Where’s the bottom? Are Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento, South Florida and Las Vegas still in a tailspin? Is it time to make a run at a second home you felt you could never afford?

Perhaps we have been too driven and proud of the fact that 70 percent of all families in this country own their homes. In order to get there, lenders, real estate agents and consumers dipped into a "too easy" bucket where the value of ownership sunk to the same level of the cost of getting in the door — zero.

Where’s the bottom? Are Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento, South Florida and Las Vegas still in a tailspin? Is it time to make a run at a second home you felt you could never afford?

Perhaps we have been too driven and proud of the fact that 70 percent of all families in this country own their homes. In order to get there, lenders, real estate agents and consumers dipped into a "too easy" bucket where the value of ownership sunk to the same level of the cost of getting in the door — zero.

Sadly, greed became confused with privilege. We are now feeling the results of too much credit being offered to poor or borderline borrowers, overeager investors betting on dreams of continued double-digit appreciation, and impassioned move-ups wanting more housing than they could realistically afford.

The housing specialist first to label and predict a "foreclosure tsunami" for several areas of the country now predicts another round of foreclosures by homeowners who can afford to make their payments yet choose to walk away from their homes. When and if they do in any significant volume, it could lead to a housing meltdown.

"Virtually everyone missed the fact that housing appreciation is far more powerful to keep people paying than the legal consequences of default," said Tom DiMercurio, a veteran of 38 years in the foreclosure business and former president of Fidelity National Asset Management Solutions. "For many folks in different states and different stages in their life, defaulting on their home loan makes economic sense."

DiMercurio was the brains behind BuyBankHomes, a site that provides foreclosure information to interested parties such as consumers, investors and real estate agents. He also started Denver-based The Mercury Alliance, which offers conventional REO sales, management services, plus Internet auctions, and Paradigm Default Services, an operational platform for lenders and real estate brokers.

A decade of cheap money and incredibly flexible loan programs offered by many lenders sparked overbuilding by lenders, a flip-and-run mindset for speculators, and unrealistic expectations for first-time home buyers blinded by the low payments of a short-term loan. While the equity gained by rising home prices can cover many ill-conceived loan mistakes, a flat or sinking market only compounds problems for lenders and owners.

Credit is now tighter and borrowers are being screened and actually scrutinized for the first time in years. Yet, given the developments of the past 15 months, the key to getting a critical flow back into the housing picture may mean revamping the entire once-conservative loan-qualifying process.

"I also believe, that given the size of the growing number of people that have been and are continuing to be foreclosed, there will be no growth in the number of home buyers/borrowers — unless a foreclosure will be looked upon as a ‘late,’" DiMercurio said. "In order to have any kind of loan growth in the future residential market, something less than even subprime credit must be made satisfactory to lenders. And it won’t be easily substituted with down payment since values are also in the tank."

Values are not in the tank everywhere, but homes certainly are not rising quickly in value and they are taking longer to sell. Multiple listing service figures that show a drop in new listings must be filtered with the number of would-be sellers not wanting to compete in a slow or flat market.

Some sellers, especially those in some select second-home markets, continue to believe that they are in the driver’s seat. A recent offer on a $739,000 home with three bedrooms and two baths in 1,440 square feet near Lake Tahoe did not even draw a counter from the seller when a potential buyer offered $669,000.

The buyer did his homework and made what he felt to be a generous offer. In seven sales in the immediate area from May 2007 through March 2008, the highest paid was $453 per square foot and the lowest price was approximately $370 per square foot. The buyer truly wanted the home and offered more than the highest price per square foot.

All real estate is regional. Blips and dips in one neighborhood can resemble a flat line just a few blocks away. But a return to a national "feel good" housing atmosphere likely is years away, not months. The components are varied and complex and certainly will not be sorted out this year. How is that even possible anyway when some people believe defaulting on your home loan makes economic sense?

To get even more valuable advice from Tom, visit his Second Home Center.

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