“Downturn,” “subprime,” “foreclosures” and “credit crunch” are the top phrases that come to mind when looking back at the year in real estate news. 2007 will be remembered as the year the subprime mortgage market collapsed, causing a credit crunch whose effect on the broader economy is still to be determined. The credit crunch has caused everyone to wonder whether the housing market will now play a role in tipping the economy into recession in 2008. But even while housing markets were slowing substantially in some parts, a boom in online activity and innovation in real estate was happening this year. 2007 was marked by an explosion in real estate blogging along with some major media interest in a few newer online business models.
Here are our picks for the most memorable real estate stories of 2007:
1. Subprime market implodes; housing downturn worsens. Subprime lenders started going belly up this year as they lost access to funding in an avalanche of delinquencies and foreclosures on loans that were packaged and sold to Wall Street investors. Each week brought more bad news in the mortgage and financial markets as more lenders and securities firms started reporting losses stemming from delinquencies and foreclosures. Congress has held numerous hearings on plans to help relieve some of the fallout from the resulting credit crunch (see #4 below). This story was by far the most important one for real estate in 2007 and will continue to unravel throughout 2008. (See Inman News special report, “Subprime Tsunami.”)
2. Blogging runs deeper in real estate’s blood. If 2006 was remembered as the year real estate blogging really took off, then 2007 will be known as the year that real estate bloggers went deeper, passing “sport” status and placing the practice officially under the heading of “business plan.” Many milestones converged to make this possible: Those who figured out blogging were gaining more and more business from it; ActiveRain, the social network for real estate professionals centered around blogging, saw its membership skyrocket, reaching 62,000 members by year end; and the slower market may have prompted many more agents to try blogging since its low cost of entry means there’s not much to lose. Many of real estate’s star bloggers came together for the first Bloggers Connect conference in August. (See Inman News special report on blogging.)
3. Foxtons closes shop. Foxtons, a discount real estate brokerage company that operated in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, put a notice on its Web site on Oct. 2 announcing its intent to file for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy and place its property listing agreements with another brokerage company. The bankruptcy court judge handling the case later allowed the company to auction off about 4,300 listing agreements in New York and New Jersey to the highest bidders, which included Maplewood Homebuilders LLC and Brooklyn-based Fillmore Real Estate. (See initial Inman News story and follow-up article.)
4. Foreclosure problem worsens; Bush announces rescue plan. The Bush administration on Dec. 6 rolled out a much-anticipated agreement with mortgage lenders and loan servicers to refinance or freeze the interest rates on up to 1.2 million subprime adjustable-rate mortgages for five years. The plan aims to help reduce the impact of the housing downturn on the economy and communities affected by foreclosures. The plan has met criticism from consumer advocates who say it won’t help enough borrowers and warnings from some in the lending industry who say a rate freeze could discourage investors from financing future loans. The plan has the backing of the American Securitization Forum, which represents companies that issue mortgage-backed securities, as well as investors, loan servicers and rating agencies. (See Inman News story.)
5. Redfin and “60 Minutes” of fame. CBS’ well-known “60 Minutes” television news program tackled the issue of real estate commissions, discounters versus full-service companies, and industry competition in a segment, “Chipping Away at Realtors’ Six Percent,” that aired May 13, 2007. The segment, which focused heavily on Seattle-based discount brokerage company Redfin, caused an uproar within the industry. After spending a lot of time with the show’s producers explaining the Justice Department’s ongoing antitrust lawsuit, the National Association of Realtors felt it got the “empty chair” treatment by not being shown interviewed in the segment. Many others said the portrayal of traditional broker and agent fees was biased and unfair. The primetime appearance was a clear win for Redfin, which saw an increase in activity in the days following the show. (See Inman News story. Watch an InmanTV analysis of the report here.)
6. Trulia and Zillow get booted from Prudential Real Estate convention. To the dismay of some of the company’s brokers, Prudential Real Estate barred two of the biggest names in online real estate — Trulia and Zillow — from exhibiting at the company’s annual convention in San Diego in March. Both companies had booked booths at the show and flew executives to Southern California to rub elbows with Prudential brokers, only to be told at the last minute they were not welcome. Trulia co-founder Sami Inkinen reported the incident on the company’s blog, saying they were told that their business model was in direct competition with a partnership between Prudential Real Estate Affiliates and Yahoo! Inc. (See Inman News story.)
7. Realogy goes private. An affiliate of private equity firm Apollo Management LP in April completed the purchase of Realogy Corp., about a year after Realogy was formed as an independent publicly traded company that broke off from Cendant Corp. Realogy owns real estate franchise brands Coldwell Banker, Century 21, ERA, Sotheby’s, Better Homes & Gardens and Coldwell Banker Commercial. The transaction was valued at about $8.5 billion. (See Inman News story.)
8. Well-known real estate writer dies. Beloved real estate advice columnist Robert Bruss passed away on Sept. 26, leaving a legacy behind that won’t soon be replaced. For more than 20 years Bruss wrote weekly real estate columns that appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country answering complicated real estate questions submitted by his loyal readers. He was the most prolific writer in the industry, a consumer advocate who wrote from experience and expertise honed from his years of real estate investing, teaching and attorney work. His columns were syndicated by Inman News, and the staff here considered him a close friend and mentor. (See Inman News story.)
9. NAR’s Gateway project announced. The National Association of Realtors in May revealed a somewhat vague plan to develop a massive national property information database. An advisory group charged with conceptualizing the project said in November that the database would be accessible to varying degrees by consumers, agents, brokers, appraisers and government agencies. This so-called Gateway system could include information on all types of properties, including for-sale-by-owner and agent-represented active for-sale listings. The group has been careful not to call the project a national MLS. NAR’s group says industry participants are demanding such a system to expand property information that is at their disposal. The project could hit one snag as NAR’s current agreement with Move Inc., which operates Realtor.com, would prevent consumer access to such a database and would have to be restructured. (See Inman News story.)
10. FHA goes modern. FHA modernization was a hot topic throughout 2007 as lawmakers volleyed back and forth on how to bring FHA loan programs more in line with market prices so that more borrowers would be able to use them. Senate lawmakers in December passed legislation that would reduce but not eliminate down-payment requirements, allow for a smaller increase in the maximum-size mortgage eligible for FHA backing, and place a one-year moratorium on a plan to introduce risk-based pricing. The bill would allow the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee loans of $417,000 or more in high-cost areas, the conforming loan limit for loans eligible for repurchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Bush administration supports the modest increases in FHA loan limits put forward by the Senate, advocating raising limits from $362,000 in high-cost areas to $417,000, and from $200,000 in lower-cost areas to $271,000. (See Inman News story.)
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