The way we talk about real estate has changed dramatically in the last few years as the collective sentiment has shifted from euphoria to panic. No one would dare to say "the only way is up" or "the easy money is in flipping" anymore. Here are a few other phrases that once seemed just as true.
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- "Location doesn't matter."
Housing was appreciating so rapidly in seemingly every market that some people thought that no matter where you bought, you'd soon make a fortune. It's hard now to believe that anyone was promoting such a myth. After all, even people who claim to know nothing about real estate can rattle off the famous adage, "location, location, location." More than anything else, where a home is located determines its long-term value. A state-of-the-art kitchen can quickly become outdated, but a nice part of town can remain that way for generations. Even some places that seemed like great locations turned out to be terrible bets. Stephen Smith reported in an American RadioWorks documentary that Las Vegas went from having job growth four times the national average and attracting 4,000 to 5,000 new residents a month to being dubbed "Foreclosure City." (For more on why location matters, check out The 5 Factors Of A "Good" Location.)
- "You don't need a down payment."
Traditionally, the purpose of a down payment is to reduce the bank's lending risk. It shows that the borrower has enough self-discipline to save up 20% of the purchase price of a home. More importantly, it means that the borrower is likely to keep making his mortgage payments even when times are tough because he has already put a lot of his own money into the house. When banks started giving people mortgages that didn't require a down payment, buying a home started to feel more like leasing an apartment. Even owners with fixed-rate mortgages had little home equity since most of the mortgage payment for the first few years is interest. When housing prices dropped, owners started sending jingle mail to their lenders. So what if they could still afford the monthly payments? It didn't make logical sense to keep paying for a depreciating asset that they owned so little of, borrowers reasoned. The sting of a credit score ruined by foreclosure wouldn't last as long as the burn of paying $500,000 for a $300,000 home. The lack of down payment is also one reason why so many homeowners ended up underwater. If you purchase a home for $200,000 with no down payment and the market value of your house drops to $160,000, you can't sell the house because you can't pay off the mortgage (unless you have $40,000 sitting in the bank). If you purchase a home for $200,000 with a 20% down payment and the market value drops to $160,000, you still have the option to sell at a loss. Most people who didn't make down payments didn't have money in the bank, though, and when they needed to get out of their homes, they were forced into credit-damaging short sales and foreclosures instead of having the option to sell. (Learn more in Short Sales And Foreclosures: When It's Time To Move On.)
- "You can refinance before your rate goes up."
How many people who took out adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) heard this line? But since prices were headed nowhere but up, many people, especially subprime borrowers, assumed that in the three or five years before their ARMs reset, they would be able to improve their credit enough to qualify for a fixed-rate mortgage or see their home appreciate so much that they would have no trouble refinancing. Another reason many people took out ARMs and other risky mortgages was because they planned to flip the house and wanted to spend as little as possible on mortgage payments in the meantime. When the real estate market crashed, people went underwater and couldn't sell their homes for enough to pay back the money they owed on the mortgage. Not only did they become trapped with the home, they became trapped with an unpredictable and generally much higher housing payment. Because of the poor economy, many of these people also lost their jobs, making it nearly impossible to pay the mortgage.
- "Just get a home-equity loan."
During the boom, money trees were suddenly sprouting up in people's backyards in the form of home equity loans (also known as second mortgages) and home equity lines of credit. Homeowners were able to take advantage of the appreciation in their home's value to borrow money - lots of money. Whatever you wanted to pay for, whether it was your kids' college educations or a new kitchen, the home equity loan was the answer. Unfortunately, the collateral for these loans is the home itself. Even people who bought homes at reasonable prices and had affordable mortgage payments got sucked into the housing crisis when they borrowed money based on what would soon become unrealistic values for their homes. The loans they took out reduced the equity they had built up and increased their monthly payments. Many people who borrowed against their home equity ended up in the same position as people who took out bad mortgages or mortgages they couldn't really afford.
The Bottom Line
The next time we find ourselves in an asset bubble - and there will be a next time - perhaps the lessons we've learned from the housing crisis will cause us to consider what we hear and say a little more carefully.
Still feeling uninformed? Read this week's financial news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Armed and Greece Keeps Falling.