3 outside-the-box alternatives for home buyers in a tough housing market

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MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto


Here’s a bold forecast for the housing market in 2019: conditions will continue to be strained as affordable inventory gets snatched up quickly, leaving the least desirable and most pricey properties to stagnate.

Given how steep the housing shortfall has been for so many years – Freddie Mac economists estimated we’re nearly 5 million units short – that’s kind of a no-brainer. The bigger question is what we do about it.

In the spirit of “new year, new approach,” MarketWatch has collected several suggested solutions to the housing crunch. These are unconventional ideas, but ones that industry participants have been exploring for years. They may provide fodder for house hunters willing to think outside the box – especially if the idea of another wasted Sunday afternoon of open houses doesn’t appeal.

Factory-built homes

Jenny Cochrane and her husband had spent years taking care of her mother, who was struggling with breast cancer and who owned a manufactured home in Yulee, Florida.

The couple ran into some financial trouble in the downturn – “the economy went splat and so did we,” Cochrane said in an interview. But she still had enough saved in her 401(k) to consider buying a traditional house. Eventually, though, the couple decided to assume her mother’s mortgage and take over her house, mostly because they liked the space that the much-cheaper factory-built home afforded them.

Jenny Cochran


The manufactured home of Jenny Cochran, a Carrington Mortgage customer in Florida.

“It’s a double-wide manufactured home on a solid foundation, it’s not going anywhere,” Cochrane said. The couple rode out the last hurricane with barely a scratch to show for it. They have a front porch, back porch, 3 bedrooms, and laundry room on about an acre of land.

Manufactured homes are 35-47% cheaper than traditional “site-built” properties, according to an analysis from the Urban Institute. Factory-built homes accounted for 16-25% of all new single-family houses between 1977 and 1995, but just 10% in 2017, even as the quality of construction has become much better over the past few years, the Urban researchers noted.

See also: The notorious Reno drunk and the housing-market hangover

Restrictive zoning is partially to blame for the low take-up of manufactured homes. About one-third of them are currently in single-purpose communities, and municipalities often ban the development of such areas.

But a more significant challenge is that lenders have often struggled to make mortgages on manufactured homes. That’s in part because it can be challenging to find comparable properties against which to appraise them, and in part because most owners don’t own the land on which the houses sit. (Another wrinkle, as the Urban Institute notes, is that most mortgages for manufactured homes tend to be much smaller, and small-dollar loans are always less desirable for lenders, who have fixed overhead costs.)

Freddie Mac














FMCC, -7.91%












 , the giant government-sponsored enterprise that buys mortgages from banks and other lenders, has introduced a new program to allow conventional-style financing for factory-built homes, in part by allowing appraisers to use site-built properties as comparables. But Freddie’s financing, and that offered by many lenders, including Cochrane’s mortgage, is only available for homes where the house is tied to the property.

Still, that small step may be enough to start to encourage more supply and lending into the housing market, the Urban analysts wrote.

Communal living

Imagine a scheme that allowed a third-party bureaucracy to own property and homeowners to lease those ownership rights from it. (If that sounds somewhat Bolshevik, don’t forget that most Manhattan properties are cooperatives, and utilize roughly the same structure, with little of the socialism.)

Community land trusts use a similar structure to help foster affordable housing and economic development. They’ve been around for a few decades, and have a stellar track record for building community and enabling sustainable homeownership.

“The basic concept is that you want to take housing and land off the speculative market,” said Michael Swack, who helped develop the concept, and now directs the Center for Impact Finance at the University of New Hampshire. The “speculative” real estate market Swack describes is familiar: communities can be affordable for many families, until they’re “discovered” by more affluent people outside the neighborhood, who move in and, over time, make it less affordable for everyone and off-limits for some.

See also: Housing is the least affordable in 10 years — here’s what’s to blame

But community land trusts, which despite their name are usually not true trusts, but nonprofit entities, own and retain ownership of land, and offer long-term leases to homeowners. One of the oldest in the country is the Burlington, Vermont-based Champlain Housing Trust. The trust currently has 611 owned homes, and over the 35 years it’s been around, 1,100 families have become owners with its help.

Owners deed the land on which the homes sit to Champlain, which reduces the market price of those homes by about 20%. When an owner is ready to sell, she gets 100% of the equity that comes from having paid down her mortgage, and 100% of the appraised value of any capital improvement, but only 25% of the market appreciation, also determined by an appraisal. The home reverts back to the trust, and the cycle can begin again.

A sample community land trust lifecycle
Year 1 Appraised value of home $240,000
Purchase price $200,000
Year 8 Appraised value of home $280,000
Equity built $20,000
Market appreciation assigned to owner $10,000
New purchase price $230,000
Source: Champlain Housing Trust

“We’ve added a rung” to the homeownership ladder, Brenda Torpy, the trust’s CEO and one of its founders, told MarketWatch. “People now see that they can use our program as a stepping stone. We can provide a homeownership equivalent to what they can pay in rent and they start building equity immediately.”

See: They help thousands of Americans become homeowners every year. Now they face a test of their own.

Champlain owners sell their homes about every seven years or so, roughly the same tenure as national averages, and they move on for all the reasons Americans always move – in search of a bigger home to accommodate children, to warmer places for retirement, or to wherever a new job beckons.

In contrast, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, has about 36 owned housing units dating back to its inception in 1989, and “less than a handful”of those owners have left, according to its director of operations, Tony Hernandez.

“People confess that they originally thought of it as a stepping stone, but now they think of it as home,” Hernandez said. “The intent was to get owners who would stay and keep the family knit into it, rather than a land trust model where they come in, build wealth and move on. We created a village.”

Grounded Solutions Network, a national affordable housing advocacy group, estimates that there are about 165 community land trusts around the country, with about 12,000 owned homes between them. Many land trusts also have affordable rental properties, which Grounded Solutions estimates includes about 25,000 rental units.

A Grounded Solutions analysis as of June 2018 founded that the average household income at the time of home purchase was 64% of area median income, and on average owners were buying homes at about 34% below fair market value.

For the people who buy from land trusts, homeownership has been a success. Through the worst of the foreclosure crisis, they became delinquent only about one-fourth as often as other homeowners.

Grounded Solutions and others argue that it also works for communities: “These programs retained the affordability of the homes to serve the same income level resale after resale. That means that these programs successfully created a stock of affordable homes that remain forever, even if the neighborhood gentrifies or the real estate market turns up or down.”

Read also: Meet the little bank that’s helping immigrants achieve big American Dreams

Fixer-uppers

Picture a house-hunter in an average American city, pre-qualified for a mortgage that would allow him to buy a median-priced home of about $250,000. Now picture that buyer hustling to bid on every house that comes along in that price range, only to be outbid by someone with more money, an all-cash offer, or something else.

But now imagine there’s a house that’s lingered on the market. It’s priced at about $180,000, but that’s because it requires a lot of work – a lot.

This scenario happens often enough that the mortgage finance industry has tools specifically for it. Meet the “renovation mortgage,” an innovation that allows the home buyer to take out one loan for the purchase price of the home plus the cost to rehab it.

Related: Get ready: home remodeling is set to surge at the fastest pace in more than a decade

“I like to say, don’t look at a house as it is, look at a house as what it could be,” said Jonathan Lawless, who runs Fannie Mae’s product development team for affordable housing. “That could be a much better way to get people in the door.”

What’s the catch? Anyone who’s ever undertaken a big renovation knows the drill, pardon the pun. While it may be a lot more convenient to apply for and manage one debt rather than two, renovation loans can still be a beast, rolling the nightmare of home repair into the knotty bureaucracy of mortgage underwriting. Brooke Anderson-Tompkins, president of upstate New York-based 1st Priority Mortgage, calls them both “cumbersome” and “a phenomenal product that more agents need to be aware of.”

For one thing, most renovation loans require that contractors be paid on a draw basis, which several sources told MarketWatch usually makes many potential hires uninterested in such projects. But Jamie Zeitz, who manages the Southeastern U.S. operations of Homebridge Financial Services, points out that contractors and homeowners should both be aware “there’s no safer way” to enter into a construction deal since the work being done is part of a financing package that requires all parties be satisfied, and that work be paid for.

There are also more parties involved than in a regular renovation process. Most loan programs require that a consultant oversee the project, for example. Homebridge offers a “Concierge Service Manager” to serve as a single point of contact for the homeowner, rather than forcing that person to deal with the consultant, the contractor, the appraiser, the people paying the contractor, and so on.

While they’re unwieldy, the mortgage finance industry increasingly sees such loan programs as an important key to solving the housing crunch, Lawless said. Fannie is looking at ways to streamline the draw process, for example, and also recently clarified that its program, called HomeStyle, can be used for accessory dwelling units, which are smaller, standalone buildings on an existing property. ADUs can be used to create rental income, or to house relatives.

Homebridge is the biggest originator of the renovation loan program offered by the Federal Housing Administration, which carries the unwieldy title “203(k) loans.” As with its more traditional mortgage programs, FHA 203(k) loans can be made with as little as 3.5% down, but they will cost a bit more than conventional mortgages.

Read: This chart shows the haves and have-nots of the housing market, and it’s getting worse



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