1. All eyes on the economy

As 2010 drew to a close, unemployment remained painfully elevated and many analysts were predicting further price declines in housing markets hit hard by foreclosures and joblessness.

But a new fear was spreading in some quarters: Mounting government debt and "QE2," the Federal Reserve’s latest initiative to resuscitate the economy, could weaken the dollar and spur runaway inflation.

Like previous "quantitative easing" initiatives, QE2 — the $600 billion Treasury purchase program announced by the Fed in November — was intended to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing in order to stimulate economic growth.

But signs of an emerging recovery mean Treasurys have fallen out of favor with investors, who would rather be in stocks and commodities if the economy is poised to take off. That’s sent long-term interest rates, including mortgages, back on an upward trajectory — the opposite of what the Fed had hoped for.

By MATT CARTER
and ANDREA V. BRAMBILA

Editor’s note: The health of the national and global economy figured prominently in the state of the housing market in 2010. Still hobbled by high unemployment and millions of distressed owners and foreclosed homes, real estate sales are expected to come in lower this year than the 2009 level, with prices roughly flat. This report highlights the major issues impacting the business of real estate in 2010. 

1. All eyes on the economy

As 2010 drew to a close, unemployment remained painfully elevated and many analysts were predicting further price declines in housing markets hit hard by foreclosures and joblessness.

But a new fear was spreading in some quarters: Mounting government debt and "QE2," the Federal Reserve’s latest initiative to resuscitate the economy, could weaken the dollar and spur runaway inflation.

Like previous "quantitative easing" initiatives, QE2 — the $600 billion Treasury purchase program announced by the Fed in November — was intended to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing in order to stimulate economic growth.

But signs of an emerging recovery mean Treasurys have fallen out of favor with investors, who would rather be in stocks and commodities if the economy is poised to take off. That’s sent long-term interest rates, including mortgages, back on an upward trajectory — the opposite of what the Fed had hoped for.

To head off inflation, critics say, the Fed will soon need to reverse course and tighten monetary policy, and the government will have to scale back spending and possibly raise taxes. Those measures would also slow economic growth, which remains anemic.

The final report of a bipartisan deficit reduction commission recommended scaling back or eliminating hundreds of tax breaks that reduce tax revenue by more than $1 trillion a year — including the mortgage interest deduction homeowners have enjoyed for decades.

But the report was not adopted by the full commission, and the real estate industry has fended off similar proposals in the past.

Instead of cutting spending and raising taxes, in one of its final acts of 2010 Congress renewed federal programs that provide extended unemployment benefits and also extend Bush-era tax breaks for two years — a move some say will have the impact of another stimulus package.

The Fed had previously kept a tight lid on mortgage rates by purchasing $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS), a program that wound down in March.

While mortgage rates were low in 2010, hitting historical lows for the modern era in November, tough underwriting standards meant loans were hard to come by, even for many who were fortunate enough to have jobs.

Credit could get tighter still if implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires lenders to increase their capital cushions and maintain "skin in the game" on riskier loans.

Economist Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley, Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, thinks the recovery hinges on lending.

Rosen doubts the Fed’s efforts to keep long-term rates low will stimulate growth on the scale that’s needed, and that the Fed should concentrate instead on helping community banks get back on their feet and resume lending.

Unemployment, tight credit and worries about further price declines limited sales of existing homes to about 4.8 million this year, down about 6 percent from 2009, the National Association of Realtors estimated in a year-end forecast.

With about 6.9 million homeowners behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure, and nearly 11 million "underwater" — owing more than their homes are worth — fears of further price declines are likely to persist.

Data aggregator CoreLogic estimates there’s a "shadow inventory" of 2.1 million homes that are likely to be repossessed by lenders, or which are already in REO (bank-owned) inventories but not yet on the market. …CONTINUED

2. Goodbye, tax credits

In a major coup for the real estate industry, 2009 ended with the federal first-time homebuyer tax credit program extended and expanded to include repeat buyers. Industry experts generally acknowledge that the program stimulated sales in the first half of 2010. The program also helped push up the share of first-time homebuyers to a record 50 percent of all homebuyers from July 2009 through June 2010, according to a NAR survey.

The program’s original deadline to purchase a home was Nov. 30, 2009. Under the extension, buyers had until April 30, 2010, to sign a purchase contract and until June 30, 2010, to close, and the closing deadline was later extended to Sept. 30, 2010.

January started off fairly strong, with closings of existing-home sales rising 11.5 percent compared to January 2009. By March, sales were up 16.1 percent year-over-year. In May, just after the contract deadline, closings rose 19.2 percent year-over-year.

NAR expected a drop-off in sales right after the tax credit expiration, followed by a "gradual rising trend in home sales." As late as August, NAR reported that existing-home sales were expected to hit the 5 million mark this year. The reality has turned out to be less sanguine.

In July, existing-home sales hit a record low seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.84 million. August and September sales were each down 19 percent year-over-year. In October, the sales rate dropped more precipitously, down 26 percent, which NAR attributed to last year’s surge of sales before the original tax credit deadline.

NAR’s last 2010 forecast anticipates 4.8 million existing-home sales, down 6.4 percent compared to 2009, with new-home sales falling 15.9 percent, to 316,000.

NAR is projecting a median existing-home price of $172,500 in 2010 — unchanged from last year. After price increases leading up to the closing deadline, prices began to decline in July and have continued to fall. The association predicts new-home prices will rise 1.9 percent this year, to $220,100.

Rising inventory continues to be a concern for long-term housing prices. In October, the unsold inventory of existing homes stood at 10.5 months, a 46 percent increase from October 2009.

It is unlikely that Congress will approve another tax credit anytime soon. Critics of the tax credit program say that many buyers would have purchased a home regardless of the incentive and/or that the program pushed demand forward, in effect stealing sales from the future. …CONTINUED

3. Robo-signing complicates foreclosure crisis

Although the economy was showing signs of life at the tail end of 2010, high unemployment and the prospect of another wave of foreclosures continued to threaten home prices in many markets — a situation that could be dragged out by the robo-signing scandal.

In the short term, the robo-signing scandal — which erupted in September when shortcuts taken by some loan servicers and law firms in processing foreclosure paperwork came under increased scrutiny — has slowed the flow of distressed properties into the hands of lenders.

By October, a half-dozen loan servicers said they’d halted or slowed foreclosure proceedings while they conducted internal reviews, concentrating on 23 states where courts have jurisdiction over foreclosure proceedings.

It wasn’t long before the moratoriums showed up in statistics.

The number of homes sold on courthouse steps or repossessed by banks at the end of the foreclosure process dropped 35 percent from September to October, Lender Processing Services reported in November.

Foreclosure data aggregator RealtyTrac reported that foreclosure-related filings fell 21 percent from October to November. And ForeclosureRadar, which tracks homes through the foreclosure process in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, has estimated that foreclosure starts in those states fell 25.5 percent from October to November, with auction sales and bank repos down 38.7 percent.

But in the long run, lenders say they are fixing errors in their processes, and that few homeowners will be found to have been foreclosed on improperly. Loan servicers have been resuming foreclosures, in some cases on a state-by-state basis, as they complete their reviews.

Although there were initial fears that title insurers would refuse to insure title on bank-owned (also known as real estate owned or REO) properties or require special warranties, those fears faded when the nation’s largest title insurer, Fidelity National Financial, dropped plans to require warranties.

While lenders may be forced to buy back loans from investors or settle claims that arise from a joint robo-signing investigation by attorneys general in all 50 states, federal officials lacked the ability or desire to impose a nationwide foreclosure moratorium.

It’s almost certain that the wrench the robo-signing scandal threw in the gears of lender’s foreclosure machinery will be a temporary one.

Statistics collected by the Mortgage Bankers Association suggest that at the end of September, about 2.2 million homes were in the foreclosure process, and another 4.5 million homeowners were behind on their mortgage payments.

The prospect of more foreclosures hitting the market can discourage would-be homebuyers who are waiting for prices to bottom.

Mortgage data aggregator CoreLogic recently estimated that it would take eight months to sell the 2.1 million homes likely to be repossessed by lenders or already in their real estate owned (REO) inventory as of August but not yet on the market.

The so called "shadow inventory" won’t come onto the market all at once, but exacerbates the risk of price declines, said CoreLogic Chief Economist Mark Fleming.

"It’s not the hurricane hitting the shore, it’s just a long and persistent rain, and that dampens the spirit all the way through," Fleming said.

The one bright spot: As more distressed homeowners lose their homes, the ranks of "underwater" borrowers are steadily shrinking.

In another report, CoreLogic estimated that during the third quarter, about 10.78 million homeowners owed more than their homes were worth — about 500,000 fewer homeowners than when the year began.

Most of the improvement was due to people losing their homes, rather than increasing home prices, the company said. …CONTINUED

4. FHA grows role in lending, tightens underwriting

For first-time homebuyers and others relying on FHA loan guarantees to finance a home purchase, the good news in 2010 was that the housing downturn probably isn’t going to wipe out the Federal Housing Administration’s mutual mortgage insurance fund.

FHA insured more than 1.1 million purchase mortgages during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, including 882,000 loans taken out by first-time homebuyers.

The bad news, for those with shaky credit, was that FHA has shored up its finances by tightening its underwriting criteria and restructuring the way premiums are paid. Homebuyers rushed to obtain FHA loans before the new underwriting standards were adopted in October.

In addition, federal housing officials have been keeping closer tabs on FHA loan originators with high default rates through initiatives like "Operation Watchdog," which targeted 15 lenders.

The loans FHA insured in 2010 have the best credit characteristics in the program’s history, with 57.2 percent of borrowers having FICO scores above 680 and only 1.3 percent under 600.

FHA now requires that borrowers with scores between 500-579 make downpayments of at least 10 percent, and those with scores below 500 don’t qualify for the program at all.

Many lenders have even stricter internal underwriting policies. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition has filed complaints against 22 lenders who allegedly refused to offer applications for FHA-guaranteed loans to potentially qualified borrowers with FICO scores below 620.

The National Association of Realtors has launched a lobbying campaign to roll back what the group views as the overly restrictive underwriting standards implemented not only by FHA, but Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The government-sponsored entities (GSEs) and FHA are interested only in backing "pristine loans," NAR says, which impairs their ability to serve qualified borrowers including low- and moderate-income families and first-time homebuyers.

With the collapse of the secondary market for loans that don’t carry some kind of government backing, FHA guaranteed nearly four out of 10 purchase loans in 2010.

Cumulatively, FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the giant mortgage guarantors placed in government conservatorship in 2008 — purchase or guarantee more than 90 percent of all mortgage loans.

NAR has also launched a "Home Ownership Matters" public relations campaign to defend government subsidies for homeowners like the mortgage interest deduction, which the group maintains benefit society as a whole. …CONTINUED

5. Mobile market matures

The smart phone revolution is in full swing. At the end of 2009, less than 15 percent of mobile phone users owned a smart phone. Now, one in four does, according to a recent report from comScore.

While some real estate technology and brokerage companies had initially focused their app development efforts on Apple’s iPhone, some major players, including Realtor.com parent Move Inc., have broadened their development to include apps for the Android operating system, which has been gaining ground rapidly among consumers.

Android market share was 23.5 percent in comScore’s October report, nearly on par with the Apple iPhone’s 24.6 percent market share.

Market share for the BlackBerry operating system was 35.8 percent, though its prevalence has been declining for much of the year.

An Inman News smart phone survey of real estate professionals conducted from July 28-Aug. 6, 2010, found that the largest share (41.8 percent) of respondents said they owned an Apple iPhone; 26.1 percent owned a BlackBerry mobile phone; 19.4 percent owned a mobile phone with the Android operating system; 10 percent owned a Palm device; and 3 percent owned an "other" smart phone.

The smart phone’s portability and versatility mean many real estate professionals are using their smart phones for tasks previously confined to their desktops. At least half of survey respondents reported that they used their smart phone at least somewhat frequently for phone calls, e-mail, scheduling, text messaging, social media/blogging, mapping, customer relationship management, calculations, photography and video, and property search.

Online advertising and transaction/document management were less popular, according to the Inman News survey.

Most real estate-related apps are still concentrated on consumer search of for-sale properties, but developers are also augmenting them with more features, such as rental and recently sold listings, enhanced map views and searches, voice-entry capability, and buttons that allow users to share listings with family and friends through text messaging, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

Other companies have gone beyond consumer property search. Some multiple listing services have released mobile websites and tools for their members, and some have offered consumer tools to access property information supplied by MLS members.

Providers of real estate documents, such as DocuSign and ZipForm, have released mobile apps. And social media aggregators, such as Gist and SocialMadeSimple, also offer apps to help users manage their social networking activities.

Mobile tagging, such as QR ("quick response") codes, have also gained traction in the real estate industry this year, but may not yet be mainstream. QR codes are similar to bar codes on retail merchandise. People with mobile phones can scan them to be taken to a Web page about a listing or to an agent’s website.

Some agents use QR codes on their printed marketing materials, such as yard signs, business cards and fliers. …CONTINUED

6. A year of data deals

Though the real estate industry has historically been wary of data sharing, it has seen an array of deals involving the aggregation, sharing and distribution of real estate data this year.

In January, the National Association of Realtors’ Realtors Property Resource (RPR) began making plays for multiple listing service data, offering MLSs non-compete agreements though not offering to share revenue, prompting criticism from some MLSs.

In February, First American Corp. and Move Inc. pitched their own deals to license historical listings data. In August, eight MLSs signed up with First American’s CoreLogic, six of them on an exclusive basis. In September, Move announced it had new or pending licensing agreements with 17 MLSs representing 238,000 subscribers.

That same month, RPR went live and announced it had signed up more than 100 MLSs representing 265,000 Realtors. By mid-December, RPR had more than 160 MLSs onboard.

NAR and Realtor.com operator Move updated the site’s operating agreement for the first time in more than 11 years this year. The agreement gave Move more leeway to redesign Realtor.com without prior approval from NAR, opening the gate for more rapid innovation of the site.

Separately, Move got NAR’s permission to syndicate listings data to third parties if instructed to do so by the MLS or broker supplying the listings. That same month, Move finalized a deal to acquire Threewide Corp., operator of national listing syndication platform ListHub, a step that signaled a broader acceptance of listing syndication in the industry.

Because some of ListHub’s syndication partners include Move competitors like Trulia and Zillow, some industry professionals expressed worries about portal disputes or decreased competition.

Two popular online consumer real estate portals, Yahoo Real Estate and Zillow, announced an advertising alliance in July to place targeted ads that real estate agents and brokers purchase from Zillow in property search results on both sites.

Shortly after Move’s acquisition of Threewide, ListHub competitor Point2 Technology Inc. announced it too was under new ownership, acquired by Yardi Systems, a real estate investment and property management software company. Yardi also acquired real estate data company PropertyShark.com in April.

In August, client management and direct marketing service Listingbook announced it was taking over Cyberhomes.com from LPS Real Estate Group Inc. In November, one of the largest MLSs in the nation, Chicago-based Midwest Real Estate Data LLC (MRED), signed licensing agreements with Listingbook and with online report generator Cloud CMA.

Also in November, the parent company of San Diego, Calif.-based real estate information service DataQuick sold the service and other subsidiaries to private investment firm TPG for nearly $850 million. …CONTINUED

7. Congress approves face-lift for financial system

If Realtors welcomed one aspect of the sweeping bill Congress passed in 2010 to overhaul regulation of the nation’s financial system, it was that the bill spelled the end for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s controversial appraisal rules.

But depending on how it’s implemented, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act could create new problems in the home lending arena.

To strengthen the stability of the financial system, the bill gives regulators the authority to require that lenders boost their capital cushions, and retain an ownership stake in home loans that are securitized and sold to investors.

Dodd-Frank will require that lenders retain at least 5 percent of the credit risk associated with mortgages they securitize and sell to investors in mortgage-backed securities. Regulators have until April to decide which loans — such as "vanilla" fixed-rate mortgages with large downpayments — will be exempt.

The credit risk retention rule is designed to ensure that lenders and loan originators have "skin in the game" — an incentive to make sound loans.

Banking industry critics say that if regulators go too far, they’ll restrict mortgage credit at a time when underwriting standards have already been adjusted to correct for the excesses of the boom.

Republican Party leaders say they intend to use their gains in the November elections to weaken, delay or rollback provisions of Dodd-Frank and the health care reform bill. 

There are a slew of other mortgage-related provisions in the Dodd-Frank bill, many of which will be enforced by a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Consumer advocacy groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance, applauded President Obama’s appointment of Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren to get the bureau off the ground.  Warren is serving as assistant to the president and special adviser to the Treasury secretary.

Dodd-Frank’s appraisal independence requirements, which supersede Fannie and Freddie’s Home Valuation Code of Conduct, could result in higher appraisal fees for consumers this spring.

Realtors complained that the code of conduct — implemented to protect appraisers from coercion by lenders — shifted work to appraisal management companies (AMCs). To boost their profits, AMCs allegedly hired appraisers who lacked experience in markets where they were asked to work, paying them less than the going rate.

Before Dodd-Frank was passed, Fannie Mae attempted to address the issue by notifying lenders that they were required to use appraisers with local experience who can access records on recent sales in markets where they are being asked to provide valuations.

In October, regulators implementing Dodd-Frank said they were giving lenders and AMCs until April 1 to begin complying with a provision of the bill requiring them to pay "reasonable and customary" fees to appraisers.

Groups representing appraisers and AMCs have clashed over how to establish what constitutes "reasonable and customary" fees, which can vary between markets. …CONTINUED

8. Major franchise firms push for growth

Real estate franchisors — those household names like Century 21, Re/Max and Prudential — worked to stay relevant in 2010, as brokers and agents continued to explore new ways to market themselves and their listings on the Internet.

A recent rule change by the National Association of Realtors may help franchises operate more competitive online listing portals that generate leads for brokerages that align with them.

When their franchisees grant permission, real estate franchisors will now be permitted to index their Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings feeds, NAR’s board of directors ruled in November at the group’s annual convention in New Orleans.

Although the new rules allowing franchisors to index their franchisees’ IDX (Internet Data Exchange) listings don’t take effect until 2011, 2010 was a momentous year for franchisors in other ways.

Realogy’s Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC continued its rapid expansion, reaching a 20-year franchise agreement in September with former Prudential Real Estate brokerage Mason-McDuffie Real Estate Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif.-based brokerage with 1,900 agents working out of 36 offices in Northern California and Nevada.

Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC closed out a year in which it signed agreements with 11 brokerages representing more than 3,000 agents by establishing a presence in Oregon through an agreement with Clackamas-based Realty Partners Inc.

That deal allowed Realogy’s newest franchise — launched in July 2008 — to claim 7,000 sales associates and 190 offices in 21 states. The network began the year with 100 franchise offices and about 4,300 sales associates.

In the meantime, the 2009 merger of GMAC Real Estate and Real Living into a single company operating under the Real Living brand seemed to be living up to its potential, with most GMAC brokerages making the transition to the Real Living name.

As a result, Real Living’s national network now includes nearly 10,000 agents and 400 offices, as envisioned when the merger was announceed in November 2009.

In the first nine months of 2010, RE/MAX LLC said franchise sales were up 36 percent from the same period a year ago. The company sold 147 franchises in the U.S., up nearly 29 percent from a year ago. The company claims nearly 100,000 sales associates worldwide.

Realogy said in October the company was looking to help its franchisees grow their businesses and increase their market share through mergers, acquisitions and agent walk-overs from other firms. The company said it had helped independently owned franchisees complete 75 growth-related transactions across the U.S. in 2010.

In its most recent quarterly report, Realogy — whose brands include Century 21, Coldwell Banker, ERA, Sotheby’s International Realty, and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate — said it had 267,000 sales associates operating under its brands as of Sept. 30 — a net gain of 5,000 associates from the end of 2009.

Century 21 added 300 franchise offices in the first nine months of the year, for a total of 8,000, and the number of sales associates grew by 4,000, to 121,000.

There were 3,300 franchise and company-owned Coldwell Banker offices — the same number as at the end of 2009 — but the number of sales associates decreased by 4,700, to 92,000.

ERA shed 100 franchise and company-owned offices in the first nine months of 2010, for a total of 2,500, but the number of sales associates grew by 400, reaching 30,000. …CONTINUED

9. Zeroing in on location, neighborhood

Real estate has always been about location. This year saw the rise of new technologies to help both consumers and real estate agents drill down to the neighborhood and hyperlocal level to find homes for sale and nearby amenities — even as they are walking or driving in a given area.

Neighborhood search and lifestyle search are now featured in many mobile applications, brokerage websites, third-party websites and social networking tools.

Neighborhood capabilities can allow users to search for homes within a preferred neighborhood or adjust boundary lines on a map to return listing results only within a user-specified area. Lifestyle features can help users unfamiliar with an area pin down what neighborhood might best fit their needs based on demographic and amenities data.

While such searches have been received largely positively, some real estate professionals worry they can lead to disputes about neighborhood boundaries and raise questions related to fair housing laws.

In the mobile realm, apps designed to detect the user’s location and reveal nearby for-sale homes and open-house events, and give directions to those properties, are now the norm.

Several location-based social networks/gaming platforms, notably FourSquare (which was founded in 2009 and now has more than 5 million users), Gowalla and SCVNGR, are examples of the technologies enabling this trend.

In August, social networking giant Facebook entered the location-based "check-in" genre with the launch of Facebook Places.

Real estate professionals use these location-based apps to grow or maintain their networks or to keep in touch with their clients throughout the house-hunting process. Mobile app developer iKenex this year created an app for San Diego-area Sandicor MLS that allows clients to share their current location with an agent.

The apps also have potential as real estate marketing tools. In July, for example, SCVNGR announced it was teaming up with real estate companies to put on large-scale homebuyer competitions in 10 cities around the country.

A range of sites and products have sprung up to offer neighborhood information. These include review sites such as YourPlace.com, and online report providers such as Cloud CMA, which combines multiple listing service data with information from online sources such as Zillow.com, Walk Score, Yelp and Education.com. Midwest Real Estate Data LLC (MRED) MLS and Discover MLS have both signed up to offer Cloud CMA as a service to their members. …CONTINUED

10. Election 2010: The people have spoken

On Nov. 2, 2010, U.S. voters made it abundantly clear that they wanted a change. Democrats lost their majority in the U.S. House to Republicans, who now outnumber them 242-193. Though Democrats held the Senate, they now have a slimmer majority: 53-47.

High unemployment, slow economic growth and the nation’s growing debt figured prominently in the campaigning and the outcome of November’s midterm elections.

The recession began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but many have lost jobs and homes since then, with continuing buzz about prospects for a "double-dip" recession.

The unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November and economic growth has been painfully slow. On a year-over-year basis, U.S. gross domestic product rose 2.5 percent in the third quarter.

The National Association of Realtors has historically backed the party in power, whether Democrat or Republican, because that party’s candidates control the congressional committees where legislation is decided. The incumbents NAR favors tend to have proven their support of the association with their voting record.

NAR’s funding of incumbents has drawn criticism from some real estate professionals for maintaining the status quo.

The national trade group did not back any "tea party"-endorsed candidates in federal elections, and several of the incumbents the association supported faced challenges from such candidates. Candidates with tea party support generally favor reduced government spending, lower taxes, and a reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit.

NAR’s Realtor Political Action Committee (RPAC) threw much of its support behind incumbents in 11 tight races this year, pulling for six Democrats and five Republicans. Eight of the 11 candidates — half of the Democrats and all of the Republicans — won.

The three NAR-supported Democrats who lost — U.S. Reps. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, Bill Foster of Illinois, and John Adler of New Jersey — all served on the House Financial Services Committee.

That committee will be key in considering an expected proposal by the Obama administration next year for restructuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the entire mortgage finance system.

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