According to Sonya Stinson, Bankrate, Inc.: "They've stretched themselves higher than they probably should have," says John Anderson, owner of Twin Oaks Realty in Minneapolis and a National Association of Realtors expert in foreclosures. Some couldn't keep up when the rates on their adjustable rate mortgages shot up, Anderson says. Price drops at the high end of the market were so steep that a sale wouldn't cover the debt. In other words, high-end homeowners face the same problems that plague the not-so-rich-and-famous.
The National Association of Realtors says sales dropped 4.8 percent to 4.91 million units in 2010. That was slightly lower than 2008, which had been the weakest level since 1997.
Home prices have been depressed by a record number of foreclosures and high unemployment. Many potential buyers held off on purchases last year, fearful that prices hadn't bottomed out yet.
The poor year for sales ended strong in December. Buyers snapped up homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.28 million units, an increase of 12.8 percent from November and the strongest sales pace since last May.
Still, many economists believe it will take years for sales to rise to a normal level of around 6 million units a year. And some say 2011 will be even weaker than last year because more foreclosures are expected and home prices are likely to keep falling through the first six months of the year.
The foreclosure crisis has left a glut of unsold houses on the market. That has played a major role in lowering home prices. For December, the inventory of unsold homes stood at an 8.1 months supply, down from 9.5 months supply in November. That represents the amount of time it would take to sell the remaining supply of homes on the market at the December sales pace. A normal inventory supply is six months.
Even historically low mortgage rates have done little to boost the sales. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage rose to 4.74 percent this week from 4.71 percent the previous week, Freddie Mac said Thursday. The average rate on the 15-year loan, a popular refinance option, slipped to 4.05 percent from 4.08 percent. The 30-year loan rate reached a 40-year low of 4.17 percent in November, and the 15-year mortgage rate fell to 3.57 percent, the lowest level on records dating back to 1991.
For December, sales were up in all parts of the country with the strongest gain a 16.7 percent increase in the West. Sales rose 13 percent in the Northeast, 10.1 percent in the South and 11 percent in the Midwest.
The median price for a home sold in December was $168,800, down 1 percent from a year ago.
“The spike up and down in the housing market wasn’t normal, so we shouldn’t be measuring ourselves against it,” said Margaret Kelly, CEO of RE/MAX and panelist on the State of the Real Estate Industry forum. “To be successful in the current housing market, real estate professionals need to educate themselves about buying and selling distressed properties and working with investor buyers, who are a significant part of the market.”
According to Kelly, education is a critical aspect of turning things around. “Real estate professionals should be learning how to handle short sales, how to market themselves and find buyers, and to really understand market conditions,” she said. Kelly said the housing market is full of opportunities, and low interest rates, large inventories, and stable prices are attracting buyers to the market.
Panelist Ron Peltier, chairman and CEO of HomeServices of America, Inc., said that today’s real estate market resembles the market in 2000, which many people thought was a good year in real estate. “The rise in sales and prices during the boom was unrealistic and unsustainable, and all of that nonsense has been pushed out of the market,” said Peltier “Today buyers need to have jobs and be creditworthy. The underlying principles of home ownership are the same they were 100 years ago; we want a sense of home and community, we strive for long-term not short-term home ownership, and we have sense of pride for owning a home.”
Panelist Alex Perriello, president and CEO of Realogy Franchise Group, said there are no signs the housing market will recover soon, but now is the time for brokers to grow their market share through mergers or acquisitions. Matt Vernon, SVP for retail sales at Bank of America Home Loans, said short sales were never designed to be a mass market transaction in the industry. Vernon admitted that Bank of America and other lenders didn’t respond quickly enough to handle the large scale of short sale transactions, but hiring more staff, increasing education, and developing a customer focus helped to shorten and improve the process.
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"Bank of America and Fidelity National Financial have reached an agreement confirming that Fidelity will provide title insurance on the sale of foreclosed properties," said B of A spokesman Dan Frahm.
Under the agreement, Fidelity will defend the new homeowner in court if a foreclosed owner challenges the title. B of A will cover the costs and, if necessary, any damages awarded to the previous owner.
"Bank of America and Fidelity National are taking this step to facilitate the continued availability of title insurance that is vital to the marketability of foreclosed properties," Frahm said.
The giant bank is seeking similar agreements with other title insurers.
American Land Title Association chief executive Kurt Pfotenhauer welcomed the B of A/Fidelity agreement.
“Title insurers are looking to lenders to provide appropriate indemnities," he said. ALTA also has approached the GSE regulator about title indemnifications.
"We will continue to work with federal and state regulators, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and lenders to bring certainty to the marketplace," Pfotenhauer said.
One in every 29 Nevada homes received a foreclosure filing during the third quarter. Looking at total numbers of foreclosures, neighboring California was worst, with 191,016, followed by Florida, Arizona, Illinois and Michigan. Combined, the five states accounted for half of all foreclosures last quarter. Of course, once the moratorium ends, we can expect a new tidal wave of foreclosures. John McGeough, a broker, said that the current foreclosure freeze may give distressed homeowners extra time to do a short sale and avoid having their homes repossessed by the banks. "Foreclosure should be the last resort."
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Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist downplayed the damage a bit. According to him, customers rushed into deals to claim the credit, borrowing from May sales. Once the economic recovery comes into full swing, housing markets will heat up. Those conditions include much lower home prices and extremely favorable mortgage interest rates. The question is when -- or if -- the job market will ever bounce back. "We're not creating jobs," said Larson. "The housing problems now are being driven by broad economic problems.