Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mortgage Rates May Be Low, But They're Tough To Pin Down -- Especially This Week

Vacation days contribute to jumpy mortgage rates

Mortgage rates are low right now but pinning them down this week could be a challenge. As Labor Day Weekend nears and Wall Streeters take their head-start on the holiday, trading volume will fall, which will cause mortgage rates to get jumpy.

As mortgage rates change, so does the long-term cost of owning a home. Every 1/8 percent adjustment changes a household budget.

Meanwhile, the relationship between "vacation days" and mortgage rate volatility is an interesting one; based more in scarcity than market fundamentals.

Rates tend to get volatile near holidays because of two inter-related facts:

  1. Conforming mortgage rates are based on the price of mortgage-backed bonds
  2. Mortgage-backed bonds can't trade without a buyer and a seller at a specific price

So, as the week progresses and more traders leave for their respective "extended" 3-day weekends, there's fewer buyers and sellers left on Wall Street to connect for a trade.  As a result, mortgage bond prices move across larger gaps than on a "normal" day which, in turn, translates into faster, larger changes in rates.

This phenomenon can be exaggerated during periods of economic uncertainty -- like what we're in now -- and, furthermore, there's a bevy of important data set for release this week including the FOMC Minutes, inflation data, and August jobs figures.

In other words, rates would have been volatile without the vacation week. The presence of Labor Day just piles on.

Mortgage rates may rise this week, or they may fall.  Either way, if you have a chance to lock something favorable and within your budget, consider doing it.  Rates are at all-time lows and likely won't last.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Funeral Potatoes

Funeral Potatoes (my most requested recipe)

12 large potatoes or 1 (32 oz) bag of frozen shredded hash browns

2 (103/4 oz) cans cream of chicken soup

2 cups sour cream

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1/2 cup butter, melted

1/3 cup chopped onion

2 cups crushed corn flakes

2 Tbsp. butter melted

Peel potatoes and boil for 30 minutes, until just tender. Cool and grate into a greased 9x13 inch baking dish (or put hash browns in baking dish). Combine soup, sour cream, cheese, melted butter and onions. Gently blend into potatoes. Combine crushed corn flakes and the 2 TBS. butter. Sprinkle on top. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Makes 12 servings.

How To Reduce Home Energy Costs By Sealing Air Leaks

Air leaks With Labor Day looming, the autumn and winter months aren't far behind. It's a good time to reflect on your home's heating and cooling costs, and take steps to lower your energy bills. Finding air leaks may be a perfect first project.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, up to 30 percent can be cut from a home's energy costs just by reducing drafts. For example, a 1/16-inch gap unsealed gap around a window is equivalent to leaving the window 3 inches open. 

That's a lot of wasted air.

The good news is that air leaks are rather simple to identify, and simple to fix. The key is to know where to look. And, to make the job easier, the government offers a complete DIY Guide To Sealing and Insulating a home.

Some of the key tips include:

  • Focus on the attic and basement, where most air is lost
  • Locate problem areas on a chimney
  • Check recessed lights which allow air flow between conditioned and unconditioned air

The government's website also provides a 13-page PDF with detailed images, instructions, and recommendation to help you with the work.

However, if the job is beyond your skill set, be sure to call a qualified contractor. Sealing your home from air leaks will reduce your monthly energy bill and the money spent to pay a professional will be just a fraction of what you'll save over time.

(Image courtesy: US Department of Energy)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Home Affordability Rankings For 225 Metropolitan Statistical Areas

Home Affordability - Top and Bottom 5 markets 2010 Q2
With home prices holding firm and mortgage rates still dropping, home affordability is reaching new heights.
According to the quarterly Home Opportunity Index as published by the National Association of Home Builders, more than 72 percent of all new and existing homes sold between April-June 2010 were affordable to families earning the national median income.
It's a slightly higher reading as compared to last quarter, and the second highest reading in the survey's history.
As with all aspects of real estate, however, home affordability varies by locale.
For example, 97.2% of homes sold in Syracuse were affordable for families making the area's median income, earning the New York city its first "Most Affordable Major City" designation.  Indianapolis was the first quarter winner.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the "Least Affordable Major City" title went to the New York-White Plains, NY-Wayne, NJ area for the 9th consecutive quarter.  Just 19.9% of homes are affordable to families earning the local median income, down 1 percent from last quarter.
The rankings for all 225 metro areas are viewable on the NAHB website but regardless of where you live, buying a home is as affordable as it's ever been in history. Furthermore, because home values are in recovery and mortgage rates may rise, the market is ripe for home buyers.
All things equal, buying a home may never be this inexpensive again. If you were planning to purchase later this year, you may want to move up your time frame.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New Home Sales Drop In July -- Just Like Existing Home Sales

New Home Supply July 2009 - July 2010One day after the National Association of Realtors released the softest Existing Home Sales report since 1995, the U.S. Census Bureau released a similarly-weak New Home Sales report.

Americans bought just 276,000 newly-built homes in July. That marks the fewest units sold since the government started keeping records in 1963.

In addition, although new home inventory actually dropped 2,000 units in July, the slowing sales pace still managed to push the national supply higher by 1.1 months.  At July's rate of sales, the nation's new home inventory would be exhausted in just about 9 months.

None of this news should surprise you, though. It's all been foreshadowed for weeks.

First, Single-Family Housing Starts have dropped in every month since April.  A "housing start" is a when a home starts construction and, because fewer homes are under construction, we should expect fewer homes to be sold.

Second, Building Permits are down.  The number of new permits peaked in March and have fallen 23 percent since.

And, lastly, home builder confidence ranks at its lowest levels since early-2009. A contributing factor in that pessimism is dwindling buyer foot traffic.

Regardless, there's two sides to the story. Although the New Home Sales data looks bad for builders, it can be terrific  for you. This is because new homes are more likely to be discounted when the sales cycle favors buyers.

Coupled with ultra-low mortgage rates, the cost of buying a newly-built home may have just become cheaper.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Existing Home Sales Plummet In July; Home Buyers Gain Leverage

Existing Home Sales July 2009 - July 2010The number of home resales plunged by 1.4 million units in July, according to the National Association of Realtors®' Existing Home Sales report.

It's a drop of 27 percent from June; single-family home resales are at the report's lowest levels since May 1999.

Furthermore, because of the sharp drop in sales volume, home inventories are spiking.

Homes for sale nationwide fell just short of 4 million units in July and, at the current sales paces, it would take 12.5 months for the existing inventory to be absorbed.

Home supply was just 8.9 months in June.

For home sellers , the Existing Home Sales report is a bit of bad news.  Fewer sales and larger inventories put negotiation leverage in the hands of the buyers which, in turn, creates downward pressure on home prices.  It may also increase time-on-market.

For home buyers, however, the data is decidedly welcome. After a stimulus-driven spring buying season that favored sellers, the summer and early-fall market seem to favor buyers. More choices and more leverage is a positive.

It helps that home affordability is up, too. 

Although there's reports that home values are rising, their modest gains are more than countered by the ongoing rally in mortgage rates. Freddie Mac says that 30-year fixed rate mortgage rates are at their lowest levels in history and, at today's rates, every one-eighth drop in mortgage rates roughly offsets a 1.5% increase to home price.

Mortgage rates are down 0.75 percent since mid-April.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bank Mortgage Lending Policies Appear To be Easing

Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending PracticesThe tightening in mortgage-lending policies that characterized the last 3 years appears to be slowing.

According to the Federal Reserve's quarterly survey of senior bank loan officers, roughly 1 in 10 lenders added mortgage qualification hurdles between April and June. It's a huge departure from just 2 years ago when the mortgage industry was facing its first wave of challenges. 

During that period, eight in 10 lenders added hurdles.

For mortgage applicants , this quarter's Fed survey results signals that mortgage lending may have reached its limits of restriction.

Since 2007, mortgage guidelines have become increasingly restrictive. There's extra scrutiny on assets and tax returns; employment history is given more weight; loan purpose matters.  There's a bevy of traits that can stand between you and an approval that didn't exist a few years ago.

That said, lots of homeowners are still getting loans.


Verifiable income, good credit scores and equity are the "magic formula" and banks want to lend to good credit risks. And the best news for those that qualify is that mortgage rates are fantastic right now.

According to Freddie Mac, mortgage rates are as low as they've been in history.

So, if you're among the many wondering if now is the right time to buy a home -- or refinance one -- remember that, although mortgage guidelines likely won't get worse, mortgage rates probably will.

Monday, August 23, 2010

How To Re-Grout And Caulk Bathroom Tiles

Over time, the grout in a shower can become dirty and discolored, and start to separate from its grout lines. This is a potentially dangerous condition for a home because broken grout lines allow water to seep into the walls, which can then lead to the growth of mold spores.

Fortunately, keeping your grout in tip-top shape is simple.

In this 2-minute video, you'll learn how to clean the existing grout in your shower and to prepare for a new coating. You'll also learn how to replace its caulk.

The video's tips include:

  • Why you should remove excess grout diagonally with a sponge
  • How to protect your tub from damage while the re-grout is in process
  • Choosing the right caulk for the job

The North American Tile Cleaning Association also offers helpful grout-cleaning advice. Visit their website at http://www.tilecleaning.org.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where are home prices headed?

It is always good to see what the experts are predicting.  Today, we have compiled the thoughts of five industry players to help show where the experts think home prices are headed for the rest of this year and going into 2011.

Three of the major housing price indexes:

Altos Research:
“The market, right now, is a veritable case study of the law of supply and demand. Right now, there’s a whole lot of supply, but very, very little demand. The buyers that drove a flurry of activity during the spring have left a deafening silence in their wake … Increases in inventory nationwide show that demand simply isn’t there. As the market continues to correct itself, and as we head into the seasonally weak fall and winter months, expect more increases in inventory, and likely deepening declines in asking prices.”

Radar Logic:
“It is our belief that housing prices will decrease in the autumn, perhaps precipitously, and that may cause a second dip in the U.S. economy … And home buyers are not demonstrating any perceivable confidence that we have found the bottom, yet. As we begin to see the data for the fall, we expect it will be soft, that volumes and prices will move lower … If we are right, the odds of a double dip in the economy may well be more than one in four.”

Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic:
“Home price volatility and collateral risk remain very high. The stabilization phase and policy intervention since the spring of 2009 has run its course. Prices are expected to further moderately decline as the economy remains weak through the fall.”

Two other housing experts:

Ethan Harris, coordinator of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch:

“I don’t think the housing market will double-dip. What we’re seeing in housing is a bottoming out at very low levels of activity. So, we expect a very long U-shaped recovery in housing in the next year or two. We expect home prices to be down slightly across the country. We expect construction to be essentially flat, and we expect continued very high levels of home foreclosures. Right now the housing market is in a standoff with very cheap financing and very low prices, encouraging buyers, but a flood of foreclosures offsetting that demand. A true recovery in the housing market isn’t likely until 2012, when we see substantial improvement in the foreclosure picture.”

Michael Carliner, research affiliate at the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies:
“Although existing home sales data, based on closings, haven’t yet shown the effect of the end of the tax credit, new home sales and contracts on existing homes have both fallen to record lows following the end of the tax credits.

The reality is that the real estate market won’t fully recover until builders and consumers start believing once again that housing is a relatively safe investment with reasonable returns, and that will take some time.”

We hope that information like this enables you to more easily understand your options in today’s volatile housing market.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mortgage Rates Make New Lows For The 9th Week In A Row

Freddie Mac mortgage rates (January - August 2010)
Another week, another new low for conforming mortgage rates.  In fact, this week marks the 9th time in a row it's happened.
Mortgage rates are (again) at their lowest levels in history.
The data comes from the Freddie Mac, a government group and major loan securitizer for the U.S. mortgage market. Freddie Mac's weekly survey is among the most widely-cited reports on mortgage rates and is the data used in home affordability models, among other statistics.
The 30-year fixed rate is averaging 4.42% nationally with an accompanying cost of 0.7 points. 1 point is equal to 1 percent of the loan size.  This week's reported rate is lower by 0.02 percent from last week, and lower by 0.70 percent from one year ago.
On a region-by-region basis, though, "average" 30-year fixed mortgage rates are different.
  • Northeast : 4.44 with 0.6 points
  • Southeast : 4.44 with 0.8 points
  • N. Central : 4.42 with 0.4 points
  • Southeast : 4.46 with 0.5 points
  • West : 4.35 with 0.8 points
But this isn't to say that mortgage pricing is better in, say, California as compared to Florida. Note that the West Region -- with the lowest average rate -- has the highest required points.  This is because mortgage rates and mortgage fees move in opposite directions.  The type of low-rate/high fee structure common in the West may be right for some home buyers and would-be refinancers, but may not be right for others.
What's important to remember is that, as a rate-shopper , it's always your choice on how your loan is structured. Banks offer multiple set-ups -- with or without points -- to meet every applicant's budget.
As mortgage rates continue to slide and touch new lows, it's an excellent opportunity to see what your lender can do for you. Low rates won't last forever.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Much Should You Expect To Pay In Mortgage Closing Costs?

Closing costs by state, 2010
How much does a mortgage cost? The answer depends on where you live. But no matter which your locale, chances are strong that you'll pay more for a mortgage in 2010 as compared to 2009.
According to Bankrate.com and its annual Closing Cost Survey, a typical $200,000, purchase mortgage now carries an average $3,741 in closing costs -- up nearly 37 percent from last year.
As defined by Bankrate.com, "closing costs" is defined as the sum of two numbers.  The first group is labeled "origination charges", a category that includes such items as underwriting fees, application fees and processing fees.  These fees are paid directly to the loan originator's company at the time of closing.
The second grouping of costs is labeled "third-party fees".  Third-party fees include appraisals, credit reports, settlement fees and title searches -- items paid in connection with the loan, but not paid to the lending bank or broker.
It's unclear why closing costs appear to have escalated into 2010, but Bankrate.com suggest that recently-enacted federal lending laws are a culprit:
  1. The new law requires loan officers to be accountable to a Good Faith Estimate's accuracy. Bankrate.com's prior-year surveys may have been "understated", therefore, because of a lack of accountability.
  2. The cost of federal compliance is high, and banks may be passing on compliance costs to consumers
To see the complete list of closing costs by state, visit the Bankrate.com website.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Single-Family Housing Starts Fade In July

Housing starts August 2008 - July 2010Sometimes, you need to look deeper than the headlines to get the news that matters. This basic truth's latest example comes from the July Housing Starts data, as published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the newspapers, Housing Starts improved last month:

  • US Housing Starts Make Modest Rebound (FT)
  • Housing Starts Rise Slightly (MoneyWatch)
  • Housing Starts Tick Higher In July (MarketWatch)

However, these stories are speaking in terms of all housing starts -- not just the single-family ones. This is a major point of difference for home buyers because the most people don't buy the multi-unit homes and apartment buildings that's also a part of the Housing Starts data. 

The overwhelming majority of buyers buy single-family homes and in July, as in the previous 3 months, the number of single-family housing starts fell.

In fact, single-family housing starts are down by nearly 25 percent since April and are now at their lowest levels since May 2009.

This is a much different message from the headlines above.

It's not surprising that single-family housing starts are down; builder confidence is down as well and the two metrics tend to trend in the same direction.

Furthermore, building permits for single-family homes fell in July, too.

As a home buyer, the drop in Housing Starts should help reduce housing inventory in the months ahead.  This may lead home prices to rise because home values are based on supply and demand.  For home sellers, falling starts should help reduce competition for buyers.

Each real estate market is unique and supply levels will vary from ZIP code to ZIP code. For up-to-the-minute inventory levels, make sure to talk with your real estate agent.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Home Builder Confidence Falls Again; Home Buyers Gain Leverage?

NAHB Housing Market Index August 2008-2010Home builder confidence in the newly-built, single-family housing market is down for the third straight month this month.

After reaching a 3-year high just 90 days ago, the National Association of Homebuilders' Housing Market Index is now at a multi-year low. It's since dropped by almost half.

As an economic indicator, the HMI's goal is to "take the pulse of the single-family housing market". It surveys home builders across the country and asks them to report on 3 facets of their business:

  1. How are market conditions today?
  2. How do market conditions look 6 months from now?
  3. How is the prospective traffic of new buyers for new homes?

Responses are then collated, weighted, and presented as the Housing Market Index.

The August HMI reading of 13 is the lowest since March 2009.

Not surprisingly, the main reasons why HMI is down echo the main reasons why consumer confidence is down. Jobs growth continues to be weak; credit guidelines remain restrictive; and, home values are recovering slowly, pressured by distressed properties.

Builders report watching foot traffic stagnate and most likely won't want to be stuck with excess inventory into the fall and winter months.  For home buyers , drops in builder confidence like this can be an excellent negotiation tool.

Builders may be more likely to offer incentives and/or price reductions into an uncertain economy, as compared to a strong one. Furthermore, weakness in home building indirectly drags mortgage rates lower. 

This one-two combination can make for cheaper homes with cheaper monthly payments.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How To Unclog A Sink That Won't Respond To Drano

Sometimes, a backed-up sink is too big of a job for a bottle of Drano. To clear the clog, you have to get your hands dirty. But what do you do?  This quick, 2-minute video from Lowe's is an excellent tutorial.

The video starts with basic safety preparation, then shows you how to:

  1. How to identify the J-trap beneath your sink
  2. Position a plastic bucket to catch water run-off
  3. Use your finger to clear out debris
  4. Replace the J-trap beneath the sink

Unclogging a sink can be simple homeowner project, but if you're uncomfortable working with plumbing or just want to outsource, be sure to call a professional.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Higher (And Lower) FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums Start October 4, 2010

FHA mortgage insurance premiums ready to changeFor the second time this year, the FHA is modifying mortgage insurance.

Beginning with FHA case numbers issued on or after October 4, 2010, the FHA is changing its upfront and annual mortgage insurance premium structure.

Under the new terms, assuming a 30-year fixed rate FHA mortgage with at least 5 percent equity:

  • Upfront MIP drops to 1.000% of the amount borrowed from 2.250%
  • Annual MIP increases to 0.850% of the amount borrowed from 0.500%

For homeowners , this switch in MIP decreases the upfront cost of an FHA-insured mortgage, but increases the loan's long-term costs.

Using a $100,000 mortgage as an example, upfront MIP falls to $1,000 from $2,250; monthly MIP jumps to $70.83 from $41.67. The FHA expects the change will yield an additional $300 million in premiums monthly.

The update is a huge win for the FHA whose reserve funds are self-proclaimed to be "perilously low".  The extra monies should help recapitalize and stabilize the government group.

The FHA is on pace to back 1.7 million loans this year.

For the majority of refinancing FHA homeowners and home buyers, the MIP change is neither good nor bad -- the borrowing landscape will just looks a bit different.  Yes, loans will cost more to carry each month, but also they'll be less expensive to procure. It's a trade-off and you can apply math formulas to solve for the best time to apply FHA. 

It may be wise to get your FHA case number before October 4, for example, depending on your time frame in the home and the expected life of the mortgage. Or, it may be better to wait until after October 4 to apply.

If you're unsure of how the new FHA mortgage premiums will impact your mortgage, be sure to call or email your loan officer for help.

NOTE : The FHA originally announced an implementation date of September 7. It was subsequently amended to October 4, 2010.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How Big Is The Foreclosure Market? It Depends On Where You Live, Of Course.

Foreclosure concentration, by state (July 2010)Foreclosure filings rose 4 percent nationwide last month versus June, according to foreclosure-tracking firm RealtyTrac.com. For the 17th straight month, total filings topped 300,000.

A foreclosure filing is defined as default notice, scheduled auction, or bank repossession.

As with most months, just a handful of states dominated foreclosure activity nationwide.

  • California : 14.9 percent of all activity
  • Florida : 11.6 percent of all activity
  • Arizona : 6.4 percent of all activity
  • Michigan : 6.2 percent of all activity
  • Georgia : 6.1 percent of all activity
  • Texas : 4.9 percent of all activity

Together, these 6 states represent just 30 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The other 44 states (and Washington D.C.) were home to the remaining 49.0%.

Despite this imbalance, though, in all markets, foreclosures and REO are making a profound impact on pricing and product. "Distressed" homes now represent 32 percent of the overall resale market nationwide, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Buying a foreclosed home can make for a terrific "deal", but buying in the REO market is decidedly different from buying a non-foreclosed property.

As 3 examples:

  1. Buying bank-owned homes can take 120 days to close.
  2. Foreclosures aren't always listed for sale publicly. Some inventory is privately-held.
  3. Bank-owned homes are often sold "as is". There may be defects that render the homes mortgage-ineligible.

If you have an interest in buying REO, consider talking with a real estate agent first. Even the negotiation process is different as compared to a non-distressed sale. It helps to have an experienced professional representing your interests.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Simple Explanation Of The Federal Reserve Statement (August 10, 2010 Edition)

Putting the FOMC statement in plain EnglishToday, in its first meeting in 6 weeks, the Federal Open Market Committee voted 9-to-1 to leave the Fed Funds Rate unchanged. 

The Fed Fund Rate remains at a historical low, within a prescribed target range of 0.000-0.250 percent.

In its press release, the FOMC said that, since June, the pace of economic recovery "has slowed". Household spending is increasing but remains restrained because of high levels of unemployment, falling home values, and restrictive credit.

Today's statement shows less economic optimism as compared to the prior year's worth of FOMC statements dating back to June 2009. The Fed is looking for growth to be "more modest in the near-term" than its previous expectations.

Weaknesses aside, the Fed highlighted strengths in the economy, too:

  1. Growth is ongoing on a national level
  2. Inflation levels remain exceedingly low
  3. Business spending is rising

As expected, the Fed re-affirmed its plan to hold the Fed Funds Rate near zero percent "for an extended period".

There were no surprises in the Fed's statement so, as a result, the mortgage market's reaction to the release has been neutral. Mortgage rates are unchanged this afternoon.

The FOMC's next meeting is scheduled for September 21, 2010.

The Fed Is Meeting Today. Should You Float Or Lock Your Mortgage Rate?

Fed Funds Rate June 2007-June 2010The Federal Open Market Committee holds a one-day meeting today, its fifth scheduled meeting of the year, and sixth overall since January.

The FOMC is the government's monetary policy-setting arm and the group's primary tool for that purpose is an interest rate called the Fed Funds Rate

The Fed Funds Rate is the prescribed rate at which banks borrow money from each other and, since December 16, 2008, the Federal Reserve has voted to keep the benchmark rate within a target range of 0.000-0.250 percent.

It's the lowest Fed Funds Rate in history.

Because the Fed Funds Rate is near zero, it's accommodative of economic growth, spurring businesses and consumers to borrow money on the cheap. This, in turn, fosters economic growth within a U.S. economy that is somewhat tentative and facing headwinds.

The Fed has said over and again that it will hold the Fed Funds Rate "exceptionally low" for as long as conditions warrant.  It's expect that the Fed will reiterate that message in today's post-meeting press release.

However, just because the Fed Funds Rate won't be changing today, that doesn't mean that mortgage rates won't.  Mortgage rates are not set by the Federal Reserve; open markets make mortgage rates.

Mortgage rates tend to be volatile when the Fed is meeting. This is because the Fed's press release highlights strengths and weaknesses in the economy and, depending on how Wall Street views those remarks, bond markets can undulate and mortgage rates are based on the price of mortgage-backed bonds.

When Ben Bernanke & Co. speak, Wall Street listens. 

The Fed's press release today will be dissected and analyzed.  Talk of higher-than-expected inflation, or better-than-expected growth should have a negative effect on rates. Talk of an economic slowdown may help rates to fall.

Either way, we can't be certain what the Fed will say or do this afternoon so if you're floating a rate right now and wondering whether the time is right to lock, the safe choice is to lock before 2:15 PM ET today.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Are You Throwing Out Food Before It Goes Bad?

Milk lasts beyond its Sell By dateJust because the expiration date has passed, that doesn't mean that the food is spoiled. It's a deep-seated misconception that results in the average American household wasting 14% of all food purchases.

The estimated cost of waste like that totals in the billions.

The data comes from a study commissioned by ShelfLifeAdvice.com, a website devoted to helping households cut food bills by providing better information of how to properly store food; of how food expiration dates work; and, by defining what "use by", "sell by" and other product dates actually mean.

Among survey participants, women fared better than men, older people fared better than younger people, and married people fared better than non-married people.  Overall, however, there's room for better understanding.

For example:

  • Milk will remain safe for about a week after the "sell by" date. It's safe to drink beyond that, but the taste may change for the worse.
  • Cottage Cheese will remain safe for about 2 weeks after the "sell by" date.
  • Mayonnaise will last for up to 4 months after opening, when kept cold

And, perhaps the biggest surprise, is that eggs, if properly refrigerated, will remain fresh for up to 5 weeks after the "sell by" date on the carton.

Read the survey's complete results on the ShelfLifeAdvice.com website, including facts you may not have known about keeping your food beyond its expiration date.  What you learn will keep you from pitching food prematurely, and help you save money at the grocery store.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Home Values Within 12.5 Percent Of April 2007 Peak, Nationwide

Home Price Index from April 2007 peak

According the Federal Home Finance Agency's Home Price Index, home values are now off just 12.5 percent from their April 2007 peak nationwide.  This, after a half-percent monthly increase in prices in May, on average.

Given the state of the market since April 2007, the Home Price Index results are a positive for both the housing market and the economy, but we have to remember that May's half-point increase is an average, and not specific to a particular area.

In contrast to "national markets", the real estate markets in which you and I live are decidedly local.  It's a major difference and the distinction renders the Home Price Index somewhat less important. 

After all, the HPI doesn't account for housing activity in individual neighborhoods , nor does it track value across cities. Instead, it summarizes data in giant chunks of geography.

A quick look at the HPI regional data proves the point. Of the HPI's 9 tracked regions, only one was within one-tenth of one percent of the national, half-point average.  The others varied by as much 1.3 percent.

As a sample:

  • Mountain Region : + 1.7 percent
  • New England : + 0.2 percent
  • South Atlantic : +1.0 percent

And this is on a regional basis. The HPI's applicability to state, city and neighborhood markets is even less appropriate.

Real estate values cannot be captured in a national survey. For home buyers and seller, what matters is the economics of a block, on a street, in a neighborhood.  That type of granularity can't be tracked in a report like the Home Price Index.

The best place to get that data is from a local real estate agent that knows the market well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nervous About Mortgage Rates Rising? Lock Thursday -- Ahead Of Friday's Jobs Report

Non-Farm Payrolls July 2008-July 2010Mortgage rates have been falling since April but that momentum could reverse tomorrow.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the July jobs report at 8:30 A.M. ET Friday. With a stronger-than-expected reading, mortgage rates should rise, harming home affordability. Jobs are a keystone in economic growth and growth is tied to rates.

Earlier this year, job growth went positive and reached as far north as 431,000 jobs created in May. That figure slipped negative last month, however, as the temporary, decennial census workers left the workforce.

Jobs matter to the U.S. economy. Among other concerns, unemployed Americans spend less on everyday goods and services, and are more likely to stop payments on a mortgage. These effects retard the economy, spur foreclosures, and harm home values.

The reverse is also true. More workers means more disposable dollars and, in theory, a stronger economy.

Analysts expect that a net 65,000 jobs were lost in July. Wall Street -- and Main Street -- have a big interest in those results.

Poor jobs data would likely result in a stock market sell-off which would, in turn, boost the value of government-backed mortgage bonds. This is because bonds tend to perform well when the economy is sagging and higher bond prices mean lower mortgage rates.

Strong jobs data, however, would likely push stock markets up and bond markets down. This would cause mortgage rates to rise. The stronger the employment figures, the higher mortgage rates should go.

So, if you're happy with where mortgage rates are today and you're concerned about what the jobs report may do to them tomorrow, consider talking to your loan officer about locking your rate as soon as possible.

Once the jobs report is released, it may be too late.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

As The Pending Home Sales Index Falls, Home Buyers See Dollar Signs

Pending Home Sales Dec 2008 to June 2010The Pending Home Sales Index failed to rebound from a cliff-dive in May, falling by another 3 percent more in June.  The index remains at record-low levels.

A "pending home sale" is a home under contract to sell, but not yet closed. The data is culled from local real estate associations and large brokers and accounts for 20 percent of all purchase transactions in a given month nationwide.

The Pending Home Sales Index is a future indicator for the housing market; there is a high correlation between the PHSI and the monthly Existing Home Sales report.  This is because of the relatively large sample set used for the PHSI, and because 80 percent of homes under contract close within 60 days, according to the National Association of Realtors.


June's Pending Home Sales Index is weak by most measures, but if you're a home buyer , the headlines aren't so bad. Fewer home sales can push negotiation leverage to the buy-side of a transaction.

Plus, there's other positives in the market for today's buyers:

  • Home supplies are up, which creates competition among sellers
  • Builder confidence is down, which leads to "free" upgrades and incentives
  • Mortgage rates are low, which increases cash flow and disposable income

All things equal, the current home buying conditions haven't been this favorable in years.

The falling figures in June's Pending Home Sales Index hint that home sales will be down through the rest of the summer and into early-Fall. However, mortgage rates may not and higher mortgage rates can do more to change a monthly payment that a small reduction in home price.

If you're planning to buy a home later this year, consider moving up your time frame. 

It's an excellent time to be a buyer.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What Does It Mean To Escrow Taxes And Insurance?

Escrow schedulingThe fiscal responsibility of a homeowner extends beyond the mortgage's basic principal and interest repayments. Homeowners are also responsible for the real estate taxes on the home and its insurance premiums, too.

Failure to pay taxes can lead to foreclosure, and failure to insure is breach of your mortgage contract.

As a homeowner, you have a choice about how you manage your real estate tax and insurance bills.  You can choose to pay them from your own bank account when the bills come due, or you can choose to pay 1/12 of the annual bill to your mortgage servicer each month, and then let your servicer pay the bills on your behalf when they come due.

Not surprisingly, servicers prefer the latter method -- it reduces two major lender risks:

  1. That the home's real estate taxes go delinquent and are sold to a third-party
  2. That the home endures catastrophic damage during a lapse of insurance coverage

In theory, when the servicer is paying the bills, the home's taxes are always current and the home's insurance is always paid. This method of managing taxes and insurance is commonly called "escrowing".

To calculate a home's monthly escrow payment is simple. Just take the sum of the annual real estate tax bills and insurance bill, then divide it by 12 months in the year.

As a example, a $4,000 annual tax bill with a $800 insurance policy = $4,800 annually = $400 paid into escrow monthly. These monies are collected as part of the regular mortgage payment along with the mortgage's scheduled principal + interest payment.

Homeowners choosing to escrow tend to get the lowest rate, lowest fee loans. This is because lenders often charge a premium to "waive escrow" (i.e. pay their own taxes and insurance). Escrow waiver fees vary between banks, but can range up to half-percent of the amount borrowed. The larger the loan, the stiffer the penalty in dollar terms. 

Choosing to waive escrow can also raise your mortgage rate by up to 0.250 percent.

If you're unsure whether escrowing is right for you, talk to your loan officer and/or financial planner. There's good reason to go either route depending on your profile.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ex-Burglars Share Tips On Protecting Your Home From Break-Ins

This week marks the start of August, a popular vacation month for Americans. Maybe you're among the many that will leave town for a few days -- or a few weeks.  But, before you leave your home, make sure you don't leave clues for burglars.

Sure, there's the basics like using an alarm system, locking your doors, and having a neighbor pick up your mail, but there's additional precautionary steps you should follow, too.  In a piece titled "Tips a Burglar Won't Tell You", NBC's The Today Show shares some of them. They're tips gleaned for a series of interviews with ex-convicts. 

Among the advice:

  1. Have neighbors remove fliers and other solicitations from your driveway and/or mailbox
  2. If you don't have a safe, hide valuables in a child's room -- not in a sock drawer
  3. Don't announce your vacation on Facebook, Twitter or other websites

It's impossible to protect your home from burglary completely, but you can take steps so that your home is not the most obvious target on the block. Start with common sense protection, then follow the extra tips from the video.