What’s it take to be in the home equity elite?

What’s it take to be in the home equity elite?

Kenneth R. Harney on Aug 25, 2017

WASHINGTON — Americans readily gossip about home values — “Did you hear the crazy high price the house down the street sold for?” “Did you hear how little our neighbors were forced to take on their sale?”

But people are much more reticent when it comes to home equity, which is not surprising: Prices and assessed values are public information. Equity holdings are not public, and they take some effort to figure out. Equity is intimate financial information, like a bank account or retirement fund balances, and represents a major part of most owners’ net worth.

So it tends to be closely held.

All of which makes a new statistical report on the equity levels of owners of more than 150 million homes with mortgages intriguing. The report comes from ATTOM Data Solutions, a research and analytics firm that tracks equity movements on a quarterly basis using public property information and proprietary automated valuation systems. According to ATTOM researchers, 34 percent of all American homeowners have 100 percent equity in their properties — they’ve either paid off their entire mortgage debt or they never had a mortgage.

Equity is the difference between the current market value of your home and the debt you’ve got against it. If you own a $400,000 house and your mortgage debt is $150,000, you’ve got $250,000 in equity. During the five years following the housing bust in 2007, when the real estate recovery began taking hold, American homeowners lost billions of dollars in equity. But today many have recouped all or most of it, and the Federal Reserve estimates that homeowners now control an astounding $1.37 trillion in equity wealth.

The latest ATTOM report opens a window on equity — where and in what types of homes equity holdings are especially large and where they tilt negative, with property values well below what owners could expect to get from a sale.

Some quick highlights:

‘Co-marketing’ arrangements put Zillow in hot water

‘Co-marketing’ arrangements put Zillow in hot water

Kenneth R. Harney on Aug 18, 2017

WASHINGTON – You’re probably familiar with the online realty marketing giant Zillow because of its voluminous home sale listings and its controversial “Zestimate” property valuation feature.

But you may not know this- Zillow is in hot water with the federal government over alleged violations of anti-kickback and deceptive practices rules. According to Zillow, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has concluded a two-year investigation into the company’s “co-marketing” arrangements that allow mortgage lenders to pay for portions of realty agents’ monthly advertising costs on Zillow websites. In exchange for the money, lenders are presented in agents’ ads to site visitors as sources of financing, which ultimately generates “leads” and new mortgage business. Consumers typically are in the dark about the featured lender’s role in making payments for the realty agent to Zillow.

Though the CFPB declined to comment for this column, Zillow confirmed that the bureau has threatened it with legal action if it does not agree to a settlement. The CFPB has not publicly detailed its specific reasons for pursuing Zillow, but the company says the allegations involve the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) – which prohibits kickbacks in exchange for business referrals – and a section of the Consumer Financial Protection Act that prohibits “unfair, deceptive or abusive” practices.

A Zillow spokeswoman told me that “we believe our program is lawful,” and the company welcomed an opportunity to discuss the allegations with the CFPB.

Some background- Thousands of agents across the country pay Zillow for advertising space, mainly because millions of consumers visit its sites to check out listings and information on more than 100 million homes, whether they are for sale or not.

On homes listed for sale, frequently there is also contact information for local “premier agents” who may or may not be the actual listing agent. Premier agents pay Zillow for the promotional space and other benefits – typically hundreds of dollars per month but sometimes well above $1,000 – and receive leads to consumers who are actively searching for a home or plan to in the future. Premier agent monthly payments are a crucial part of Zillow’s business model, amounting to nearly $190 million during the second quarter of 2017 alone. This represented more than 70 percent of Zillow’s total revenues during the quarter.

Legal experts say the CFPB’s concerns likely focus on an optional feature of the premier agent program that permits real estate agents to have their monthly advertising fees paid for in part – or almost entirely – by lenders who seek leads to potential borrowers. A loan officer who is given exclusive promotion along with a premier agent might pay 50 percent of the agent’s monthly bill. Three lenders who’ve cut individual deals with the agent might pay a combined total of up to 90 percent.

The sticky legal question here is whether the lenders or loan officers are paying for referrals of business – banned by RESPA – or whether they are simply jointly advertising their wares and paying fair market value for the exposure. In a multimillion-dollar settlement in January with national lender Prospect Mortgage over alleged violations of the anti-kickback law, the CFPB tipped its hand- It cited payments made by loan officers to subsidize realty agents’ advertising costs on an unnamed online site that was widely understood to be Zillow. In that case, the CFPB levied fines against real estate brokerages as well as the lender – opening the door to possible future legal attacks against realty agents themselves.

Marx Sterbcow, a RESPA legal expert based in New Orleans, said that absent details from the CFPB, the anti-kickback case against Zillow is “confusing” since individual loan officers and realty agents appear to be the direct participants in the payment arrangements. However, he said, Zillow’s role in providing “substantial assistance” to the arrangements could make it vulnerable to charges by the CFPB under the deceptive practices act.

George Souto, sales manager and loan originator for McCue Mortgage in New Britain, Connecticut, told me he checked out the Zillow program but “got a bad feeling very quickly.”

“Once I saw the way it really works, it became clear to me that it wasn’t a lead generator but a way to pay for referrals. I felt uncomfortable,” he said, and worried about possible legal action by the CFPB or banking regulators.

Where’s this all headed? Only lawyers at Zillow and the CFPB know whether the case is destined for litigation or a settlement. Meanwhile, now you know how agents and lenders end up on Zillow pages- They pay. Or co-pay.