The Housing Chronicles Blog: FBI probing builder incentives

Saturday, August 16, 2008

FBI probing builder incentives

Concerned that some incentive programs masked the true price paid by home buyers when pitching lenders to write mortgage loans, the FBI has began its own investigation. From a Wall Street Journal article:

When home sales began to slow at the start of the downturn, home builders offered buyers incentives -- instead of reducing prices -- to stimulate demand. The incentives included cars, tuition and credit-card payments, and even cash. Now, federal investigators are questioning whether some of those incentives misled lenders and caused them to write mortgages that were artificially inflated, contributing to today's home-price crash... Housing analysts say incentive schemes prolonged the housing boom in hot markets like Las Vegas and, consequently, have made the downturn all the more severe.

The FBI wouldn't name individuals or companies under scrutiny, but confirmed that it is looking at cases where the disclosures of incentives "haven't made it all the way to the ultimate lender," says William Stern, financial crimes supervisor for the FBI in Palm Beach County, Fla., and the bureau's former national mortgage-fraud coordinator.

Interviews with real-estate agents, home buyers and former employees at home builders describe an industry where competitive pressures fueled unusually creative giveaways in a last-ditch attempt to prevent price cuts. Home builders hate to cut prices, not only because it reduces profit, but also because their customers who paid full price complain...

There aren't any strict limits on incentives, but they could run afoul of federal regulations if they cause the mortgage to increase by more than the cost of the incentive. "It's a phantom incentive to mask it in an excessive loan," says Brian Sullivan, a Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman.

Stronger due diligence by banks might have caught some of these problems. Banks, however, say they relied on professional appraisal companies to insure property pricing. Mortgage-fraud experts say appraisers sometimes cooperated with builders because it was the only way to get business. Appraisers say that determining the value of new homes is more difficult because comparable sales figures are provided by builders.

In some cases, developers gave outsized commissions to real-estate agents who then gave that money back to the buyer. The average commission on a home sale nationally was 5.2% last year, up from 5% in 2005, according to a survey by Real Trends, an industry newsletter.

At the height of the real-estate boom, commissions in Las Vegas regularly reached double digits, real-estate agents say. Kurt DeWinter, a Henderson, Nev., agent, received a $70,000 commission on a $550,000 home from Beazer Homes USA Inc. two years ago. He says he gave half of that to the buyer.

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