Investors Trying To Be More Cautious


Concerned that the record run-up in home price escalation may be ending, loan portfolio buyers have become more aggressive in the vetting process, according to some valuation service providers.
   Investors worry that either a fall in property values or a slowdown in appreciation combined with subprime lending, high-leverage loans and innovative products will make mortgages riskier.
   In fact, some Wall Street firms, believing that subprime spreads are too tight, are sitting on the sidelines, says Tom O'Grady, CEO of Pro-Teck Valuation Services in Waltham, Mass.
   In the vetting stage, also known as the tie out process, investors seek to kick out loans that don't meet their criteria. They may replace them with others or renegotiate their prices. If the seller has a strong relationship with the buyer, the investor may accept problematic loans.
   ‘It all depends on the philosophy of both parties and their relationships,’ O'Grady says.
   The possibility that home prices will stop rising or fall is especially worrisome to investors, observes Greg Hansen, president of Hansen Quality, a division of Fidelity National Financial based in Jacksonville, Fla. Investors are keeping a close eye on San Diego, where home price appreciation has been on fire but slowed to just 2.8% over the past year. Observers wonder if that was an anomaly or the first sign of the boom's end.

Seek signs of slowing
   ‘This has been an exceptionally long run for real estate values,’ Hansen says. ‘Appreciating rates have gone on for so long. Everybody's looking for the door to close. They don't have a lot of indicators that this is slowing down.’
   Investors are also concerned that interest-only products could create ‘a scary situation’ if combined with dropping home prices. Some homeowners might not be able to afford their payments when principal payments are combined with higher readjusted rates, and they might be unable to sell their house for what they bought it for.
   However, more aggressive vetting remains more of a wish than reality for investors, according to Hansen.
   ‘They're trying be more aggressive, but there's a lot of competition right now for mortgages,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to be pickier and more aggressive, but there's more competition from foreign investors.’
   Hansen says he has heard of investors having more bidding difficulty in the first half of the year as they competed intensely for product.
   ‘You have to be more aggressive just to win the bid. It's going to take some bigger interest rate swing or a clear indication that the market is softening’ to change that dynamic, he says.
   He predicts the real estate market will soften and that home price appreciation will slow, but he concedes that, like many, he's predicted that scenario before.

Regulators urge prudence
   Citing potentially dangerous trends, including interest-only loans and rapidly rising home values, regulators are urging investors to conduct more testing on automated valuation models (AVMs), says Rob Walker, executive vice president, collateral solutions, for First American Real Estate Solutions, Anaheim, Calif. He points to the bulletin from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, OCC 2004-59, that gives retail lending guidance, as well as to OCC 2005-22, a joint bulletin from five major regulators.
   ‘Regulators are taking AVMs a lot more seriously. They're all weighing in collectively,’ Walker says, pointing out that regulators want people to understand how AVMs work as well as how well they work.
   OCC 2005-22, the first regulatory bulletin to cite AVMs, urges lenders to establish criteria for selecting the appropriate valuation methodology based on the transaction's risk, to ensure that the valuation provider does not know the expected or estimated value and to take steps to prevent value shopping. Valuation tools that give different values could lead to systematic overvaluation if lenders and investors use the highest number rather than the most accurate one, regulators warn.
   AVM ‘surfing,’ or picking a value to support the loan application instead of one based on how good the AVM is in the particular area, is a dangerous practice, Walker agrees, saying investors should use the one ‘most accurate in their neck of the woods.’
   However, the trend is toward lenders asserting control over AVM use, with brokers following lenders' rules for using the tools. ‘The days of 'pick one and bring it back' are rapidly coming to an end,’ he says.
More tools available
   The due diligence process has become more efficient with the advent of valuation platforms offering a range of solutions, from AVMs for initial screenings through tools for the vetting process, O'Grady says. New valuation tools, including fraud scoring tools, cascading AVMs and hybrid solutions, give investors stronger due diligence abilities.
   More valuation firms are attaching properties to AVMs and offering fraud detection and forecasting tools, as well as information on the property's neighborhood. For example, the firms could report if the home has deferred maintenance, is under a highway overpass (which is a negative influence) or is near access to local highways, considered a positive factor.

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