10 Things to Know About Real Estate in 2010

Prices bottom, mortgage rates increase, and foreclosures move upstream.

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Slide Show: 10 Things to Know About Real Estate in 2010

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4. Mortgage rates to rise: Anyone who purchased a home in 2009 was presented with some extremely attractive mortgage rates. Rates on 30-year, fixed mortgages fell to an average of 4.88 percent in November, down sharply from 6.09 a year earlier. A key factor behind the plunge was a Federal Reserve program, first announced in November of 2008, that purchased debt and mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But the program is slated to expire at the end of the first quarter, and if private investors don't step up, fixed mortgage rates could jump. (The Fed, of course, could always decide to extend the program.) The unwinding of this Fed program, the improving economy, and mounting concern over government deficits could push rates on 30-year, fixed mortgages to roughly 5.5 percent by mid-2010 and close to 6 percent by the end of the year, says Mike Larson of Weiss Research. "Almost all signs to me point higher," Larson says.

5. Buyer's market remains: With prices still falling, mortgage rates remaining historically attractive, and additional homes hitting the market in the form of foreclosures, the dynamics of the real estate market will continue to favor buyers over sellers in 2010. That means those looking to buy a home next year should not feel pressured to act impulsively. "You don't need to have a sense of urgency, but understand that as time progresses the balance of power as we get into 2010 is going to slowly but surely shift away from [buyers]," Larson says. "It is not going to be a strong seller's market, but it will be more evenly distributed as the year goes on." Data from the real estate firm Zillow show that home buyers are already losing the leverage they once enjoyed. While home buyers landed a median discount of 4.6 percent off listing prices in January, the size of the gap fell to 2.7 percent by October. Expect this gap to close further as 2010 marches on.

6. Modification plan could be modified: While the Obama administration has put nearly 700,000 borrowers into temporarily restructured mortgages, it had found permanent fixes for just 31,382 struggling homeowners through November. What's more, critics have identified two key shortcomings of the government's $75 billion antiforeclosure plan. First, the program isn't much help for borrowers struggling to stay in their homes as the result of a job loss. And the rickety labor market is a key factor behind rising delinquencies. At the same time, the plan does not sufficiently address the issue of negative equity—owing more on your home loan than the property is worth—which also works to increase foreclosures. "The current modification program does not address negative equity and is therefore destined to fail," Laurie Goodman, a senior managing director at Amherst Securities Group, told a congressional committee in written testimony on December 8. "It must be amended to explicitly address this problem." Zandi says the government may move next year to overhaul the modification program in two ways: improving troubled borrowers' negative equity positions by writing down some of the mortgage principal, and helping to turn troubled homeowners into renters.

7. FHA lending standards may increase: While banks have jacked up lending standards in the face of mounting delinquencies, mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration—which come with a minimum down payment of just 3.5 percent—have remained accessible to a wide swath of borrowers. The FHA guarantees nearly 30 percent of new-home purchase mortgages today, up sharply from just 3 percent in 2006. But the rapid growth has occurred alongside an increase in mortgage delinquencies. As a result, the FHA's reserves have dipped below congressionally mandated levels. The development has put pressure on the Obama administration to beef up its requirements for agency-backed home loans. In early December, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would make several changes to FHA mortgage requirements: raising up-front cash requirements, boosting minimum credit scores, and perhaps charging more for insurance premiums. Additional new restrictions may be in store. Taken together, the developments could work to choke off the supply of mortgage credit to borrowers who can't get financing elsewhere.