May 16, 2004

Apartment 11D Has Bought a House

Apartment 11D has bought a house. (Yes, I know that makes no sense; but it does.)

I have one piece of advice: fixed-rate mortgage. When Alan Greenspan opines that usually most homebuyers overpay for the option to stay in a house at a fixed payment that a fixed-rate mortgage gives them, he is right: usually most homebuyers do overpay. But now is not "usually." Fixed rate mortgage:

Apt. 11D: My stomach is in knots. I fear that I might blow chunks at any minute. My brain can not hold a thought for more than a nano-second. I think we bought a house. Last week, after we got back from our week of tromping through the woods of PA and tossing a ball effortlessly in my in-laws backyard, I felt sure that we had to leave the city. I suddenly knew that it was the right thing for the kids. We can't afford an apartment right next to Central Park or a fancy private education. The four flights of stairs with the stroller and diaper bag have become onerous. It is too expensive to move within the city to a better apartment. We really have no other choice. We'll miss the city terribly -- the community life and the museums. But finally, FINALLY, the pros outweigh the cons. We have to move right away and make some compromises.

To find new possibilities, I made a chart of all the towns in the area. With a column for schools and a column for commute time. (Feel free to mock me now.) And I narrowed it down to Hillsdale, New Jersey, which seemed to have both. The house? We didn't care. Any shack would do. We made an appointment with the real estate agent for Saturday who promised us three good options. On Saturday morning, I got calls from all my friends. The NY Times real estate section had just written a cover article about the town highlighting what I just found out. Good schools and a short commute. Argh! The two-income hordes would descend with open checkbooks and push us out again.

We raced over to the newly exposed town and put a bid on house #3...

Posted by DeLong at May 16, 2004 06:13 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Does Greenspan's analysis account for the fact that a fixed rate, with judicious refinancings if and when possible, amounts to a downward-only floating rate? Worked for my wife and I; we have an above-average house free and clear, and an enhanced grip on the middle class.

Posted by: Ken D. on May 16, 2004 08:39 PM


Damn, you have to write this now??? I'm in the process of buying a house and finally, finally convinced myself and my girlfriend that the ARM made sense since we will likely move out of the house sooner rather than later. If we decide to stay past the end of the fixed portion of the ARM, we'd Refi at whatever the rate is then with a bigger down payment and hopefully a decent rate...

Posted by: Sujal on May 16, 2004 08:51 PM


Rats. She could have stayed and moved up to Washington Heights like the rest of us who couldn't afford to raise a family on the Upper West Side did!

Posted by: Chris Lehmann on May 16, 2004 09:55 PM


Ken hits the tide right but it looks like Sujal is in for the flood (rising rates). It worked for Ken because he used the lower rates to pay down the principal. Lots don't. (The credit card bill just has to get paid or that new car just has to be purchased). The refi market has pretty much collapsed although 35% of mortgages are ARMs. It means you can buy a (bigger) house but the downside is, can the payments still be made if: rates increase ( they are ) or inflation starts to make a move ( it is) and the salary/wages that are supporting that mortgage is in real terms not keeping up ( it isn't).
So the bankruptcy and foreclosure rates are increasing from already record levels (4%?). And the prospect is, AG is going to raise the prime making it even tougher on folks like Sujal.
There are folks who are buying a home and there are other folks who are making money buying/selling houses as a business.
I feel for the former but at this juncture think they needed to wait this one out. But who knows, maybe Sujal found an honest to goodness really good deal and restraint would not be the order of the day.
Can't help wondering how those who used refis last year to make ends meet are doing this year.
Hard to believe they saved it for a (this?) rainy day.

Posted by: calmo on May 16, 2004 10:00 PM


Two things to consider when deciding between ARM and conventional - structure and discipline. Discipline first. Are you considering an ARM because you can't afford the fixed rate mortgage? Buy a cheaper house. There is some risk (not all that high, but some) that the rate on the ARM will escalate fast enough that monthly payments will reach the level of the fixed rate contract within a few years. If during that time, one's income has not risen to accommodate the rise in mortgage rates, a pinch ensues. Best to settle on a house that one can afford with a fixed rate contract, then consider whether than ARM is the better financial choice, and enjoy the gravey.

Structure? With the Treasury (and mortgage) yield curve rather steep, an ARM contract structured to limit rate rises to, say 1% per year, would mean lower mortgage payments on a 1-year ARM than on a 30-year fixed for the next 4 years, no matter what the Fed does. Now, consider your demographic and your plans. How long are you likely to own that house? If only 5 years, then this is a pretty good deal, unless you picked a house you can only afford even with an ARM.

I find it very odd that Brad, who admires progress so, who maintains a special on-line library of (mostly) interesting math thingees, sees the ARM/fixed question as a monster under the bed, rather than a math problem that just about anybody can figure out. The problem with ARMs isn't that they turn around an bite you. It is that people who just have to have that bigger house (bigger fuel bill, bigger insurance, bigger taxes, bigger maintenance cost, more time sweeping and dusting) plop for an ARM because they can't satisfy their real estate urges any other way. ARMs aren't the problem. Home buyers with eyes bigger than their wallet are the problem.

Posted by: K Harris on May 17, 2004 04:23 AM


We just finally dumped our FHA ARM last year (the day before hurricane Isabella blew into town, what was Wachovia thinking?) It was a great little ARM and I think there was only one year when conventional interest rates were lower (and not by much). I finally did refinance because I don't think that rates are going to remain much lower and didn't want to end up paying more money since we might be here for a while. We did end up knocking three years of the life of the loan for only an additional $12/month.

Posted by: Cathy on May 17, 2004 07:56 AM


K, I agree with everything you say, but I think you make an incorrect assumption: that borrowers can get ARMs with 1 percent annual adjustment caps. I believe that most ARMs have caps of 2 percentage points a year. Lenders tell me that ARM programs tend to have take-it-or-leave it terms; they won't let you negotiate a 1 percent annual adjustment cap in exchange for something else.

Last week, the average rate on a 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM was 4.09 percent and the average rate on a 30-year fixed was 6.37 percent, according to my employer, So if you get a 1-year ARM now with a 2 percentage point annual adjustment cap, the rate could adjust to 6.09 percent a year from now, and 8.09 percent two years from now.

A borrower could get a hybrid ARM, in which the introductory rate lasts three or five years (or seven or 10 or...), then adjusts annually thereafter. Hybrid ARM rates are in the high 4s and low 5s, and they are a good deal for people who are certain that they'll live in their homes for only a few years before moving on. Those people should carefully consider the benefits of renting instead of buying.

Posted by: Holden Lewis on May 17, 2004 07:58 AM



I'll take your terms as correct. Still, the maximum that rates would move up is 4% in 2 years, assuming one didn't take a hybrid. Is the Fed likely to jack rates up that much over a 2 year period? It is pretty clear that they don't want to, though if inflation rages, they might have to change their minds.

Posted by: K Harris on May 17, 2004 08:46 AM


This is an interesting discussion. My husband and I are currently shifting from the East Coast to the midwest, while at the same time upgrading to a bigger home in a stellar neighborhood (outstanding school, all the amenities, etc.) I am sitting on my hands as my hubbie, who works in the financial services sector, hitches our star to a one-year ARM. Yikes! But here is how he justifies it:
First, when you have more than one child, you need to live in the best school district (which always costs more) lest you be sucked into private school bankruptcy. An extra 1-200K in borrowed money can save you that in real, after tax money with just two kids. When you sell the house, you get it back anyway.

Secondly, getting a great house in a great neighborhood (not a mcmansion, mind you)even if it stretches your budget to the limit can be an excellent mid- to long-term investment. Why? You're leveraging a small amount of money in a relatively low-risk, potentially high-return investment (one in which you can also live, added bonus). We have flipped two houses in a hot market, both of them stretched our income at the time of purchase. We have turned an 11k initial investment into a large wad in just 5 years. In those same years our other investments tanked, then crawled back to relatively the same place they started out.

I'm not saying this is a sure thing, and I'm not saying anybody else is wrong (god forbid! I have precious little knowledge of complicated financial markets). Just a bit of food for thought. Oh, and while this is no reason to do anything, most of the developed world uses ARMs and think we Americans are crazy to continue relying on antiquated 30 year mortgages.

Posted by: Kelli on May 17, 2004 12:41 PM


Could someone recommend a good article on this topic? I'm trying to buy a fixed-rate townhouse, and I'd like to have a better handle on the pros and cons. Everything I come across in print or the web is too lightweight.

Posted by: Buck on May 17, 2004 12:42 PM


Thanks so much, Brad. Yes, we're doing a fixed rate mortgage. No question about it.

And, Chris, we do live in Washington Heights right now. Even this area has become over priced in the past year. Crazy housing market.

Posted by: Laura on May 17, 2004 12:52 PM


Thanks so much, Brad. Yes, we're doing a fixed rate mortgage. No question about it.

And, Chris, we do live in Washington Heights right now. Even this area has become over priced in the past year. Crazy housing market.

Posted by: Laura on May 17, 2004 12:53 PM


Unless you know it's your dream house, you probably should consider the 5/1 ARM. It's generally 1.5 to 2 points cheaper than a 30-year fixed. It will be fixed for the first five years and normally has a lifetime upward maximum of five points with only two points upward in any year starting with the sixth.

I figure that, even in a worst case of upward interest rates, It would be about ten years before I would hit the "break even" point where I had paid as much as I would have with a fixed-rate. But the fact is that I will probabaly move before then. Americans move an average of every seven years. If it's just a starter home or there's a good chance you will relocate, give serious consideration to the 5/1.

Posted by: wvmcl on May 17, 2004 01:29 PM


It sure is nice to be able to choose a community for its good schools. But some people don't have the money to choose where to live. How will their kids be able to go to good schools?

It sure would be good if we could figure out a way for all parents to be able to send their kids to good schools. I wonder what could do that. What could we do so that all parents could have a choice of good schools where they could send their kids?

Posted by: j on May 17, 2004 02:16 PM


Are you just pondering for the hell of it, or are you asking a serious question? Schools are like everything else in life--you probably have to give up something to get them. Some people don't care--a school's a school. For others, it's the only thing that matters. Which sort of person are you? Which were your parents? Just curious.

For the record, some of the best magnet schools in the country are located in the worst inner city neighborhoods. Rich people bus or drive their kids there, but if you just buy a house there, you're in! How cool is that? Of course, you could always just sit on your ass and whine about how some have and some have not. That gets you pretty far in life.

Posted by: Kelli on May 17, 2004 05:25 PM


The math I've done is what wvmcl describes above... we're essentially committed to moving out in 5 years with the 5/1 ARM we're looking to get. It works out pretty well with us, saves me from gutting my retirement accounts for a big enough down payment (to keep the fixed rates down to something reasonable). We're also budgeting out house price to keep the monthly payments low enough that we can do 2 things: pay the principle down aggressively and save enough for a traditional down payment in 4 years (so we can shop for the next mortgage in the last year of the intro rate).

I am shopping around for a 1% cap, but it's tough now especially since it's pretty clear which way rates are going.


Posted by: Sujal Shah on May 18, 2004 07:07 AM


The basic assumption is that house prices will continue to rise. And in the past there have been few occurences of national average downturns. The regional aspect of the residential market may in some cases even over-ride these few national downturns.
I notice that those folks who have piles of $ are not rushing into the residential housing market. And some of those who finally decide to take the plunge decide also to make an exit:

Posted by: calmo on May 18, 2004 07:53 AM


Fact: the US population is growing by an estimated 3 million plus annually. In 8 boom states, growth is over 2% a year.

Fact: most of that growth is concentrated in a few dozen cities.

Fact: the only place to build in these high-growth regions is out in the boonies.

Fact: gas is getting more expensive by the day, commute times are skyrocketing, and everyone wants to live near scarce public transport (but no one wants "them" to build new stations or lines near existing housing stock).

Result: inner suburbs of big cities, especially those handful of places with good public transport, walkable streets, safety, amenities AND good schools are golden. Prices there will never go down, but the rate of increase will slow to the single digits, maybe even (shocker) below 5% in the near future. In my area for five years the average has been 12-15% rise per year. Crazy. I didn't design the system, I'm just reporting what I see.

Posted by: Kelli on May 18, 2004 08:48 AM


Forgive me if I'm wrong - I'm wait out of field. But for all those cheerleaders of the housing bubble:

Seems pretty inevitable to me that higher rates will lead to 1) higher monthly payments on ARMS 2) lower house prices (since most of us are buying the most expensive place the bank will let us buy, right? more interest = less house price)

So, when rates go up, we might well end up with a bunch folks who can neither 1) afford their monthly payment nor 2) sell and pay back the principal on the loan, since the house price will have dropped...

Uh oh. Hope you have the savings to cover the spread and/or you're making a boatload more than you were when you bought the house that you could only just barely afford...

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