Careful what you wish for

You had plenty to be worried about over the last 10 years including ‘will my home ever sell’ or ‘will I ever see my 401-K regain the level it was at before the storm’. You didn’t know if you’d ever get what you paid for when you finally sold that house. You would have loved to have sold in 2011. Or 2009 or 2012 or last year. And now in 2018 you may be able to sell it fairly quickly, but for enough to get back what you lost to the economic recession that wiped out your life savings and stock portfolio?

We have always wished for a full recovery from the real estate crash and we might finally be able to say with utmost confidence that we have achieved that. And you might also be thinking this sure doesn’t feel as good as you wanted it to feel. Now that you cannot blame impossible mortgage loan requirements and scarce money, plus the plethora of foreclosures clogging up the market, what is the problem exactly?

In a textbook example to illustrate, M/M HomeOwner paid $475,000 for their dream home in 2006, with the help of an 85% mortgage. The payments were pretty high, more than double their rent costs, but they had a bright outlook for the future and wanted the big and rambling home. After several years it turned out not to be their dream home for a list of reasons. So they tried to sell it in 2009 and their Realtor told them they MIGHT be able to get $350,000. Something had gone horribly wrong in the real estate market, and in fact the entire economy was flatlining. Well, their mortgage balance back then was $405,000 which scared the bejesus out of them and they “held on” to the home, making payments to stay out of foreclosure and the ruin of their credit. They did not replace the carpet or upgrade the master bath as funds were tight with payments and all.

Gradually things got a little better and in 2012 their favorite Realtor told them the home MIGHT sell for $400,000 and their balance by then had dropped to the same amount $400,000. But they knew the home was not going to show well with that heavily worn carpet and broken down fridge and dishwasher and stained countertops plus all the stucco cracks. They were told the cost of sale would represent about seven percent of the final sales price. They were not ready to take that hit and sell it on terms that would require them to bring so much money to closing. They barely had two months of living expenses saved up what with college for the kids and his car that he needed to commute in. So they stayed and kept making payments. They were not happy but they had a roof over their heads.

And then, the magical year of 2015 arrived and they finally started to think this was going to be their year to sell. The economy was much better and economic pundits told them the real estate crisis was over. Appreciation had started to become a reality again (in the lowest price ranges) and they were very optimistic about selling and walking away with a little cash. So that Realtor, who had moved to a new virtual brokerage by then, was asked to do another market analysis. The conclusion was a selling price range of $450,000 to $470,000, almost as much as what they paid in 2006. But homes were still taking almost a year to sell and the homes in great condition usually sold first. They had to figure out how much they could put into their home to bring it up to date and make it show so well that a buyer could not ignore it. By this time, since they had neglected almost everything about the upkeep of the home in their nine years of living there. They got some bids together and found out they would have to spend some $50,000 to make it shine and hopefully be irresistible to a buyer. It could actually run up to $80,000 if they went crazy and did everything. With their mortgage payoff at $390,000 plus the $50,000, their sales price would have to be north of $475,000 to close without having to bring cash to closing. That was above the range their trusty Realtor provided, but they were ready and hoped they could find the right buyer at $475,000.

IF THEY COULD find a buyer at $475,000 with minimal further reduction in price for items found in the inspections (remember they were going to spend $50,000 to upgrade), their seven percent cost of sale would drop the net, prior to payoff, to a bit over $440,000. They also had to payoff those credit cards for $50,000 from spending to upgrade the home. Payoff of $390,000…? Yes it could actually work. So they listed the home at $495,000 hoping to get a buyer to buy for at least $475,000. Professional photos were posted online after they decluttered and made the home look as close to a “model” home as possible. It did show well, but that effort and expense just put them in the middle of the pack of existing and new inventory. The absorption rate hit a plateau and many others in similar situations also had put their homes on the market. Since there were only so many buyers, their home did not sell right away. It was only shown six times in the first month and after 60 days they met with their Realtor to discuss lowering the price.

So they lowered it to $479,500, still hoping to get really close to $475,000. But after it was passed over by buyers looking to spend about $450,000, they had lost out on a good portion of the peak season and were still a bit overpriced. They thought if someone wants our home they can make an offer. That kind of thinking can lead one into belief that their home is priced to sell. But it did not sell. They had one buyer on the hook, but his mortgage was declined so another 30 plus days were wasted. Desperation was looming as they had really wanted to sell six years earlier and now they had planned to move out this very year. But they gave up trying (living in a home listed for sale can be stressful and restrictive) and they terminated their listing and fired their Realtor, blaming everyone in the process. It was almost Thanksgiving and they assumed home sales stopped in the wintertime.

AND NOW a new day has come. 2018 has arrived and they are damned sure going to sell this time for the amount they want and finally get beyond this ugly chapter in their lives. Their marriage has been severely strained, they have had to deal with illness and career goal disappointments, but there was finally a way out. The new Realtor they contacted, who had been in the business about 12 months, but was best friends with his mother, took the listing at a price of $540,000. This would be great, finally, they thought. The mortgage was lower, they owed less on those credit cards and the market was heating up to the point their new Realtor said they could sell it in 90 days with some good fortune and the right buyer.

And they did sell it in 90 days this year, getting a net bottom line enough to pay the mortgage and credit card balances in full and walk away with some cash. They celebrated by taking a trip to Italy and Greece and renewed their marriage vows in the process. They held off buying another home while the burn scars of owning the prior home were still healing. Renting was fine with them. Their credit was just good and they had an empty nest situation as the kids were grown and gone. They never spoke to the first Realtor, but that old veteran was used to failure and rejection. She could always find a way to put on a smile and speak positively, even with the down side of her business.

Is this a happy ending? Would they have ever chosen to write this script to live out in real-time with the goal of having a happy ending? How much did they worry and stress during the 12 years they owned that last home? Their kids saw them arguing and fighting on a regular basis. They did not take vacations and did not take good care of themselves during that time of worry and despair. His mother-in-law scolded him incessantly. Her father-in-law, after a serious stroke, seemed to not have the same fondness for her as before when they were younger and happy.

What else could have happened? They could have decided to walk away from the home in 2009 or 2010, when they owed more than it was worth. They could have mailed in the keys and likely been stuck for a deficiency balance for the amount between what the bank sold it for a year later versus their outstanding debt. That or all of the other burdens and mistakes could have placed them in bankruptcy anywhere along the timeline. As it turns out they did not ever declare bankruptcy and these days are wondering why they thought it was the wrong thing to do back then.

They might have sold it in 2013 with an agreement from their lender for a carry over debt to cover the short sale net amount that their did not get at closing. They might even have been able to negotiate a complete forgiveness of the short fall on the payoff.

Maybe they should have just stopped making payments and lived in the home for free (except utilities) while they fought foreclosure. This might have stretched on for 2 years or so. Of course if they were going to do that, they really should have put aside at least $3000 a month toward their future lives and a future home for themselves, but most people are not that disciplined.

What does it mean to have a foreclosure on your credit record? And a bankruptcy on top of that? After enough years have passed it might mean nothing. But back in 2009, they never imagined it would be nine more years before they would see a sale. Very few people predicted the long and painful recovery process that took basically ten years (in the Santa Fe area anyway).

Sometimes I go back and read the archives of what real estate counsel I was sharing from ten years ago and it was not pretty then. It was honest and negative; mostly gloom and doom. I was critical of most every part of the process of doing real estate business. Mostly I feel the largest mistake made by us all (and it would have been almost a miracle for it to turn out differently) was to not take the problem of millions of homes in foreclosure and millions more underwater and make federal laws that mandated a faster and equitable recovery for all of the people involved and all of the banks holding the notes. What did happen cost the federal government (and all of us taxpayers) a great deal of money, but they paid it to the banks that made the “bad” mortgages instead of actually paying down the mortgages allowing people to stay in their homes. The upheaval make a mess of many lives of Middle Class Americans. This subject has been the focus of many a book and article. What did we do wrong? And what did we not do right?

Do you want to pass judgment on the last 10-12 years of Santa Fe residential real estate? Feel free. My take on the single largest factor in our local scene is the thousands of mortgages made to borrowers who were not even close to qualifying for a mortgage, using conventional underwriting standards. Even allowing for payment of MPI and the VA/FHA programs that OK a small down payment, far too many loans were made to people who did not qualify. And then values plummeted and stayed down for years making certain that anyone who was vulnerable to that reality got a chance to suffer financially.

Hindsight is wonderful, si? no?

Praying for rain in Santa Fe…

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