Freddie Mac planning appraisal-free mortgages

Freddie Mac planning appraisal-free mortgages

Kenneth R. Harney on Nov 11, 2016

WASHINGTON – Can computers, big data and advanced analytics replace real live humans when it comes to accurately valuing the home you want to buy? One of the two largest financial players in U.S. real estate thinks so and is preparing to introduce changes that could prove momentous – and highly controversial.

Giant mortgage investor Freddie Mac plans to dispense with traditional appraisals on some loan applications for home purchases, replacing them with an alternative valuation system that would be free of charge to both lenders and borrowers. The company confirmed to me last week that it could begin the no-appraisal concept as early as next spring. Instead of using professional appraisers, Freddie plans to tap into what it says is a vast trove of data it has assembled on millions of existing houses nationwide, supplement that with additional, unspecified information related to valuation, and use the results in its assessments of applications.

For consumers, the company believes, this could not only eliminate appraisal expenses – which typically range from $350 to $600 or more – but could cut down on current closing delays attributable to appraisals. It could also relieve lenders of their current burdens of responsibility for the accuracy of appraisals – a major sore point with banks that sell loans to Freddie subject to potential “buy back” demands if significant errors are later found in appraisals.

But critics argue that Freddie is headed down a perilous road. Doing away with formal appraisals by trained professionals could massively increase the company’s exposure to future losses on defaults, they say, and would likely end up being paid for by American taxpayers. Reliance on publicly available data without careful physical inspections of properties verges on “craziness,” said Joe Adamaitis, residential lending manager for Insignia Bank in Sarasota, Florida. “We would never allow it here.”

Not surprisingly, appraisers who know about the plans are up in arms. The Chicago-based Appraisal Institute, the largest professional group in the valuation field, has written to Freddie Mac’s regulator, Mel Watt, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, urging him to take a hard look. Freddie Mac’s “decision to veer away from fundamental risk management practices appears to harken back to the loan production-driven days in the years leading up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis” – abuses that “turned out to be disastrous for the entire economy,” the group wrote.

Veteran appraisers such as Pat Turner of Richmond, Virginia, believe that abandoning traditional valuation practices will leave Freddie Mac essentially “flying blind” in many instances. In a phone interview, he said he has inspected houses where the interior damage and neglect have been so extensive – none of it on public records or visible to automated systems – that the differences in market value arrived at by a computer compared with a trained professional are potentially catastrophic for any investor. Similarly, without an inspection, an automated valuation might not reflect whatever significant improvements you’ve made that are not on any public records.

For years an outspoken critic of the popular but frequently inaccurate automated valuation systems offered free by Zillow and other websites, Turner asked- “When was the last time a Zillow computer walked into your house?” Computerized estimates “can’t tell you everything you need to know about value,” said Turner.

But Freddie’s idea has strong defenders in the mortgage industry. Jay Farner, president of Quicken Loans, headquartered in Detroit and the second largest retail mortgage lender, told me “we’re in support of doing something to alleviate the situation today,” where appraisal delays can cause rate locks to expire and closings to be postponed.

Though “a large percentage of loans do require an appraisal,” he said, others could be safely underwritten with a combination of strong previous valuation data on the property, possibly combined with a “walk-through” inspection.

Bill Dallas, chairman and CEO of Skyline Financial Corp in Calabasas, California, calls the traditional use of appraisers “a really screwed up system.” He’d like to see the industry move toward an approach that makes maximum use of the huge property-specific databases built up from previous appraisals along with inspections when needed.

Where’s this all headed? We’ll begin to know in a few months. But don’t expect appraisers to suddenly disappear. The best of them add essential value to the process of telling a lender or investor what a house is truly worth, based on up-to-the-minute market information and a hands-on physical inspection – services no computer can perform, at least not yet.

FHA pulls housing head fake on condo communities

FHA pulls housing head fake on condo communities

Kenneth R. Harney on Nov 4, 2016

WASHINGTON – Call it a housing policy head fake – one with potentially painful consequences for moderate-income buyers, sellers and seniors in hundreds of condominium projects around the country. If you were thinking about purchasing a condo unit with a low down payment FHA mortgage in the coming year, this could affect you.

Last week, ostensibly yielding to a congressional mandate to make consumer-friendly Federal Housing Administration mortgages more widely available in condominiums, the government announced a move to do precisely that- Starting immediately, projects with fewer than half of their units occupied by owners may be eligible for certification for FHA financing. Under “certain circumstances,” the government said, projects with as low as 35 percent owner occupancy might now be eligible.

Currently the minimum owner occupancy ratio is 50 percent – a level that critics in Congress and the real estate industry believe excludes too many first-time and minority buyers from access to FHA financing. FHA insists it needs such a threshold to avoid defaults and losses on mortgages. In July, legislation that passed Congress unanimously gave FHA 90 days to lower its owner-occupancy minimum to 35 percent or provide “justification” for keeping it higher.

That was important because historically, FHA has been the go-to option for consumers with modest resources. In some markets, FHA financing once accounted for upward of three-quarters of first-time purchases. Plus its reverse mortgage program accounts for an estimated 90-plus percent of all loans made to seniors needing to supplement their retirement incomes.

In recent years, however, the agency has severely tightened eligibility requirements for condominiums and has experienced drastic declines in the volume of condo loans as a result. Less than 10 percent of the estimated 150,000 potentially eligible condominium projects in the U.S. are now certified for FHA financing, according to the Community Associations Institute, a trade group. If a project is not certified by the FHA, no individual units within it can qualify for one of its loans.

Now for the head fake- In its announcement, FHA spelled out the conditions under which it would allow the lower owner-occupancy threshold. Condo boards of directors will have to document that their project’s financial reserves equal 20 percent or more of their budget and that no more than 10 percent of all units are in arrears on homeowner dues. Plus they must provide three years of “acceptable” financial documents for review.

How many non-certified condo projects can meet these tests? I asked FHA spokesman Brian Sullivan, who said in an email that although the agency is not certain, it believes that “many well-managed developments will indeed qualify for the lower 35 percent threshold.”

Sounds great. The million-member National Association of Realtors certainly thought so. Its president, Tom Salomone, hailed FHA’s policy switch as “a big win.”

But a closer look suggests something starkly different. FHA has created test criteria that appear virtually guaranteed to flunk most condo projects that might like to take advantage of the loosened standard. I spoke with the heads of four of the best-known consulting firms that work with condo boards nationwide to attain FHA certifications, plus a top official of the Community Associations Institute, which represents more than 30,000 homeowners associations and management companies. Everyone agreed- FHA’s policy change won’t help many projects or consumers who want to buy or sell units.

Christopher L. Gardner, managing member of California-based FHA Pros LLC, told me the 20 percent reserves requirement alone is a “deal killer.”

“I can probably count on two hands the number of associations I’ve seen that reserve 20 percent,” he said. “Homeowners hate their dues increased” and condo boards “hate to vote for increases because they want to stay on the board.” Locating projects that meet all the new criteria, he said, would be “like finding a unicorn holding a four-leaf clover.”

Rusty McInerney, president of InterIsland Mortgage Corp. of Bradenton, Florida, which has conducted more than 56,000 reviews of condo financials, said the request for three years of “acceptable” financial documents “is a Pandora’s box of ways” to reject an application.

Jon Eberhardt, president of Condo Approvals LLC, told me that “I don’t know one [project] that would fit” into FHA’s combined requirements. “Not one. It’s egregious,” he said.

Philip J. Sutcliffe, owner of Project Support Services in Philadelphia, who favors retention of the 50 percent owner-occupancy standard, said “very few, if any” projects will be able to pass the tests announced by FHA.

Bottom line- Congress may have instructed FHA to increase the number of condo units available for moderate income buyers, but apparently FHA had a different idea.