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Critics battle ZIP code labeling in the real estate market

WASHINGTON — Could widespread designations of entire ZIP codes, metropolitan areas — even entire states — as "declining markets" hinder a real estate recovery and hurt minority groups and moderate-income buyers disproportionately? Growing ranks of critics say the answer is yes.

Since late 2007, most lenders, insurers and mortgage investment firms have compiled lists of local markets that they consider to be posing higher risks because housing values are dropping. Within those areas, borrowers are charged higher rates, loan fees and down payments — costs that can rise significantly when applicants have credit scores below designated minimum levels.

In some cases, the extra fees can add more than 2 percentage points to the interest rate and require much higher cash up front from applicants. At their extreme, declining-market designations remove entire categories of real estate from financing eligibility. Some private mortgage insurers, for instance, won't touch second homes or rental home investments anywhere inside large swaths of Florida or California.

Industry estimates on affected ZIP codes range from 8,000 to more than 12,000 across the country.

But now a broad-scale reaction against declining real estate market policies is taking shape. Consumer and industry groups are demanding that lenders and investors abandon or modify their approaches and are urging mortgage insurers to loosen up on theirs.

Individual risks

An alliance of three "multicultural" real estate trade groups representing Hispanics, blacks and Asians recently asked the mortgage industry to get rid of its current patchwork of proprietary and often contradictory lists and replace them with a single, more flexible and transparent policy for assessing the "true risk" on real estate in local markets.

Timothy Sandos, president and CEO of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, said current policies have the effect of cutting out or penalizing huge geographic areas that contain many smaller sub-markets where values are relatively stable or do not pose exceptional risks.

Sandos wants greater emphasis to be placed on what appraisers find and document about the direction of the local market, rather than computer-generated statistical models.

This "would allow homes to be evaluated as individual risks," Sandos said, rather than painted wholesale with scarlet letters as "declining" when they are not. Minorities and moderate-income households may be disproportionately affected by such broad-brush designations, he added, and they are often less able to come up with the higher down payments and extra fees demanded.

That, in turn, makes selling and buying tougher in their neighborhoods, lowers demand and prices, and constitutes what Sandos calls "a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy," with the designation actually fueling further decline.

Sandos' group co-authored the critique along with the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which represents black realty professionals, and the Asian Real Estate Association of America.

Change requested

The biggest real estate lobby, the 1.3-million-member National Association of Realtors, also has weighed in on the issue. In April 11 letters to the chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Richard F. Gaylord, the group's president, asked the two companies to "discontinue the policy of stigmatizing entire ZIP codes or (metropolitan areas)" as declining markets since they "typically include widely differing" local neighborhood conditions.

Though Fannie and Freddie's policies permit lenders to make exceptions to declining market designations, Gaylord said "the reports we hear are that (lenders) are extremely reluctant to do so" for fear that they'll be forced to buy back loans if borrowers default.

Steven Brooks, executive vice president of Flagstar Bank, a major lender based in Troy, Mich., confirmed that as a general rule, if Fannie Mae's automated underwriting system identifies an area as declining, "we typically will follow that" finding in underwriting and pricing a loan application.

However, he said, "on a case-by-case basis," when an appraisal comes in with a strong, well-documented valuation, "we do make exceptions" and override Fannie's automated advisory.

Asked for a comment on the declining markets issue, Fannie Mae spokesman Brian Faith said the company has "sought and received input" from consumer and industry groups, "and we take it seriously." Faith said Fannie is "considering making changes and refinements" in its policies but has no specific details at this point. Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German said "we are always re-evaluating" policies, including this one.

Bottom line: For the time being, if you own a property or plan to buy in any of the metropolitan areas and thousands of ZIP codes dubbed declining, expect to pay extra when you apply for a loan: at least 5 percent extra on down payments, a higher interest rate, and maybe a more limited menu of loan options.

That's the case even if the property is actually gaining in market value, not depreciating, and sales in your neighborhood are on the upswing.

Kenneth R. Harney can be reached at kenharney@earthlink.net.

Critics battle ZIP code labeling in the real estate market 04/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2008 12:53pm]
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