Friday, February 12, 2010

Housing and Taxes

The City of Grand Rapids and several surrounding areas are considering tax increases this May to shore up local budgets. Of course, much of the reason is the Great Recession we are currently in. Much of the problem is that city governments outspent themselves and sold taxpayers down the road by promising unionized municipal workers very generous and unsustainable pension benefits. We'll address that issue soon because we are doing research on the coming budget armageddon in Grand Rapids due to the pension ponzi scheme problem. However, another piece of the puzzle is the decline in housing prices, which also leads to lower city government revenues.

We're hearing bleats from the likes of the National Association of Realtors that housing may be turning around and that prices are up. Prices may have ticked up slightly in some areas. This is due to a few government and bank policies that are distorting the market - temporarily.

First, The Federal Reserve has printed nearly $1.25 trillion of counterfeit money to buy Mortgage Backed Securities from Freddie Mac and Fannie May. This has had the affect of creating a market for mortgages that wouldn't have been there otherwise. This has kept rates low and loans easier to get. This program ends in March.

Second, we all know about the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit that was set to expire last year and was extended to April of this year. This also bumped up demand and prices, but at the expense of future demand and prices.

Third, banks and the government mortgage entities tried foreclosure moratoria to give borrowers time to catch up and work out loan modifications. This has been a failure and foreclosures are picking up again.

Some suggested reading material to learn more about these market-distorting policies:

According to Trulia, if you bought a house in Grand Rapids in 2005, the value of your house has dropped 25% or more. Anecdotal looks at housing in my personal experience shows a 30-40% decline.

The point is that the decline is not ending and more pain is to come. Foreclosures are increasing and more and more people are realizing that paying on a mortgage for a house that will take decades to regain its value is a waste of time, money, and worry. As I previously posted, the option of walking away from your mortgage is rapidly becoming more and more attractive. This is a good thing. Why? Because it clears the market more quickly and gets us to where we need to be (and will eventually end up anyways) in order to begin rebuilding the economy. The government has wasted, literally, trillions of dollars to prevent the inevitable.

Banks are trying very hard to make people believe that walking away from your mortgage is somehow immoral or shirking your responsibility. Yet banks and businesses walk away from mortgages all the time, because it's simply an economic decision.

See the article Double standard in mortgage walkaway:
NEW YORK — Tishman Speyer Properties walks away from 11,232 Manhattan apartments because it can't pay its mortgage. That's good business.

Rick Gilson, a college custodial supervisor in South Dakota, wants to walk away from the mortgage on his mobile home. If he does, he'll be a deadbeat.

Those two borrowers face the same financial dilemma: Their mortgages far exceed the values of their properties. Yet one gets to walk away without guilt, while the other can't.

Gilson is too scared to dump the mortgage on his mobile home. He owes $31,973, but the home is only worth about $14,000.

"I have 12 years of money put into this property that I will never get out," said the 50-year-old Gilson, from Rapid City, S.D. "But I am still paying because this is what I have been told to do. That's what I think is right."

Until now, the focus of the real estate crisis has been on individuals. One in four U.S. homeowners, or nearly 11 million Americans, are underwater on their mortgages. In some parts of the country — Florida, Nevada, Michigan, California and Arizona — the share tops 40 percent.

Some experts say it makes sense for some people to walk away if they're deeply underwater, even if doing so could wreck their credit score for seven years. It may not be worth it to keep paying a mortgage when they can find comparable rental housing for considerably less money.

The argument against walkaways is that they will wreak economic havoc if a lot of people do it. Banks will have more bad loans on their books. They'll make fewer loans. Home prices will plunge more.

The rules are different, though, for the walkaway of all walkaways.

That title is reserved for what happened to one of New York's trophy properties, the 56-building Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village complex. Spanning 80 acres on Manhattan's east side, it's the largest single-owned residential area in the city. Its red brick buildings, built by Metropolitan Life in the 1940s for World War II veterans, are still a haven for the city's middle class.

Commercial real-estate firm Tishman and its partner, investment firm BlackRock, paid $5.4 billion to buy the property from MetLife in late 2006 — right at the market's peak. They hoped to make money by converting rent-regulated apartments into luxury condos and raising rents.

Then the housing crash hit. The value now: $1.8 billion.

And you thought you overpaid for your house.

I suggest you read the entire article.

Just look at it this way - if it's significantly cheaper than your mortgage payment to rent a property similar to your current home, you're underwater and losing money each month.

Of course, if you decide that fixing your family's balance sheet is more important than propping up a bank, you should consult an attorney who specializes in foreclosure and short sales. Every state is different in terms of its real estate law, so you must get good advice before making the decision.

More on the local impact, and reaction, coming soon...

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