Housing Starts Stay Strong; Building Permits Rise.

Single-family housing starts

The housing market has carried forward its year-end momentum. 

According to the Census Bureau, on a seasonally-adjusted, annualized basis, January’s Single-Family Housing Starts crossed the half-million unit marker for the second straight month.

This hasn’t happened in close to 2 years and is the latest in a series of strong data that suggests the beleaguered housing market has turned a corner — both nationally and locally in Winter Park.  

Although single-family starts slipped 1 percent from December, January’s annualized 508,000 figure represents a 16% spike from January 2011 and is the second-highest reading since April 2010 — the last month of 2010’s federal home buyer tax credit program.

A “housing start” is a new home on which construction has started.

The strength of January’s Housing Starts data surprised Wall Street analysts and is partially responsible for Thursday’s unexpected mortgage rate spike. 

In hindsight, though, we should have seen this coming.

Earlier in the week, the National Association of Homebuilders announced that homebuilder confidence had climbed to its highest point since 2007 amid builder reports of rising sales volume and the most foot traffic from buyers in more than 4 years.

In addition, builders expect to sell more homes in 2012 than in 2011.

Builders are building and buyers are buying.

Meanwhile, as another sign of housing market strength, the Census Bureau reports that, in January, Building Permits moved to a multi-year high as well. Permits issued for single-family homes in January rose 1 percent from December, a statistic that suggests housing will continue its run through the spring season, at least.

86 percent of homes break ground within one month of permit issuance.

It’s a good time to be a home buyer. Mortgage rates and home prices are low. Housing market momentum, however, is building. If you’re on the fence about whether to buy a home , ask your real estate agent for additional market information.

The cost of home-ownership may never be as low as it is today.

Homebuilder Confidence Returns To Pre-Recession Levels

NAHB HMI index 2010-2012

New construction buyers in Winter Park , look out. The nation’s home builders are predicting a strong 2012 for new home sales. It may mean higher home prices as the spring buying season approaches.

For the sixth straight month, the National Association of Homebuilders reports that homebuilder confidence is on the rise. The Housing Market Index climbed four points to 29 in February, the index’s highest reading since May 2007.

The Housing Market Index is now up 8 points in 8 weeks. The last time that happened was June 2003, a month during which the U.S. economy was regaining its footing, much like this month. It’s noteworthy that June 2003 marked the start of a 4-year bull run in the stock market that took equities up 54%.

The NAHB’s Housing Market Index itself is actually a composite reading. It’s the end-result of three separate surveys sent to home builders monthly.

The association’s questions are basic :

  1. How are market conditions for the sale of new homes today?
  2. How are market conditions for the sale of new homes in 6 months?
  3. How is prospective buyer foot traffic?

In February, builders reported marked improvement across all three areas. Builders report that current home sales climbed 5 points; that sales expectations for the next 6 months climbed 5 points; and that buyer foot traffic climbed 1 point.

Most notable of all of the statistics, though, is that the nation’s home builders report that there are now twice as many buyers setting foot inside model units as compared to just 6 months ago.

This data is supported by the monthly New Home Sales report which shows rising sales and a shrinking new home inventory.

Because of this, today’s new home buyers throughout Florida  should expect fewer concessions from builders at the time of contract including fewer price breaks on a home and fewer free upgrades. Builders are optimistic for the future and, therefore, may be less willing to “make a deal”.  

This spring may mark the best time of year to buy a new home. 60 days forward, it may be too late.

With Retail Sales And Consumer Confidence Rising, Home Prices Are Expected To Follow

Consumer Confidence vs Retail Sales (2009-2012)

The U.S. economy continues to show signs of a rebound.

According to the Census Bureau, Retail Sales climbed to $329 billion last month on a seasonally-adjusted basis, excluding automobiles. January’s data marks the 18th time in 19 months that Retail Sales rose, a run that’s increased total sales receipts by 11 percent.

This is big news because Retail Sales accounts for close to 70% of the U.S. economy.

In addition, consumer confidence is rising.

In a separate, joint report from the University of Michigan and Thompson Reuters, it was shown that consumer attitudes toward the economy and the future are improving, primarily the result of recent job gains.  

The Survey of Consumers posted its highest value in 12 months.

It is not a coincidence that Retail Sales and consumer confidence both made multi-month highs — the readings are more than loosely linked. As consumers feel more confident about the economy and their personal prospects for the future, they’re more likely to spend money on goods and services, which leads to an increase in consumer spending.

For the housing market, the ramifications are two-fold.

First, from the financing side, an expanding economy is linked to rising mortgage rates. This is because Wall Street tends to chase risk in a growth economy and the bond market offers little in the way of risk. As demand for bonds drops, then, mortgage rates rise throughout FL.

Second, rising consumer confidence can lead Orlando home values higher, too.

Confident consumers are more likely than fearful ones to become home buyers. They’re more likely to stop renting and start buying; more likely to list their home and “move-up” to something bigger; more likely to “take the next step”.

So, as more buyers enter the market at a time when the national home supply is shrinking, the supply-demand balance in housing is shifting toward the sellers. This creates price pressures and should lead to higher home valuations.

If you have plans to buy a home in 2012, the best time to buy may be now. Today’s mortgage rates are low and so are the home prices — a combination that’s unlikely to last.

Fewer Jobless Claims Suggests Higher Home Prices Ahead

Initial jobless claims 2008-2012

Economists believe the strength of the 2012 housing market will be closely tied to jobs. If they’re right, the housing market is ripe for a boost. It spells good news for Orlando home sellers and may mean the end of bargain-basement prices for buyers.

Since peaking in mid-2009, the number of U.S. workers filing for first-time unemployment benefits has dropped 44 percent. Over the same period of time, the U.S. economy has added more than 2 million jobs and the national Unemployment Rate is down more than 1 percentage point to 8.3%.

Employment’s link to the housing market is both economic and psychological.

To make the economic link is straight-forward. A person with a job earns verifiable income and such income is required in order to be mortgage-eligible. For conventional and FHA purchase loans, for example, mortgage lenders want a home buyer’s monthly income be more than double his monthly debts. 

For the formerly unemployed that have since returned to work, having a full-time income makes buying homes possible. It also supports higher home valuations nationwide because home prices are based on supply-and-demand. All things equal, when the number of buyers in a market goes up, prices do, too.

The psychological connection between housing and employment is a tad more complicated, but every bit as important. It’s not just out-of-work Americans that don’t look for homes — it’s fearful Americans, too. People with concerns about losing a job are just as unlikely to shop for homes as people actually without a job. The same is true for people unsure of their prospects for a better-paying job, or their own upward mobility.

A recovering job market can lessen those fears and draw out buyers — especially those who face a loss on the sale of an “underwater” home.

The Initial Jobless Claims rolling 4-week average is at its lowest level since 2008. Fewer Americans are losing jobs, and more are finding permanent placement.

It’s one more reason to be optimistic for this year’s housing market. 

Top 10 Sunniest Cities In the United States

Sunniest US CitiesAs compared to gloomy days, do “sunny days” put you in a good mood? If you’re like many people in FL , the answer is “yes”.

In a study of more than 1,200 people, researchers found that daily weather factors such as temperature, precipitation and length of day can alter a person’s emotional state. Of all the weather factors, however, “sunshine” can have the most profound effect.

The most likely reason is because sunshine affects people in a physiological manner.

When the human brain detects sunlight, our bodies produce serotonin, a chemical which promotes happiness and well-being. By contrast, when the brain detect darkness, our bodies produce melatonin, a chemical which promotes sleep cycles.

Sunlight — quite literally — leads to happiness.

Understanding the effect of sunlight on human mood, therefore, we must consider the nation’s “sunniest cities” as more than just a novelty list. It may be a link to personal well-being, too.

From the National Climactic Data Center, these are the Top 10 Sunniest Cities in the United States :

  1. Yuma, AZ : Sunny on 90% of all days
  2. Redding, CA : Sunny on 88% of all days
  3. Las Vegas, NV : Sunny on 85% of all days
  4. Phoenix, AZ : Sunny on 85% of all days
  5. Tucson, AZ : Sunny on 85% of all days
  6. El Paso, TX : Sunny on 84% of all days
  7. Fresno, CA : Sunny on 79% of all days
  8. Reno, NV : Sunny on 79% of all days
  9. Flagstaff, AZ : Sunny on 78% of all days
  10. Sacramento, CA : Sunny on 78% of all days

The sunshine rankings of other noteworthy cities include Key West, FL (#12 with 76% sunshine); Denver, CO (#30 with 68% sunshine); and Seattle, WA (#165 with 43% sunshine). 

At the bottom of the list is Juneau. Just 30 percent of the Alaskan capital city’s days are sunny.

The complete Sunshine Rankings as listed by Metropolitan Area is available on the NCDC website.

Revamped HARP : Unlimited Loan-to-Value And Same Great Rates

Making Home Affordabie

The government’s new, revamped HARP program is 6 weeks from release. Homeowners in Florida and nationwide are gearing up to refinance.

HARP is an acronym. It stands for Home Affordable Refinance Program. HARP is the government’s loan product for “underwater homeowners”. HARP makes current mortgage rates available to households which would otherwise be unable to refinance because the home lacks equity.

This is a big deal — especially today. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low and millions of U.S. homeowners have been unable to take advantage. HARP aims to change that.

HARP originally launched in 2009. Its first iteration failed to reach a meaningful percentage of U.S. homeowners, however, because costs were high and loans were high-risk. With its re-release, the government has removed the hurdles to HARP, putting refinancing within reach for millions of U.S. households.

To qualify for HARP, homeowners must first meet 3 qualifying criteria.

First, their current mortgage must be backed Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. FHA- and VA-backed loans are HARP-ineligible, as are jumbo loans and loans backed by portfolio lenders.

  • To check if your loan if Fannie Mae-backed, click here.
  • To check if your loan if Freddie Mac-backed, click here.

Second, the existing mortgage must have been securitized by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac prior on, or before, May 31, 2009. If you bought your home or refinanced it after that date, you are HARP-ineligible.

There are no exceptions to this rule.

And, third, the existing mortgage must be accompanied by a strong repayment history. Mortgage payment must have been paid on-time for the last 6 months, at least, and there may not be more than one 30-day late payment in the last 12 months.

If these 3 qualifiers are met, HARP applicants should find the approval process straight-forward : 

  • Fixed rate mortgages allow unlimited loan-to-value
  • The standard 7-year “waiting period” after a foreclosure is waived in full
  • Except in rare cases, home appraisals aren’t required 

Furthermore, HARP mortgage rates are expected to be on par with non-HARP rates, meaning that HARP homeowners in Winter Park will get the same rates and pay the same fees as everyone else. There’s no “penalty” for using HARP.

The revamped HARP is expected to be generally available beginning Monday, March 19, 2012.

To get a head-start on HARP, check with your loan officer for the complete list of HARP eligibility requirements.

Quick Tips : Boost Your Credit Score For Better Mortgage Rates

Credit scores play a huge role in today’s mortgage market — larger than at any time in recent history. Blame it on the high default rates of the last half-decade. Lenders are reserving their lowest rates for the customers most likely to make on-time repayments.

Mortgage rates are at an all-time low in Florida. However, the low rates you see advertised on TV and online are only available to the home buyers and would-be refinancers whose credit scores are pristine. Having a high credit score is often the difference between getting “the best rates” from your lender, and getting something worse.

The first part of improving your credit score is understanding how it works. In this 5-minute piece from NBC’s The Today Show, you’ll learn the basics :

  • Why you shouldn’t close a credit card after you pay off a large debt
  • What is the maximize balance to leave on your credit cards, relative to your credit limit
  • What types of credit checks harm your credit scores, and which ones don’t

You’ll also learn how to shop for a mortgage with multiple lenders without having your credit score “dinged”, as well as several proven methods to raise your credit score quickly.

In the end, good credit scores are the result of paying bills on time and staying with your means. Those with the best scores, get the best rates.

Federal Tax Deadline Extended To April 17, 2012

Tax Day moved to April 17, 2012

Traditionally, federal income taxes must be filed with the IRS on, or before, April 15 each year. The date has become such a part of U.S. culture that many people simply call it “Tax Day”.

This year, however, for the 3rd time in 7 years, your federal income taxes will not be due April 15. Instead, because of a combination of the calendar, a holiday, and tax law, Tax Day 2012 is delayed until Tuesday, April 17.

You will have two extra days to prepare and file your federal income taxes this year. 

Here’s why.

First, April 15 is a Sunday and all federal offices are closed on Sundays. This means that that taxes can’t be filed on April 15, as regularly scheduled. Rather, the tax due date should roll over to the first available business day — Monday.

However, Monday, April 16 is Emancipation Day, a holiday in the District of Columbia since 2005.

Emancipation Day honors President Abraham Lincoln’s April 16, 1862 signing of the Compensation Emancipation Act. All of Washington, D.C. is closed for the local holiday — including the offices of the IRS. Taxes can’t be due on this date because there will be nobody at the Internal Revenue Service to receive them.

Therefore, Tax Day rolls over to the next available business day, and that’s Tuesday, April 17. Despite the 2-day change, as a reminder, the deadline to file a federal tax return with extension has not changed. That filing date remains October 15, 2012. 

Also, note that most states have chosen to mirror the IRS’ tax deadlines this year even though Emancipation Day is a Washington, D.C-specific. Be sure to check with your accountant to confirm your local filing deadline.

Lock An Instant 13% Savings On Your Monthly Mortgage Payment

Mortgage payments down 13%

Falling mortgage rates make owning a home more affordable. Mortgage rates are directly tied to monthly mortgage payment so as mortgage rates drop, so does the cost of home-ownership.  

It’s a money-saving time to buy a home in Winter Park — or to refinance one. Mortgage rates have never been this low in history.

According to Freddie Mac, last week, the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage fell to 3.87% nationwide for borrowers willing to pay an accompanying 0.8 discount points plus closing costs. 0.8 discount points is a one-time closing cost equal to 0.8 percent of your loan size, or $800 per $100,000 borrowed.

This represents an incredible value as compared to February of last year. 

It was exactly one year ago that mortgage rates begin their long slide lower. On February 11, 2011, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage reached its peak for the year, reading 5.05% in Freddie Mac’s nationwide survey. If you are among the many U.S. households that bought or refinanced a home around that time, you could choose to replace your current home loan with a new one and save close to 13% on your monthly mortgage payment.

13 percent saved on your mortgage is a noteworthy statistic.

Look at this 30-year fixed rate mortgage payment comparison over the last 12 months :

  • February 2011 : $539.88 principal + interest per $100,000 borrowed
  • February 2012 : $469.95 principal + interest per $100,000 borrowed

Because of falling mortgage rates, a homeowner with a $250,000 30-year fixed rate mortgage would save at least $175 per month just by refinancing into a new loan at today’s mortgage rates. That’s $2,100 in savings per year. 

Even after accounting for discount points and closing costs, the “break-even point” on a mortgage like that can come relatively quickly.

We can’t predict mortgage rates so there’s no promise rates will stay like this forever. If you’re planning to buy a home or refinance one, the best way to keep your monthly payments down is to lock your rate while rates are still low.

The market looks ripe for that now. 

The 10 Longest Commutes In The United States

Longest CommutesAccording to the Census Bureau, more than 3.2 million U.S. workers spend over 3 hours commuting to and from work each day.

Commutes exceeding 90 minutes in each direction are known as “extreme commutes” in Census Bureau parlance. As compared to typical commute times nationwide, they’re aptly named.

The national, average commute time is just 25.1 minutes

For home buyers in Orlando or in any U.S. city, make sure to make commute times a consideration before placing an offer on a property. The length of your daily commute will make an impact on your life.

Studies shows that shorter commutes are linked to higher levels of life satisfaction. Long commutes are linked to low levels of life satisfaction.

As ranked by the Census Bureau, here are the 10 cities with the longest average commute times, where commuting is defined as the total time to arrive at work, inclusive of all modes of transportation (i.e. automobile, train, subway, foot, or other) :

  1. New York / North New Jersey / Long Island : 34.6 minutes
  2. Washington, DC / Arlington / Alexandria : 33.4 minutes
  3. Poughkeepsie / Newburgh / Middletown, NY: 32.2 minutes
    Bremerton / Silverdale, WA : 30.8 minutes
    Chicago / Naperville / Joliet, IL : 30.7 minutes
    Winchester, VA : 30.3 minutes
    Atlanta / Sandy Springs / Marietta, GA 30.1 minutes
    Riverside / San Bernardino / Ontario, CA : 30.0 minutes
    Stockton, CA : 29.8 minutes
    Baltimore / Towson, MD : 29.7 minutes

    Poughkeepsie / Newburgh / Middletown, NY: 32.2 minutes

  4. Bremerton / Silverdale, WA : 30.8 minutes
  5. Chicago / Naperville / Joliet, IL : 30.7 minutes
  6. Winchester, VA : 30.3 minutes
  7. Atlanta / Sandy Springs / Marietta, GA 30.1 minutes
  8. Riverside / San Bernardino / Ontario, CA : 30.0 minutes
  9. Stockton, CA : 29.8 minutes
  10. Baltimore / Towson, MD : 29.7 minutes

By contrast, the shortest commute belongs to residents of Great Falls, Montana. The average commute for the city’s 58,000 residents is 14.2 minutes.

A long commute to work should not deter you from moving to a particular home or neighborhood, but your time-en-route should be a consideration. Before making an offer on a home , therefore, practice the rush hour commute from your potential new neighborhood in the morning, and back to it again that evening.

Then, imagine making the commute every day.

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