to reverse out policies of the last thirty-odd years, we're going to get more of it, and it's going to get ugly. Until we do start building more dwellings, steadily inflating housing prices are here to stay. Especially in the highly popular, highly populated areas where everybody seems to want to live.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

Recently, a couple of mortgage places have been advertising "30 year fixed rate loan at 5.65%" like that's the lowest rate out there and it's some kind of great loan. It's not. I have 5.375% available to me. If you read my site, you may be wondering why I'm not pushing 5.375 for all I'm worth. The reason I'm not is that it's a rotten loan. It costs 3.7 total points retail in addition to closing costs. If you came to me with a $300,000 loan balance and demanded that loan, just to pay closing costs and points would bring you up to a balance of about $315,200. It costs $15,200 to do that loan. As opposed to the 6.25% loan I can do without points (based upon the same assumptions) which ends up with a balance of $303,500. It takes 69 months - almost 6 years - before the total of what you paid plus what you owe on the high cost but low rate 5.375% loan is as low as what it is for the higher rate but lower cost 6.25% loan, and you still haven't broken even then, because you still owe a higher balance. That higher balance is going to cost you either more money on your next loan, or mean you don't earn as much on the proceeds of selling when you invest them. According to my loan comparison spreadsheet, you have to keep your new loan 93 months - almost 8 years - just to break even on the additional costs of the loan with the lower rate. Most people will never keep one loan that long in their life.

I called one of the companies advertising that 5.65% to find out about the terms of that 5.65% loan. They admitted to it costing 3 points discount and it having a pre-payment penalty, which my loan doesn't have. They didn't want to admit how much origination they were going to charge, but they're bumping up against California's Predatory Lending Law's ceiling on total costs of a loan, because a $300,000 loan with 3 points of discount has already cost over 4.25% of the base loan amount (they're allowed no more than 6% maximum), assuming that their closing costs are no more than mine. I can look at it and tell you it isn't as good as that 5.375% loan that I'm not pushing because the costs are so high that it isn't as good as a 6.25% loan for most folks.

The most common mortgage advertisements are negative amortization loan payments. These are ubiquitous. I just went looking and the first one I found (I actually had to look at two web pages, too, not just one) said "$430,000 loan for $1399 per month." It says nothing about the rate, which was about 8.25% as opposed to the low 6s of a good 30 year fixed rate loan with reasonable costs. It says nothing about the fact that if you make that payment, next month you will owe over $1550 more than you owe today. That's not what most people think of as a real payment, and every time I look at one, I'm thinking, "I really hope they're practicing bait and switch on that," because it's better for their client's financial future.

Stop yourself and ask a minute: Is the sort of loan provider who uses either of these advertisements the sort of loan provider who is likely to have good loans? To compare the real costs and virtues of one loan with another? To help you similarly weigh the costs? Do either of the loan advertisements I've talked about seem like beneficial loans that you should want, or should you be running away as fast as you can? Even if they are practicing bait and switch, that practice is bad enough when you're not talking about half a million dollars, as you are with a mortgage.

Mortgage advertisements aren't honest about rate, mortgage advertisements aren't honest about cost, and mortgage advertisements definitely aren't honest about what that company intends to actually deliver. In short, the vast majority of all mortgage advertisements aren't advertising anything that an informed consumer would even be interested in. All that most mortgage advertisements are doing is trying to get you to call with a "bigger, better deal" pitch. Why? Because a loan is a loan is a loan. There is no Ford versus Chevy versus Honda versus Toyota, and few people feel any particular need to trade their loans in every three years just because they're tired of driving that loan. There is only the type of loan, the rate, and what the costs are in order to get it. If the rate isn't better, and the costs aren't paid by the interest savings, there just any point to actually getting a new loan, is there? And if you don't get a new loan, lenders and their loan officers don't get paid. But if they make it look like they're offering something better (even if they are not) you might get them paid.

Low rate, by itself, means nothing, as I have demonstrated. Rate and cost are ALWAYS a tradeoff. Every lender in every loan market has a range of available trade-offs for every loan type they offer. You're not going to get the lowest rate for anything like the lowest cost. For the vast majority of people out there, they will never recover the additional costs of high cost loans before they need to sell or decide to refinance. This is real money! If you had invested thousands of dollars with an investment firm, and upon every occasion you did so, you had failed to get back as much money as you gave them, pretty soon you would stop investing with that firm, right? Nobody brags that their investment got them a negative 20 percent return over a five year period. Why in the nine billion names of god would you want to invest in such a loan?

Nonetheless, the financial rapists continue the same old advertisements. They continue these fairy tales, and increase their next ad buy, because these advertisements work. The suckers will call in droves - or sign up on the internet, which is even worse than the same thing. If you merely call, only one company gets your phone number. If you sign up on the internet, you're going to be inundated by dozens, if not hundreds of companies, calling, mailing, and e-mailing, then selling your information when you tell them not to bother you any more. All of this makes advertising these abominations quite lucrative.

Nonetheless, now that you've read this article, you know better. You're going to understand some of what isn't being said in the advertisement, and if you do decide to respond, you're going to go in with your eyes open rather than naively believing something that might as well begin, "Once Upon A Time..." If there's one thing I can guarantee about the loan business, it's that those who go into a situation believing such stories do not end up living "Happily Ever After."

Caveat Emptor

article UPDATED here

Consumer-Focused Carnival of Real Estate Recommended: Silicon Valley Real Estate (Why a perfect house wasn't perfect)

(Sorry I'm late on this one)

my question today is about what happens to the prepayment penalty if the loan is sold to someone else? A friend of mine told me that he called and was told there was no prepayment penalty with the new lender but I'm skeptical. Why would the terms of the loan change just because someone else is servicing it?

They wouldn't, unless the state your friend lives in has an unusual law.

Your friend hasn't paid off the loan. Therefore, there will be no pre-payment penalty assessed simply because the original lender sold off the rights to receive the payments.

On the other hand, just because the right to receive payments has been sold does not invalidate or alter the terms of the contract, among which is the pre-payment penalty clause. If your friend does something which would have caused the penalty to be assessed with the original lender, it will still be due to the replacement lender.

The fact that a loan has been sold does not cause the penalty to be assessed. Otherwise, people would be assessed a penalty for something under control of the bank, not themselves. On the other hand, it doesn't let you off the hook of penalty clause you agree to, either.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

This was a comment on Real Estate Sellers Giving A Buyer Cash Back. The interesting thing is proposing hourly pay instead of commission for agents.

That makes a lot of sense. Disclosing (net) cash back to the lender changes the purchase price, which also changes the buyer's basis in the property - sorting out the tax situation nicely as well. And when a buyer is bringing a down payment to the table, they should be able to vary it as necessary to keep the LTV where they want it.

Speaking of choosing buyer's agents, though, I wonder what your opinion is of paying one by the hour (instead of via commission)? In the future day when I might be in a position to buy, there's a local buyer agency (who actually maintains a reasonably informative blog about the local market) that has the option to work that way and I'd welcome a third-party perspective on the pros and cons.

My view of them is -


1. For buyers is willing to do their own research and self-direct their search, they can get the specific parts of the buyer's agent package they want a-la-carte, without having to buy the whole package.

2. Since the agent's compensation isn't driven by the price of the property selected (or the commission a seller is offering) there's significantly greater incentive alignment between a buyer and their agent.


1. If the buyer/agent relationship doesn't work out for whatever reason, a buyer still ends up spending cash for the hours used.

He's got some good points. Here are some more that I see:

First off, when do you fork over the money? Up front? Is the up-front money refundable? How easily? This could quite easily be a tool for locking up exclusive business. They do a rotten job, but you've already got $5000 on deposit with them, so you figure you might as well get what good you can out of what you've got spent. Commissions are contingent upon an actual finished transaction. In other words, I've got to get the job done in order to get paid a commission. I don't have to get it done to get paid an hourly rate.

Second, it occurs to me that this may be something aimed at getting more money: The hourly pay on top of the commission. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who don't realize that buyer's agents get paid out of the listing agents commission. What happens to the buyer's agent part of the commission? Is it used as an offset, is it refunded point-blank (running squarely into the issue of fraud if there's a loan), or what? The most likely way would be as an offset against outstanding hourly, and the remainder rebated for closing costs only. However, 2.5 to 3% of the purchase price can be an awful lot for a buyer to pay in closing costs, even with seeding an impound account in California. The buyer is likely to end up basically using the money to buy the rate down further than is really beneficial, simply because there's no other benefit they can legally get out of that money. So I tell you not to waste your money buying the rate down too far, then I give you the choice of that or forfeiting the rest of it to no good purpose. Does anyone else see the contradiction here?

Third, what is the basis for billable hours? Is it time actually spent with the client, or is it time spent working on the client's file? If the client isn't present, how does the client verify the figures?

The time I actually spend with clients is a fairly small proportion of all the work I spend on them. Maybe 20 percent, at the very most. Consider the parable of the iceberg: What you get is a lot more than what you see at first glance. Last week, I spent six hours looking for one set of clients, and another couple hours on-line winnowing before that. It took us less than two hours to view the properties I decided were worth showing them. Do I charge based upon my time spent, or based upon actual face time?

Now ask yourself, does the basis for billable hours constitute a hindrance to effective job performance? I have thought about it, and "face time" billing would cause most agents - and their supervising brokers - to be a lot less generous with their "file time". But "File time" is what makes a good agent. If I bill based upon "file time", I've got to be able to show what I did with that time, and I'm going to be running head on into clients who won't believe I spend the time I've spent, or at least say they don't, no matter how good the documentation. But does billing by "file time" give agents incentive to pad their time sheets? It seems likely to me that it would. Does billing by "face time" give agents an incentive to go as slowly as possible? Seems likely to me that it would, when the clients incentives are directly opposite. Not all agents would abuse either one of these, but enough would.

Here's another issue: Agents don't get every penny of what they "make". Brokerages have expenses, and they're entitled to make a profit on what they provide. Agents individually have expenses, some of which are fixed, and some of which are variable. If we work on an hourly basis, how much do we add for overhead? Are the clients going to be receptive to it? Even if I bill by "file time" there's a lot of stuff I couldn't bill for, but is nonetheless essential to the proficient practice of real estate. Nonetheless, as any accountant or business school graduate will tell you, you have to recover the costs somehow in order to stay in business, and the way they generally do it is by building an overhead allowance into billing. I occasionally do consulting work at $150 per hour. Even with the more efficient, longer relationship of finding a client a property, I'd need to bill at least $70 per hour to end up with a middle class living at the end of the month. I strongly suspect most folks wouldn't be inclined to pay those kind of wages without evidence of value provided in advance. This would discourage clients from signing up with newer agents or brokerages who might very well do a better job than someone long established who has gotten lazy. Without a proven track record (as in "known to them"), how are you going to persuade the average schmoe who has only been told that, "Real Estate agents don't even need any college!" to fork over $70 per hour before they've seen the work? Commissioned salespersons have to get the job done before they get paid. Not so hourly workers. I realize business people do it all the time, as I've been on both ends of that, but most folks aren't business people, and even the ones who are tend to take a different approach to their personal affairs. Finally, can I really justify billing my consulting work $150/hour while only billing actual buyer clients at half that rate? I'm not going to reduce the consulting rate. If my time is worth $150 per hour (as my consulting clients have told me it is), it's worth $150 per hour. You willing to pay $150 per hour for my expertise, sight unseen? Other people have and will again, but that enlisted military man that walked into our office this afternoon might have some difficulty. I suspect most people would rather let me keep the buyer's agent commission. What if we're billing by "face time"? I'd have to charge a much higher number of dollars per hour to pay for my preparation time. Fact.

Let's ask if most people are likely to be adult enough to pay for something everyone else is offering "free", or at least where they don't have to write a check for money they have painstakingly saved? If the abomination that is Internet Explorer doesn't persuade you on that score, I've got my experience with Upfront Mortgage Brokers to fall back upon, and I can tell you that the answer is most emphatically no, at least in the aggregate. Every time I've had somebody ask about doing a loan on the UMB mandated basis of known fixed compensation, they've ended up canceling the loan. The UMB actually lets me offer cheaper loans than my normal "fixed loan type - known rate - guaranteed costs" because the client bears the risk of late loans, somehow mis-adding adjustments, etcetera. With UMB, I agree to get the loan done for a fixed amount of total compensation - but the clients know what that number is, and it isn't what most people think of as "cheap". With my normal guarantee, I assume the pricing risks, but I have to include the costs of those risks in my retail pricing. Upshot: The loans are slightly more expensive, but people like them much better. The only possible reason I can find for this difference is that they don't have an explicit figure for how much I and my company are making (gross - the net is much lower). Now choosing or not choosing a loan based upon the fact that it seems the loan company is making a lot of money is a great way to shoot yourself in the wallet. People tell themselves that the loan company is "making way too much money" off their loan and end up choosing the lender who offers something at a higher rate that costs thousands of dollars more - but doesn't have to disclose how much they make. I've not only seen it in action - I read a research paper documenting precisely this about two years ago (I went looking for it again about six months ago and couldn't find it. If anyone has a link, it would be appreciated).

All of the preceding are not reasons to refuse to offer hourly compensation. They are simply reasons why I wouldn't expect a lot of it. The final consideration is this: Most agents are independent contractors, not hourly employees. Would hourly compensation create a situation where the Labor Board would rule that this hourly pay pushes agents over the line into an employer-employee relationship? Given how most brokerages require their agents to do other things that are on the list of bullet points of statutory employees (regular required meetings, etcetera), it seems likely to me that it would be enough extra that FLRB might well rule that the agents involved are now statutory employees. This would change everything about the broker-agent relationship from its long-established norm (Brokerages would have to pay overtime, Social Security taxes, minimum wage. Holidays. Minimum time off. Etcetera. They might even have to deal with agent's unions). I don't say that agents couldn't work on an employee basis, but all of these added costs to the brokerage would certainly tend to make the wall of getting started higher for new agents, and harder to negotiate, thereby artificially restricting the number of agents. This would have the effect of limiting competition. I don't think that's a good idea for consumers, although the big chains would certainly love it, as it would make it harder for independents to compete.

If you think paying by the hour is a way to get superior real estate services cheaper, I have some land in Florida. Who's going to charge low hourly rates? Unprepared, less qualified agents. It might work out to be a little less, and people who have the intestinal fortitude to move quickly without being goosed on the biggest transaction of their lives might save a little bit in that the agent or brokerage's total compensation is a little less than it otherwise would have been, but where is the level of the value they provided in order to earn that money likely to be? I submit to you that I have reason to believe it would be considerably lower in the aggregate. More than enough lower to place their patrons in the unenviable position of buying the real estate equivalent of the Yugo.

In short, I see a whole lot of drawbacks, many of which are fairly well buried, while only a few advantages, which may be obvious but are outweighed for the vast majority of the population by the drawbacks. I might be willing to do it for the right client who asks, but I'm certainly not going to advertise it.

Caveat Emptor

UPDATE: Thanks to Russell Martin of, here's the link to the FTC study:

Article UPDATED here

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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