Friday, December 29, 2006


Paying mortgage points rarely pays off for borrowers: study

CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- A new report claims that borrowers tend to purchase too many points when selecting a mortgage -- and in the process end up paying more than they would have with no points and a higher interest rate.
The study was co-authored by Abdullah Yavas, Elliott Professor of Business Administration at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and Yan Chang of Freddie Mac. The two considered 3,785 individual mortgages originated from 1996 to 2003, looking at the points paid, interest rates and loan length.

Data showed that, on average, those who buy points are overestimating the amount of time they will hold their loans. They tended to pay off their mortgages about 37.5 months too early for the purchase of points to actually pay off -- defaulting, moving or refinancing before hitting a break-even point so the strategy made financial sense.

By purchasing points, borrowers lower the interest rate on the mortgage. One point is equal to 1% of the mortgage, charged as prepaid interest. Points that you pay to purchase your primary residence are deductible in the year you pay them on your federal income-tax return; points you pay to refinance must be written off over the life of your mortgage.

"We underestimate the possibility that we may refinance in the near future -- or refinance again in the near future -- and we underestimate the possibility that we may have to move, either for job relocation or other reasons," Yavas said.

Only 1.4% of borrowers who purchased points held their loans long enough to make it pay off; of those who didn't buy points, only 1.5% would have been better off purchasing them, according to the study.

It's significant to mention, however, that the data covers a time of decreasing interest rates and increasing property values, which led to a lot of refinancing activity, Yavas pointed out.

The report also found that borrowers who buy points often don't treat them as costs they can never recover and so are less likely to refinance. When they do refinance, they often do it late, perhaps hoping to compensate for the points paid. If a borrower "paid too many points and the interest rates come down quickly, refinancing right away would be the same as accepting the fact that you shouldn't have paid those points," Yavas said.

Yavas took an interest in the topic after he decided to refinance his own home a few years back and considered the trade-off between points and interest rates.

"Although I teach this stuff, it's not a trivial question," he said.

Dec 20, 2006

By Amy Hoak

Friday, December 22, 2006


Lots of people are looking for ways to make their holidays more meaningful by celebrating in a way that improves the environment -- or at least doesn't add to the piles of ripped-up wrapping paper, tossed-out cards and shriveled up pines that eventually end up on the curb. According to estimates from the California Integrated Waste Management Board, an extra million tons of waste are generated nationwide each week during the 10-week holiday season. But we're not all budding Martha Stewarts with the time, talent and energy to make our own green decorations.

Here are five ways to have a green Christmas that don't require skill with glitter or a glue gun:

Rethink how you wrap. Most commercial gift wrap makers don't use recycled paper. Worse, some types of gift wrap, like foils, can't be recycled after they're used. So how can you save some trees and still have a tempting present? Simply folding and reusing gift wrap is one option -- assuming your family doesn't just tear into their presents. But even the most carefully folded paper tends to look creased and crinkled after a few seasons. So try using gift bags, or wrapping the tops and bottoms of boxes separately so the recipient doesn't have to destroy the wrapping or bow to open it. Try using substitutes for store-bought wrapping paper, like old maps decorated with cast-off tape measures or colored string instead of ribbon or the funny pages (but only if your newspaper uses inks that don't rub off on your fingers). Vintage napkins and table runners from yard sales also work well, or a thrift-store shirt topped with an old bow tie.

Get out the shredder. Forget the Styrofoam peanuts; slivers of paper from your shredder make fine, fluffy packing material or filler for gift boxes. Shred pages from holiday catalogs or newspaper inserts -- or even old CDs, if your shredder can handle them -- to add a splash of color and shine.

Use live plants. The long-standing debate will probably never be resolved over whether fake trees or real ones -- recycled after the holidays into mulch -- are more ecologically correct. One way to circumvent the argument entirely is to buy a potted tree, and then plant it after the holidays. Nicole Hillis, a 27-year old government program analyst, uses a live potted tree each year that she and her apartment-mates adorn with homemade strings of popcorn and cranberries. "It sounds like we're hippies, but we're not," she says. "We're just looking for simple ways to reuse things." Another idea, suggested by Washington, D.C. environmental activist and online eco-store owner Reena Kazmann, is to make centerpieces out of a collection of small pots of plants like poinsettias or rosemary. When your guests leave, give each one of the pots as a gift.

Send recycled paper cards or e-cards. No one keeps track of how many of the two billion holiday cards sent each year are on recycled paper, says Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association. But there seems to be a steady market for them: Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings has been selling them since 1971, while industry-leader Hallmark Cards Inc. has been seeing "consistent" sales of their recycled line, called Shoebox, for two decades. But since most cards aren't made from recycled stock and aren't recyclable, it makes sense to consider other alternatives. The easiest, at least for those family members who have email, is the e-card. Introduced about a decade ago, e-cards were first offered for free on greeting-card Web sites, and were wildly popular novelties. Soon, however, many companies started charging for them, and usage tapered off. About 20 paper cards are sent for each electronic card during the holidays, according to the Greeting Card Association, a ratio that's held steady for the past four years. Nevertheless, many Web sites, including Hallmark, still offer free e-cards, though the recipient will have to sit through an ad first. Some also let senders personalize cards with family photos or write messages of unlimited length.

Decorate with found objects. You don't need to be an artist to turn household items or collections into memorable decorations -- you just need a little imagination and some bits of ribbon. Seashells, your son's outgrown collection of tiny cars and trucks, and even kitchen cutlery can all be hung on a tree or worked into a wreath or garland. Eco-designer Danny Seo, author of Simply Green Giving (Harper Collins, 2006), is decorating his Christmas tree this year with his collection of antique teacups filled with candy and small toys. Using household objects decoratively is "cheaper and less aggravating" than fighting the crowds at the mall, he says. And because the results are quirky and unique, they also jump-start conversations at parties.

-- November 28, 2006

By June Fletcher
Wall Street Journal Online

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Early next year my husband Gerry and I will reach two milestones in our finances: Our mortgage's outstanding balance will drop below $100,000 and, more significantly, more of our monthly payment will go toward principal than interest.

With the passing of both of these milestones, Gerry and I will be that much closer to paying off our 20-year fixed-rate mortgage, a process we're hastening by making additional principal payments of $195 a month. (Why the odd figure? I'll get to that later; the short story is that it is part of $395 a month in spare cash we debated over where to invest. ) Our goal is to have the loan paid off before our seven-year-old son Gerald enters college in 2017, leaving us with income available to meet any potential shortfall in our college savings.

Some people believe paying off a mortgage is a stupid move, and would advise us to forgo the mortgage prepayments and invest that $395 a month elsewhere. This school of thought holds that the wisest financial move you can make is to get mortgages with the lowest monthly payments possible -- refinancing as rates decline -- and never pay off the loans, a strategy that improves your cash-flow and lets you benefit from potential home-price appreciation.

Gerry and I don't agree -- we feel paying off our mortgage as soon as possible is essential to our goal of getting Gerald through college and then retiring. Let me walk you through our thought process. When we purchased Gerry's home from his dad in December 2000, we took out a 20-year mortgage for $122,000. Our timing was good: We nabbed a historically low fixed rate of 5%, with a monthly payment of $805 (not including property taxes and homeowners insurance). We'd been paying $1,200 a month for the mortgage on our first home, so we had a decision to make: What to do with the $395 a month in income the new, lower-rate mortgage freed up?

Our son Gerald was a year old at the time, so saving for college was on my mind. By investing the entire $395 sum in a tax-deferred college-savings account, such as a 529 college-savings plan, we'd be able to sock away $155,822 by the time Gerald graduates high school (assuming we invested in mutual funds with a conservative annual investment return of 6%). That's more than enough to cover the $134,916 this College Board calculator estimates a four-year public university will cost in 2017.

Gerry liked the idea of saving for college, but he was pondering another substantial expense: home remodeling. Our worn-down home was in need of some substantial renovations, starting with the kitchen and a bathroom. We'd planned on tapping a home-equity line of credit to fund these projects, and that $395 a month would help us pay off the debt more quickly. In 2004 our kitchen remodel cost $45,000, and we paid for it with our 10-year, $100,000 home-equity line of credit. At 4.5%, our monthly payments on the remodel were $466.37. As this home-equity calculator shows, that additional $395 a month would have reduced our payments by five years, saving $5,786 in interest.

What about retirement? By saving that $395 a month in a tax-deferred IRA, we'd save an additional $169,542 for retirement, according to's 401(k) planning tool. Logic ruled that we'd get the biggest benefit from funneling the cash into a retirement-savings account, but Gerry and I decided against that because we'd done our retirement planning and felt we were on target with our savings goals. (Whether we rue that decision as we near retirement age remains to be seen.)

Finally, Gerry thought, why not just keep making our old monthly mortgage payment? By tacking an extra $395 principal payment onto our $805 monthly mortgage nut, we'd shave six years off our 20-year loan term and save $16,535 in interest. Once the mortgage is paid off, another $1,200 a month, or $14,400 a year, would be available to help pay Gerald's college costs.

The more we talked about it, the more Gerry wanted to prepay the mortgage. That six-figure mortgage payment has loomed large over my husband since the night before he closed on his first home in 1992. That night he lay awake, terrified by the $134,000 debt he was about to shoulder. A mortgage that size was mind-boggling -- up until that year he'd never borrowed from a lender in his life, and he hadn't even owned a credit card until his real-estate agent suggested he get one to start building a credit history.

What made him most upset was the way mortgages are structured, with the bulk of the monthly payment going to pay interest at the beginning of the loan term. Fast-forward eight years, when we refinanced our mortgage to buy the new home. That's when Gerry realized that of the $94,391 he'd paid out on his old mortgage over those years, just $12,035 had gone to paying down principal. His reaction? It was ugly.

Neither one of us liked the idea of our refinanced loan taking us back to the starting line in terms of paying principal and interest. Prepaying the loan would help get us closer to where our total principal payments were with the old mortgage.

Still, I knew if we put off thinking about college costs, years might slip away before we got serious about saving. And getting a head start on saving would mean we'd need to save less than if we waited a few years, thanks to the power of compounding interest.

In the end, we decided to split the difference: We'd take half of that $395 a month and save for college, and use the other half to prepay our mortgage. By paying an additional $195 a month (we chose the odd number because it took our $805 monthly mortgage payment to an easy-to-remember $1,000). By doing so we'll shave 47 payments off the term of our 20-year fixed-rate mortgage, saving $11,939 in interest. And in 2014, if things go as planned, Gerald and his high-school pals can join us at our mortgage-burning party.

Prepaying our mortgage works for us, and I see paying off your mortgage while you're still in the work force as a key to having a financially secure retirement: Should you get into a financial bind, you could either sell your home and downsize to a less-expensive one, or (if you qualify) take out a reverse mortgage that lets you tap your home's equity.

That said, there are a number of situations in which making prepayments isn't a good idea. Generally speaking, if you're planning on selling your home within five years, don't bother prepaying -- you won't save enough in interest costs to make it worthwhile.

If you're saddled with a lot of high-interest credit card debt and are prepaying your mortgage, you're paying off the wrong lender: Use all of your disposable cash to pay off the credit cards, then go shopping for a card with a better rate.

If you've been slacking on saving for retirement -- or haven't started saving at all -- forget about prepayments. Figure out how much you'll need to save for retirement here and then use your spare cash to get there by saving through a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or Roth IRA. Ideally you should aim to save 10% of your gross annual income -- though my print colleague Jonathan Clements would argue that daunting figure is still too low.

Finally, if you're already in retirement and still paying off your mortgage -- with no end in sight -- don't even think about prepaying. Instead consider this radical idea: refinance to a 30-year fixed loan. You might be able to obtain a lower mortgage rate, which would boost your cash flow. And because you pay most of your interest upfront, you may pay less in taxes thanks to the mortgage-interest tax deduction.

-- December 15, 2006
By Terri Cullen From
The Wall Street Journal Online

Monday, December 18, 2006


American craft furniture, a mid-20th-century movement that favored organic forms and natural materials, became popular with artsy-crafty types in the '60s, '70s and '80s but never caught on with many fans of modernist design.

In recent years, however, prices for vintage pieces have been steadily climbing. At an auction yesterday at Sotheby's, a custom-made redwood dining table created in 1988 by George Nakashima, one of the fathers of the movement, is expected to fetch between $300,000 and $500,000, shattering previous sales records for works by the designer.

Now a new generation of manufacturers and furniture makers are marketing lines influenced by the American craft sensibility.

Hudson Furniture in New York recently began selling a line of dining tables cut from thick slabs of aged walnut that start at $10,500. Among the top sellers at eco-conscious retailer Viva Terra: a hand-carved stool made from a single piece of sustainable monkey-pod wood that the company added this year; the stool retails for $195. And furniture designer Chista, which primarily sells directly to decorators and architects, introduced a line of coffee tables earlier this year that are made from slices of reclaimed teak. The tables, which look like tree stumps and have a polished ebony finish, start at $7,500.

The mass market lines are also getting competition from a noted name in American craft: Mira Nakashima, daughter of the late furniture maker, recently introduced her own collection. The line of about 15 redwood chairs and tables, heavily influenced by her father's hand-carved, free-form style, starts at about $1,100 for some chairs, up to about $75,000 for large dining tables. (Ms. Nakashima is also creative director of the original Nakashima studio in New Hope, Pa., where sales of new pieces made from her father's original designs have risen steadily in the past few years.)

The revival of American craft comes as the industry looks to shake off continued flattening sales. Household furniture and bedding sales were nearly flat in the second half of 2006, according to an industry report from analyst Jerry Epperson. The report projects sales to grow just 1.6% in 2007.

Retailers and decorators say the designs appeal to homeowners who want to soften the look of rooms that feature sparse, minimalist décor. "One or two pieces can really warm up modernist interiors," says Manhattan interior designer Jasmine Lam.

David Hovey's glass and steel home outside Chicago is dotted with American craft-style furnishings, from desks to end tables. Mr. Hovey, a 62-year-old architect and developer, says the designs "add a natural element that other contemporary styles don't always offer."

Not everyone appreciates the style, however. Los Angeles decorator and textile designer Barclay Butera says the furniture's rough edges and awkward dimensions can turn off some homeowners. "Some people still see it as a hippie decor," he says.

-- December 18, 2006

By Troy McMullen
The Wall Street Journal Online

Friday, December 15, 2006


It's getting a little more expensive to put on a holiday light show in the front yard.

The high price of copper is driving up the cost of some lights by as much as 25%. Rising energy costs means it takes more dollars to keep those lights switched on. Higher fuel prices are also making it more costly to ship items, especially large decorations such as those popular life-size blinking Santas. Artificial Christmas trees and tree stands are more costly, too, as the costs of plastic and steel have risen. The higher costs are leading some retailers to cut corners: Some, for example, are skimping on the number of branches they include in their fake trees.

Big-box retailers -- such as Home Depot Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- have managed to keep prices down. Their high-volume orders can garner discounts, and those retailers also ordered early enough to avoid midyear copper-price increases. But independent retailers and decorating services have been hit hard.

The Christmas Light People, a lighting-design firm based in Tewksbury, Mass., that serves the Northeast, recently increased light prices by 20%-25%, adding close to $100 on a typical job. Holiday Lighting Specialists, a maker of Christmas displays in Tonkawa, Okla., that ships around the country, has seen material costs rise three times since January, forcing the company to raise prices on lights and displays by about 10%. TWI Inc., Wichita, Kan., which runs the lighting-design business LightWorks and the national online retailer, has also bumped up prices some 10% on imported products. Bennie Alegria, a holiday decorator in the Orlando, Fla., area whose average job runs about $3,000, says he's seen a 10% increase in shipping costs alone on big light displays, such as a popular life-size Santa in a golf cart. He has passed the increase on to clients this year.

All this comes as electricity rates are rising across the country. A 15% increase went into effect in Baltimore this summer, for example. Utah residents will see a 7.6% increase next week.

The expense of decorating is hitting yards around the country. Each year Tony Blore, a homeowner in Bellingham, Wash., adds another large figure to his home's holiday light show. The show already involves 35,000 lights and garners letters of appreciation from neighborhood families. This year, he eyed an animated Santa climbing a ladder and a nearly four-foot diameter blinking ball by But he opted for only the Santa, which cost around $430.

"The prices are just getting quite expensive," he says. "Maybe next year I'll be able to buy more."

While consumers could just head to the big-box stores to avoid the higher prices, some homeowners say they prefer the work of smaller shops and decorators because of their personal service and because they stock more specialty items. Smaller outlets, for example, may offer commercial-grade light strands -- with thicker wire and more connections -- as well as more durable displays not found elsewhere.

Holiday retailers are the latest companies to feel the impact of high material costs. Soaring metal prices in recent years have affected everything from the cookware to the auto-parts industries. High copper prices -- up nearly 50% in the past year -- have even encouraged thieves to steal air conditioning units and pipes to sell at scrap yards. Indeed, some in the holiday decorating industry say they may try to recoup some of their costs by selling lights to scrap dealers after the holidays and then replacing them next year, rather than going through the effort -- and cost -- of organizing and storing them.

Higher prices of steel in recent years are even causing an uptick in the price of some Christmas tree stands. The Web site of Grinnen's Last Stand, made by a couple in Pennsylvania, reads "Sorry to do this. The cost of the stand has gone up to $40 because of very high steel cost." Two years ago, the stand sold for $35, says creator Jim Grinnen.

The prices of plastics used to make the needles and trunks of artificial trees have also gone up. They jumped last year after hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico disrupted supply, and have remained higher than in recent years due to the cost of oil needed for their production. Prices of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, often used in tree trunks, were about 10 cents a pound higher in July than two years prior, according Chemical Data LP, a consulting firm in Houston, Texas. Prices of polyethylene, another plastic that is often used for fake needles, were up 21 cents a pound in July compared with two years ago, the company said.

As a result, some retailers have nudged up prices. Prices of Frontgate artificial trees -- which run from $150 to $1,300 in the catalogue -- are up about 5% since last year. And tree retailer Balsam Hill's products can run as high as $2,300 (for a 12-foot faux Vermont White Spruce with 3,600 lights). Balsam Hill Chief Executive Thomas Harman says light costs contribute to the tree's price, and now constitute as much as 25% of the tree's cost, compared with a high of 15% on trees made earlier in the year.

To keep tree prices down, some retailers are shaving off lights and branches. Web site this year stocked more affordable options, such as the new Douglas -- a 6.5 foot tall tree with 1,048 branches, or "tips," and 500 lights. It sells for $204. A higher-end tree, the 6.5 feet tall Winchester has 800 lights, 1,435 tips, and retails for $285. Michael Streb, the company's director of sales and marketing, said he wouldn't sell anything with much fewer lights or branches because consumers may end up seeing bare spots.

"You have to hit a price point, but you don't want returns," he said.

Also for the first time this year, the site has implemented a "good, better, best" pricing strategy for lights so consumers can buy more basic products if they are more concerned about price than commercial quality. For example, strands of 50 clear mini lights can go for $3.95, $6 and $7 depending on wire thickness, spacing and how tightly bulbs are fastened. He says the site also tries to keep more in stock, as a way to compete with mass merchandisers who might be more likely to sell out.

But despite any cost increases, many customers still want a professional to dress up their home. Peter Latsey, a real-estate investor outside Boston, spent around $2,000 to have the Christmas Light People put lights on some trees and the roofline of his 5,000 square-foot contemporary colonial home. He didn't mind that the rising cost of lights contributed at least an additional $100 to the job.

"You might mistake this home for an airport," says the 52-year-old father of two. "It's me getting caught up in Christmas."

-- December 08, 2006

By Sara Schaefer Munoz
From The Wall Street Journal Online

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Median existing-home price expected to rise slightly

Existing-home sales are expected to reach the third-highest total on record this year, the National Association of Realtors announced today in its latest forecast.

Existing-home sales are projected at 6.47 million this year, a decline of 8.6 percent compared to 2005, and are expected to fall 1 percent to 6.4 million in 2007.

New-home sales for this year, meanwhile, are expected to fall 17.7 percent to 1.06 million, which is the fourth-highest total on record. The association also expects new-home sales to decline another 9.4 percent in 2007 to 957,000.

The association's chief economist expects total housing starts to drop 12.3 percent this year to 1.82 million units, with another 15.1 percent drop in 2007 to 1.54 million.

"Much of the contraction in the new housing market results from cuts in builder construction to support pricing for current inventories. In addition, high construction costs in many areas are minimizing potential profits," according to the Realtor group's announcement.

David Lereah, NAR's chief economist, said in a statement that there are mixed conditions for housing in different regions of the country. "Roughly three-quarters of the country will experience a sluggish expansion in 2007, while other areas should continue to contract for at least part of the year. Most of the correction in home prices is behind us, but general gains in value next year will be modest by historical standards," Lereah stated.

He also stated that there is a "window of opportunity" for buyers, as sellers are becoming more flexible and there has been "an unexpected drop in mortgage interest rates. These conditions will persist in many areas until early spring, when inventory supplies are likely to become more balanced."

Lereah predicts that existing-home sales will be 4.6 higher in fourth-quarter 2007 compared to the fourth quarter of this year.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is forecast to gradually increase to 6.7 percent by fourth-quarter 2007. Last week, Freddie Mac reported that the 30-year fixed rate dropped to 6.11 percent.

The national median existing-home price for all of 2006 is projected to rise 1.4 percent to $222,600, with another 1 percent gain next year to $224,700. The median new-home price is expected to slide 0.5 percent to $239,700 this year, then rise 0.8 percent in 2007 to $241,700.

Lereah stated that prices are now "temporarily a little below a year ago when we were in a strong seller's market," Lereah said. "This correction is one of the factors drawing buyers into the current market, but most sellers are still seeing very healthy long-term gains."

The unemployment rate is expected to be 4.8 percent in 2007, up from the estimated average of 4.6 percent this year. Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, is forecast to be 3.4 percent for 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2007, while growth in the U.S. gross domestic product is expected to be 3.3 percent for all of this year and 2.3 percent in 2007. Inflation-adjusted disposable personal income is projected to grow 2.6 percent for 2006 and 3.5 percent next year, the Realtor group reported.

Monday, December 11, 2006
Inman News

Monday, December 11, 2006


Families with income of less than $100,000 can claim deduction

Households with annual income of $100,000 or less can get a tax break on their mortgage insurance when purchasing a home in 2007 using less than the traditional 20 percent down payment.

That's because a new tax deduction effective Jan. 1 will allow them to write off the full cost of their private or government mortgage insurance on their federal tax return.

With rising interest rates and slowing home-price appreciation, insured loans are often the best deal for borrowers, according to the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, a trade association representing the private mortgage insurance industry.

Mortgage insurance helps loan originators and investors make funds available to home buyers for low-down-payment mortgages by protecting lenders from a portion of the financial risk of default.

"Making the cost of mortgage insurance tax deductible helps those who need it most: low- and moderate-income Americans, primarily first-time home buyers, who are financially responsible but simply don't have the means to amass a 20 percent down payment," said MICA president Steve Smith in a statement.

On average, the new deduction is expected to save those eligible to claim it an average of $300 to $350 a year, said MICA spokesman Jeff Lubar.

The deduction applies to private and government mortgage insurance programs, such as VA and FHA-backed loans, Lubar said. Legislation creating the deduction was supported by consumer, business, taxpayer and civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, the National Taxpayers Union, the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance, and the Cuban American National Council.

Manny Mirabal, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, said about one in three families benefiting from the deduction will be minorities.

Mirabel said that with the rate of Hispanic home ownership lagging 20 percent below the national average of 68 percent, "this legislation (will) enable more hardworking Hispanic families and consumers to become homeowners."

Monday, December 11, 2006
Inman News

Friday, December 08, 2006


Housing market 'appears to be stabilizing,' says NAR economist

A National Association of Realtors gauge of pending-home sales dropped 1.7 percent in October compared to September and fell 13.2 percent compared to October 2005, the association announced today.

The Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in October, had a reading of 107.2. An index of 100 is equal to the average level of contract activity during 2001, the first year to be examined and the first of five consecutive record years for existing-home sales.

In preparing the index, the Realtor group examines a large national sample -- typically representing about 20 percent of transactions for existing-home sales. A sale is listed as pending when the contract has been signed and the transaction has not closed, but the sale usually is finalized within one or two months of signing.

The index had reached a cyclical low of 105.6 in July, and the decline from year-ago levels is narrowing, the association reported.

David Lereah, NAR's chief economist, said in a statement that a fairly steady pace of home sales can be expected for the next two months. "It's important to focus on where the housing market is now -- it appears to be stabilizing, and comparisons with an unsustainable boom mask the fact that home sales remain historically high -- they'll stay that way through 2007," he stated. "In addition, a temporary correction in prices distracts from the fact that it is primarily the number of home sales that affects the economy, and the number for this year will be the third highest on record."

Regionally, the index dropped 0.6 percent in the Midwest in October to 95.8 and was 15.4 percent below a year ago. The index in the South declined 1.7 percent to 122.9 and was 9.3 percent below October 2005. In the Northeast, the index eased 2.1 percent in October to 88 and was 13.5 percent lower than a year earlier. The index in the West fell 2.7 percent to 109.5 and was 17.4 percent below October 2005.

Monday, December 04, 2006

By Inman News

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


U.S. home prices grew at an annual rate of 3.5% in the third quarter, the slowest rate of price appreciation seen in eight years, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight reported Thursday.

Including the third quarter, home prices are up 7.7% in the past year, the slowest in three years. A year ago, prices were rising at a 13.4% pace.

By comparison, home prices rose at an annual rate of 5.1% during the second quarter, with the year-over-year increase through June pegged at 10.3%.

Prices had risen by 57% in the previous five years.

"The slowdown is not unexpected," said James Lockhart, director of OFHEO, in a release. "There are still some areas where appreciation rates remain very high, but now they are the exception rather than the norm." Read the full government report.

Still, home prices were still growing much faster than inflation, which fell at an annual rate of 0.2% during the third quarter.

"It is nice to see ... that there are plenty of pockets of strength out there to offset the places where prices are cooling/falling, since it's only the negative areas that get the media attention," wrote Stephen Stanley, chief economist for RBS Greenwich Capital, in an email.

The OFHEO index is considered the best gauge of home values, because it doesn't depend on the mix of houses sold as do reports on the median prices for new and existing homes. It compares apples with apples by tracking mortgages written for the same houses over time.

A separate index based only on home sales rather than also including mortgages for refinancing showed home prices rose 6% in the past year.

Prices fell 0.6% in Michigan over the past year, the first annual decline in any state in more than six years.

And prices fell from the second quarter to the third quarter in five states: New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Idaho showed the fastest year-over-year growth at 17.5%. Prices were also growing at rates of more than 15% in Utah, Oregon, Arizona, Washington and Florida.

The Rocky Mountain region was the hottest regional market in the third quarter, with prices rising at a 6.8% annual rate. Prices rose just 0.3% annualized in New England.

Prices fell on a quarter-to-quarter basis in 15 cities in California, including San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Sacramento. For the state as a whole, price gains slowed from 10.2% in the past year to annualized growth of about 2.5% in the third quarter.

Ten cities recorded price gains of more than 20% in the past year. Up more than 30%, Bend, Ore., showed the largest price gains, with Boise, Idaho; Gulfport, Miss.; Miami, Fla.; and Wenatchee, Wash., rounding out the top five.

The biggest year-over-year declines were seen in Anderson, Ind.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Springfield, Ohio; Holland, Mich.; and Greeley, Colo. In all, 18 cities recorded price declines over the past year.

In just the third quarter, 67 of 275 cities suffered falling prices.

Among the top 15 cities in population, three saw prices falling in the third quarter: Detroit, Boston and San Francisco. Among large cities, the largest price gains in the quarter were seen in Miami and Seattle, each up about 15.5% annualized.

-- December 04, 2006

By Rex Nutting
From MarketWatch

Monday, December 04, 2006


As the number of foreclosures rises, homeowners unable to make their mortgage payments are facing another growing threat: "foreclosure rescue" scams.

State and federal authorities say they are investigating an increasing number of homeowner complaints about fraud and deception by companies that engage in lending to financially distressed borrowers seeking to avoid foreclosure. Several states have recently passed or are contemplating new laws to provide more protection against dishonest businesses trying to take advantage of already vulnerable homeowners.

The problem centers on foreclosure-rescue companies, which target homeowners behind on their mortgage payments through newspaper ads or fliers claiming services such as "fast cash," "equity funding" and "no credit check." According to some recent cases filed by consumers and regulators, the companies mislead borrowers into believing they can save their homes from foreclosure in exchange for a transfer of the title for a year or two. The companies promise borrowers they can stay in their homes by paying rent for that period, giving them time to catch up financially until they can buy back their property. Often unknown to the borrowers, however, the companies may have sold their homes to a third party, stripping out the home equity and leaving the borrowers on the verge of eviction.

"More and more, we're seeing some real sharks, pretending to be the homeowner's best friend, but what they are after is the equity in the house," says Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

Foreclosure fraud has existed for a long time. But in recent years, experts and law-enforcement officials say, the schemes have grown increasingly complex, with scam artists often eyeing the chunks of equity that homeowners across the country amassed during the rapid housing-price appreciation from 2000 to 2005.

The scams are getting a boost as the housing boom fades and the numbers of past-due mortgage loans and foreclosures climb. Foreclosures historically have hit mainly homeowners with weak credit ratings. But now, a wider range of borrowers are struggling to pay off high-priced loans that lenders churned out during the boom. Online foreclosure-data service RealtyTrac says more than one million borrowers have seen their properties put in foreclosure so far this year, up 27% from the same period last year.

Statistics on the exact number of foreclosure-fraud cases filed are hard to come by as they are usually lumped together with mortgage fraud, which includes fraud against both lenders and borrowers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that mortgage fraud led to over $1 billion in losses in 2005, up from $429 million a year earlier. "We're increasing our focus on mortgage fraud," says Bill Stern, a supervisory special agent and mortgage-fraud coordinator at the FBI.

Alejandro and Martha Balderas tried for months to refinance their Chicago home and take it out of foreclosure after medical bills kept the couple from keeping up with their mortgage payments. They thought they had found their white knight when Platinum Investment Group LLC, a mortgage and real-estate investment company, promised the couple a loan against their house so they could pay off their mortgage and stay in their home, according to a complaint filed against Platinum in Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, by the state attorney general's office.

The Balderases, in their early 40s, signed on in April 2005 -- only to find out soon afterward that they had signed over their home to Platinum, which then sold it. Unable to keep paying "rent" to the company, they are now threatened with eviction, Ms. Balderas says. "It's a nightmare and we're reliving it every day," she says.

The Illinois attorney general charged that Platinum duped homeowners into transactions that caused them to lose substantial equity in their homes and face eviction. Platinum has denied the allegations. A lawyer representing Platinum didn't respond to requests for comment.

A total of 10 states have legislation in place to deter foreclosure-rescue fraud, including California, Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio and Illinois, according to Creola Johnson, an associate law professor at Ohio State University.

A common feature among those laws is that they give homeowners the right to cancel the "rescue" transaction days before the closing. In addition, for instance, under the legislation passed in Illinois this year, if a company acquires any financial interest in a property in foreclosure and simultaneously leases the property back to the homeowner and gives the owner the option to buy it back at a later date, the acquirer, in certain cases, must pay the homeowner at least 82% of the property's fair-market value at the closing of the purchase.

The goal of the payout requirements under the Illinois law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, is to ensure that distressed homeowners receive a substantial and fair amount of home equity when entering into leaseback transactions, while giving legitimate foreclosure purchasers a reasonable chance to profit.

Another common type of consumer complaint involves so-called foreclosure consultants, who, for an upfront fee, promise borrowers to negotiate with their lenders to postpone or avoid foreclosures. Illinois and several other states forbid foreclosure consultants from charging an upfront fee before performing the agreed-upon services.

Still, homeowners who find themselves duped into foreclosure scams often have a hard time recovering their losses, consumer lawyers say. For example, state law may not protect consumers if their houses are sold to third parties who claim they were unaware of any alleged fraud, according to a National Consumer Law Center report on foreclosure fraud.

-- November 29, 2006

By Lingling Wei
From The Wall Street Journal Online

Friday, December 01, 2006


The cost of homeowners' claims for damage due to lightning strikes is soaring because of the burgeoning number of high-end electronic items and appliances in the average home, insurers say.

Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. says that the cost of claims the company paid due to lightning strikes rose 77% between Jan. 2001 and July 2006, even as the number of claims fell in the period by nearly half. Some of the nation's largest insurance companies, including State Farm Insurance Cos. and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., also say they're experiencing a similar trend.

Insurers partly attribute the higher losses to the growing number of home-theater systems, plasma and high-definition television sets, game consoles and personal computers in the average American home -- which all can be fried by a surge of voltage in a home's electrical wiring that can occur from a lightning strike. Rising rebuilding costs are also a factor because in the worst instances, lightning torches the house either from overloading appliances or from a direct hit.

A State Farm spokesman says the company believes policyholders are filing fewer claims for lightning damage -- and other losses -- because of fear their rates will go up. But the claims they do file are larger.

Janice Dlatt, of Buffalo Grove, Ill. learned about lightning the hard way. She and her family suffered $10,000 in losses when a lightning strike burned out their hard-wired home-alarm system, heating and air-conditioning system, ceiling fans, TVs, VCRs and phones. "I consider ourselves lucky because my house didn't burn down. It was a small strike with a lot of voltage. It actually hit the flue from the furnace on the roof," she says.

Lightning strikes in the U.S. also cause an average of 6,100 residential fires and $144 million in direct property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit code- and standard-setting group.

Homeowner's insurance policies cover damage from electrical storms, less the deductible, but insurers say much of it could be avoided with the proper precautions.

A lightning-protection system can help save your gadgets and your house and in some places, may be a requirement under local building codes. The system, which provides a safe path for electricity to follow and discharge, should be installed by a qualified and licensed electrician and in compliance with local building codes and guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA standard 780) and Underwriter's Laboratories, the safety organization. The system includes a lightning rod or air terminals at the top of the house that can be disguised to look like a weather vane and wires to carry the current down to grounding rods at the bottom of the house. Installing such a system costs about $1 to $1.50 per square foot for the average U.S. home.

A whole-home surge arrestor installed near the main circuit-breaker panel or the electric meter helps prevent excess voltage from passing through the house's wiring, damaging electrical equipment and possibly starting a fire. A whole-house arrestor system, which averages from $150 to $500, is also a job for a professional electrician.

As for doing it yourself, surge suppressors that you plug into electrical outlets help prevent excess voltage from damaging specific appliances and equipment. True surge suppressors shouldn't be confused with ordinary power strips that don't offer protection. Surge suppressors cost an average of $12 to $30 in hardware and appliance stores. They should have a label that reads UL standard 1449 and have a suppressor voltage rating, or SVR, of 330 volts. The lower the SVR number, the better the suppressor will be at protecting appliances and electronics.

Suppressors deteriorate with age and after a surge. Some have audible signals or flashing lights to indicate when they have worn out and should be replaced.

"If you are going to pay $2,000 for a new TV, spending $20 for a new surge suppressor is a good investment," says Richard Roux, senior electrical engineer at the NFPA.

A simple solution would be to unplug your devices before electrical storms. And to cut your chances of being shocked yourself during a storm, avoid using electrical appliances, corded phones and plumbing during lightning and thunder, safety experts say. It's safest not to shower, do laundry or wash dishes, either. Electrical storms are most likely to occur during the summer and in the South and Southwest, but occur across the U.S. and throughout the year.

-- November 22, 2006
By M.P. McQueen
The Wall Street Journal Online