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FHA policy change may draw investors back into housing market
By Ken Harney | Columnist
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Published: 1/29/2010 12:01 AM

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WASHINGTON - Call it three birds with one stone: The federal government hopes simultaneously to help low-down-payment homebuyers, investors who fix up foreclosures, and local communities burdened with too many bank-owned and foreclosed homes - all with one potentially far-reaching policy change.

The Federal Housing Administration - better known as FHA - is revising its long-standing "anti-flipping" rules starting Feb. 1, and just might score a hit with all three target groups. For years the FHA has had a strict prohibition: It wouldn't insure a mortgage on a house where the seller had owned it for less than 90 days. The ban was a reaction to fraudulent quick flips of houses that inflated their values far beyond true market worth.

The flips often were pure cons: Buyer A would acquire a low-cost house in bad repair, do minor cosmetic changes and resell within days to Buyer B, who was also part of the scheme, at a significantly higher price. The sequence could involve a string of serial flippers within a month or two, and trumped-up prices spiraling into the thousands.

The end game usually went like this: Find a hapless purchaser for the flipped house who would apply for a low-down-payment FHA loan. Typically that buyer defaulted quickly - leaving FHA with a foreclosed house on its books, and a loss to its insurance funds.

FHA maintained its 90-day anti-flipping rule through much of the last decade. But now it's suspending the policy, at least for the next year. In an advisory to lenders, FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said the agency will once again provide mortgage insurance for some purchases where the seller had closed on the property less than 90 days earlier.

The objective, said Stevens, will be to speed up sales of renovated houses to first-time and other purchasers. With foreclosures at record levels - an estimated 2.8 million filings last year alone - many communities are faced with excesses of bank-owned properties sitting unsold, often in poor repair.

By waiving the 90-day rule, private investors will be more likely to bid on these houses, fix them up and sell them to buyers who will now be able to gain early access to FHA financing, which offers 3.5 percent down payments.

What's the significance of the 90-day timeline? It's huge, say investors who specialize in acquiring and renovating foreclosures and bank-owned properties. Paul Wylie, an investor active in the Los Angeles area, says his group generally can acquire and rehab a house and list it for resale within 60 days.

But under FHA's previous policy, large numbers of potential purchasers couldn't bid on Wylie's properties as soon as they had hit the market. Barred from using low-down-payment loans until after 90 days, these buyers were forced to look to conventional mortgage sources, which often required 10 percent down plus private mortgage insurance.

"A lot of the people who want to buy our houses just don't have 10 percent," said Wylie in an interview. "But they can afford a 3.5 percent FHA down payment. "

Bobby Taylor, a broker with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate in Salem, Ore., said FHA's change of heart "is going to be absolutely terrific" for anyone looking to bid on a moderate-priced post-foreclosure house in good physical condition. Some lucky buyers will even be able to combine the $8,000 federal tax credit with 3.5 percent FHA financing - provided their contracts are signed by April 30 and closed by June 30, when the credit program expires.

FHA's revised policy does not throw open the floodgates to all post-foreclosure renovations, however. Stevens laid down two key restrictions designed to protect end buyers and FHA alike:

• There can't be game-playing or conflicts of interest among buyers, sellers, realty agents or others involved in the deal. "All transactions must be arm's-length, with no identity of interest" among any of the participants.

• Price run-ups must be relatively modest and justifiable from the time of the investor's acquisition to what's paid by the applicant seeking FHA financing. Generally the limit will be 20 percent.

When the price jump exceeds 20 percent, FHA expects participating lenders to require extensive documentation of the renovation expenditures made by the investors to justify the hefty price increase. Lenders also are required to order an independent property inspection so the purchaser can understand the house's physical condition and the improvements made.

The takeaway for buyers and investors: Check out FHA financing early in the game on foreclosure turnarounds. It's now available and it just might work for you.

Clarification: To qualify for the $6,500 housing tax credit, purchase contracts may be signed before Nov. 7, 2009, provided the closing occurs after that date. Last week's column said purchase contracts must be dated Nov. 7 or later.

• Write to Ken Harney at P.O. Box 15281, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 or via e-mail at kenharney@earthlink.net.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group