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Why Do Owner-Occupant Buyers Matter to the Housing Recovery?
May 7, 2010
The unfortunate circumstance to emerge from the foreclosure crisis is the buying trend that has pitted cash investor against homebuyer. Both sets of buyers play a critical role in the vitality of a normal housing market. But the incredible volume of foreclosures coupled with fire sale prices, listing agent and asset management practices and government incentives have created an unprecedented set of forces. In the hardest hit markets, investors win the competition half of the time and homebuyers are sent to the sidelines empty handed. Multiply this formula MILLIONS of times over and you have a market dynamic that literally is reshaping the complexion of communities for years to come. Only collaboration and large-scale solutions have the power to break this cycle now. We’re only half way through this historically painful crisis and the choices we’re making now are adding up to things we won’t want to own in the future. Three million foreclosure sales in three years, and we are rebuilding our communities by trying to plug holes in the boat so the ship won’t sink. Instead of tapping into the very pride of the American spirit that has shaped our neighborhoods in the past, we are expecting business as usual strategies to save us from this mess. Arguably, we have failed owner-occupant homebuyers. Housing affordability is the greatest it has been in recent history. Government programs generously offer billions in tax credits and stabilization grants to create new homeowners. But industry sales practices have worked against consumers from the start, making it impossible for them to take advantage of these programs. Owner-occupants have the power to turn this cycle around. The more ownership there is in neighborhoods, the more vitality there will be in local communities. Social scientists have linked high owner-occupancy rates to everything from decreased crime rates to improved educational achievement for children. Once thriving suburban neighborhoods have demonstrated this data thousands of times over. To give disadvantaged homebuyers a badly needed break, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Freddie Mac [stock FRE][/stock], Fannie Mae [stock FNM][/stock] and a few lenders have implemented new policies that offer them purchase advantages. From 15-day waiting periods to measuring owner-occupant sales of listing agents to clear priorities on owner-occupant purchases in the offer process, these guidelines attempt to create inroads for owner occupants. This is just the beginning of homebuyer-favored mandates that force new behavior in the sales and management of foreclosures in local markets. But much more is needed. In a grand experiment of sorts, the idea for first-time homebuyer, owner-occupant auctions came about recently in an effort to create a dedicated venue for them to buy REOs. Foreclosure auctions are nothing new. But foreclosure auctions that are off-limits to investors and accessible to just owner-occupants are unheard of in today’s market. The auctions were held this month in Phoenix, Las Vegas and the Inland Empire. A new spin on an old sales channel offers owner-occupant buyers a badly needed investor-free zone in which to bid on and purchase properties. Besides offering buyers unprecedented access to foreclosure listings, the auctions represent a new level of collaboration between nonprofit entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and private enterprise. Each venue included special invitation-only auction sessions for Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP)-eligible buyers that had completed required homebuyer education courses. Homebuyer fairs and open house previews were held in each market. All buyers had to come pre-qualified for a mortgage and were required to bring a $1,000 check in order to make a bid. In my opinion, these large-scale forums have the potential to transform hundreds of vacant houses into homes for eager buyers. This may be the long overdue catalyst needed to break the gridlock for first-time homebuyers and ignite the process of revitalization in the worst hit foreclosure markets. We need more solutions like this. Industry players must help drive community revitalization, rather than leave the burden of homeownership initiatives to nonprofits, government agencies and struggling municipalities. The power and innovation of private enterprise can be the game changer here especially if it is aligned with the goal of stabilizing neighborhoods. The size of the challenge ahead of us is significant. Solutions must be scalable to make a difference. Recovery is within our reach, if we clear away the obstacles and empower homeowners to return to these neighborhoods. The pride of homeownership is a powerful emotion. Imagine what it can do, if we unleash it in all those shuttered neighborhoods? Jim Park is president and CEO of New Vista Asset Management.