Lately the economy is big news. As someone who discusses personal finance I'd have to say that the discussion is good. But, if you add up all the news reports (print, radio, television, internet) you wonder whether Jane and Joe Consumer are really learning anything. So much of what is being reported has no practical value for folks like you and I. So let's see if we can learn something from the turmoil all around us.
Lesson #1. "Zero Down" mortgages can be dangerous. "No money down" - sounds like every would-be homeowner's dream offer. No need to struggle saving a down payment. No need to wait until you do. Just sign on the dotted line. Only one problem. You're upside-down in your home as soon as you close on it. Yep, you owe more than it's worth. Unless you managed to keep all the closing costs, origination fees, attorney's fees, etc out of the mortgage. And, that doesn't typically happen (because your goal was to show up at closing with nothing but your ball point pen).
So maybe being upside-down in your home isn't so bad. Guess again! You can't sell your home (unless you can afford to bring a check to the closing). Yep, you're stuck. And, you'll stay stuck until the house appreciates to the point where it's worth more than the balance of your mortgage.
Lesson #2. "Interest Only" mortgages can be dangerous. Interest only mortgages were sold to help keep your payments "affordable" (oh, how I hate that phrase - it means we've done something to your loan that'll hurt more later so that it doesn't hurt now). Yes, it's true, you won't have a pay a portion of the principal you owe each month. So your payment will be lower. But, because you're not paying any principal the amount you owe doesn't go down each month. That means that the only way that you'll actually own more of your house is if the value of your home increases. If home don't appreciate? You could end up owing more than the home is worth (see "zero down" mortgage comments).
Lesson #3. The 30 and 15 year fixed mortgages have advantages. Both the lender and homeowner benefit. Because the interest rate is fixed, both know how much the payment will be. For the entire life of the loan. No worry that increases in the interest rate will outpace the borrower's income.
Plus, with every payment a portion of the mortgage is paid off. In small amounts at first, but increasing as time goes on. That means that every payment check is just a little more efficient than the one before. And, the homeowner's equity increases each month. Even if house prices fall, a portion of the monthly payment will help increase the amount that the borrower owns.
Lesson #4 Not everyone can afford the home that they want. We'd all like it if everyone could afford a nice, spacious home in a good neighborhood. After all, that's the American dream. But, the truth is we're not there yet. When you want to own a home badly enough you'll be tempted to believe anyone who will lend you the money to buy your dream palace. Don't be fooled. You won't find them anywhere nearby when you struggle to make the payments. They won't even recognize you on the street. They sold your mortgage to Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae and you are so yesterday. They're busy working today's deal. Don't place all the blame at their feet. If you buy a house and take on a mortgage without thinking about how different future situations (like a falling housing market) will play out, you have no one to blame but yourself. (and ignorance is no excuse. You don't have to be too smart to ask for help from someone who knows more)
Lesson #5.Just because the government says it's ok doesn't mean that it really is ok. Back in 2004 Congress held some hearings. Problems were identified at that time. You can read what the NY Times reported here Shortly thereafter the head of Fannie took early retirement as reported in USA Today At the time some in Congress said that there was nothing seriously wrong and let business go on as usual.
If you took out one of these mortgages since the fall of 2004 you might want to do a little research and see what your representative was saying about Fannie and Freddie back then. They could have prevented you from falling into this trap. It's sad, but you trusted people for good financial advice and didn't get it.The rest of us should also check the voting record. Instead of solving a $9 billion problem, now we're going to have to pay to clean up a $700 billion problem.
Lesson #6. Assuming that house prices will go up is dangerous. Back in 2004 housing prices had been increasing for 25 years. No one knew for sure what the future would bring. History said that prices were going up. But, there was no guarantee that it had to continue without a break. In fact, from about 2002 on many people were predicting that housing prices had to retreat.
Homeowners who bet the house on a rising market are doing just that. Betting their house. Shame on the people who promised them that prices couldn't drop. And shame on the borrowers' who believed them.
Lesson #7. Accumulating a down payment before buying a home is a good thing. Sure it's nice to be able to buy your dream home today even if the only thing you have in your pockets are your hands and some credit cards. But, it's not a good idea. Here's why. When you save for a down payment you're forced to live below your income. So you get used to sacrificing. You also limit your standard of living. Then later when you've saved the down payment and buy your home you've created the habit of controlling your finances. Not so if you buy with no money down.
Lesson #8. Americans had too much of their wealth tied up in their homes. For the last 25 years housing prices went up. So we didn't need to do anything to become wealthier. Just stay in our house. That would be ok, but during the same time we've been spending just about every dollar we earned. In fact, it was very tempting to use the newly created home equity loans to tap into that new wealth to buy cars, vacations, pay off credit card debt or anything else that came into our little noggins. It also caused us to think that we were wealthier than we really were.
Lesson #9. Just because someone will lend you the money doesn't mean that you should borrow it. You'd think that if a bank or mortgage company were going to lend you $250,000 that they want to be fairly sure that you'd be able to repay it. Only seems logical. But, in this particular case you'd be wrong. The reason is that the bank/mortgage company was only going to own your mortgage for a short period of time. They sold the loans to Fannie and Freddie. So beyond the first few months they didn't care whether you could afford the mortgage payments.
In our next installment we'll look at some lessons that can help people without problem mortgages from being sucked into the crisis.
In the meantime, keep on Stretching those Dollars!