5 Events that Really Mattered for Housing in 2011 – and Beyond

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Government, the mortgage industry and forces of nature all shook the housing market in 2011. They had both an immediate impact and slow-burning effects, setting the stage for a bumpy 2012 with more foreclosures, political battles and local market risks.

1)      Robo-Signing Reverberations

The “robo-signing” scandal – where banks were accused of approving foreclosures with incomplete or incorrect documentation – exploded in October 2010, but where are we now? Banks want a settlement in order to avoid costly, drawn-out lawsuits. One is shaping up that could reduce loan balances or interest rates for current homeowners, give payments to people who lost their homes and establish new mortgage servicing standards for the future.

What Really Mattered: The threat of robo-signing lawsuits made banks gun-shy about pursuing foreclosures in 2011, which left many homes stuck in the foreclosure process. But once a settlement is reached, we’ll see a rush of foreclosures in 2012.

2)      The Debt Ceiling and the Budget Deficit

In August, the government played a game of chicken over whether to raise the debt ceiling, but this should have been just a formality. It’s actually reducing the deficit that’s the hard part. Long before the debt ceiling debate, we all knew that the federal budget was in bad shape, and the federal credit rating downgrade itself didn’t change anyone’s view on this.

What Really Mattered: After the debt ceiling debate, the back and forth deliberations by the unsuccessful bipartisan deficit-reduction supercommittee teased us with some proposals that will surely rear their heads again. One idea that both Republicans and Democrats didn’t totally disagree about was reducing the mortgage interest and other tax deductions. If and when that happens, high-income homeowners with mortgages would pay a lot more in taxes.

3)      The Expansion of HARP

In October, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said seriously underwater homeowners will be able to refinance through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). But there is a catch – borrowers must be current on their payments.

What Really Mattered: Borrowers who strategically fell behind on their payments in hopes of negotiating a loan-modification won’t be helped. What this plan will do is stimulate the economy without having to get Congress to agree on additional stimulus.

4)      Natural Disasters Cause Insurance Disaster?

In 2011, several tornados, floodings and a hurricane temporarily halted what little construction there was to begin with, but this was just a short-term slowdown. The bigger long-term effect was the near-collapse of the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Still struggling financially under debt amassed after Hurricane Katrina, the NFIP’s insurance premiums don’t fully cover insurance claims when disaster strikes. Hurricane Irene and its flood damage returned this problem to center-stage.

What Really Mattered: In flood-prone areas, you can’t get a mortgage if you don’t have flood insurance. Without NFIP, housing markets in these areas would skid to a stop. As part of last week’s payroll tax agreement, the program got a last-minute extension until May 2012, but its future remains uncertain.

5)      Lowering the Conforming Loan Limit

Starting in October, the government lowered the upper limit for loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) from $729,750 to $625,500. Why? Government agencies now back or insure most loans, but it’s time to make the housing market less dependent on the feds. Lowering loan limits is one step in that direction; however, the real estate industry has urged the government to push the loan limits back up. And you know what? They scored a half-win in November, raising the loan limit back up for FHA loans but not for Fannie and Freddie.

What Really Mattered: Mortgage lenders are willing to charge lower rates for loans that are backed by Fannie or Freddie; with a lower conforming loan limit, a small number of loans that used to qualify for federal backing no longer do.

Jed Kolko is the Chief Economist at Trulia, a real estate resource for homebuyers, sellers and renters, where he leads housing research. He translates economic trends and public policy on Trulia Insights, helping people understand what really matters in housing. Find him on Twitter at @jedkolko.