Home sale statistics

The US Commerce Department reported today that new home sales fell 10.2% in January, which is a record low.

The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes fell 5.3%.

What does this mean?  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has its work cut-out for it.

Everyone agrees that things are likely going to get worse before they improve.  Eight hundred billion dollars and change might not be enough to make an impact worth noting.

Progress should be celebrated, although it makes me wonder how much more money we’ll have to print to make the government program work.  Printing more money is easy, but creating a bailout mentality for America is the part where I take exception.

If we eliminate the efficiency of capitalism, the smart money will eventually go elsewhere. Until that happens, we are living in one of the best times to buy real estate in the history of the United States.  The smartest people I know are buying as much real estate as they can.  The first-time home buyer tax credit makes it easier for many people.  Our record low mortgage interest rates help too.

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Loan Modifications

Some experts, including the smartest people I know, believe the loan modification efforts are delaying the inevitable flood of foreclosures.  Without a major change in strategy on the part of the lenders, it is just a matter of time before the newly modified borrowers become delinquent with their payments.  Recent reports of the first major round of loan modifications are supporting this theory, since over half are delinquent.

Even if the loan terms are modified to be reasonable given the borrower’s current income, it still does not solve the negative equity problem.

The current relief structure provides free money for those who cannot or will not stay current with their mortgage payments.  The unintended consequence of the handouts is an incentive for borrowers to stop making payments.  This is a dangerous road to travel, and my fear is it will not be recognized as a big problem until it is too late.

Given the current loan modification policies, is there really an incentive to stay current with one’s mortgage?

It can be argued that the benefits of being a few payments delinquent far outweigh the benefits of staying current.  Yes, you read that correctly.

People who honor their commitments might feel a little bit of indigestion from that last statement, and I understand.  Look at the long term benefit of intentionally missing a few mortgage payments.  It could allow you to have your mortgage interest rate reduced or your loan balance reduced, or both.  The short term consequence of dings on your credit report might be worth it to some people.  The penalty for your misbehavior is simply not significant.

If I was considering walking away from my house or defaulting on my payments, I would certainly say I should do it as soon as I can.  That way, I can start the clock ticking on my “repaired credit” status so I can buy another house at today’s prices and today’s interest rates.

It may sound a little goofy, but you can see how this would make sense to the less-than-honorable borrowers in the world.  I meet people like this in my market every week.

I am not advocating this as a strategy.

I do not think this is even close to a good idea, but it is not difficult to see the logic.  As long as there are incentives to become delinquent with mortgage payments, this scenario has the potential to fester and grow.

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