It’s one of the great mysteries of the mortgage crisis: Why did Texas—Texas, of all places!—escape the real estate bust? Only a dozen states have lower mortgage foreclosure and default rates, and all of them are rural places like Montana and South Dakota, where they couldn’t have a real estate boom if they tried.
No, Texas’ 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Just less than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. Texas might look to outsiders an awful lot like Sunbelt sisters Arizona (13 percent) or Nevada (19)—flat and generous in letting real estate developers sprawl where they will. Texas was even the home base of two of the nation’s biggest bubble-era homebuilders, Centex and DR Horton (DHI).
...But there is a broader secret to Texas’s success, and Washington reformers ought to be paying very close attention. If there’s one single thing that Congress can do now to help protect borrowers from the worst lending excesses that fueled the mortgage and financial crises, it’s to follow the Lone Star State’s lead and put the brakes on “cash-out” refinancing and home-equity lending.
A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans can’t total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even $1 back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date back to the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans entirely.
...Subprime cash-out refinancings became a standard way for borrowers drowning in credit card debt to pay it off, boost their credit scores so they could qualify in a few months to refinance into a lower-rate prime mortgage, and get a big tax deduction in the bargain. Ex-New York Times Federal Reserve reporter Edmund L. Andrews recounts in his underappreciated book Busted how he conjured $50,000 this way via a mortgage from Fremont Lending & Investment.
Homeowners and mortgage brokers weren’t alone in their addiction to the cash that flowed from homes-as-ATMs. The entire U.S. economy was right there with them. One of Alan Greenspan’s lesser-known contributions to the annals of the credit crisis was a pair of studies he co-authored for the Fed, sizing up exactly how much Americans borrowed against their home equity in the bubble and what it was they were spending their newfound (phantom) wealth on. Greenspan estimated that four-fifths of the trifold increase in American households’ mortgage debt between 1990 and 2006 resulted from “discretionary extraction of home equity.” Only one-fifth resulted from the purchase of new homes. In 2005 alone, U.S. homeowners extracted a half-trillion-plus dollars from their real estate via home-equity loans and cash-out refinances. Some $263 billion of the proceeds went to consumer spending and to pay off other debts.
...But not in Texas. A borrower there can secure a home-equity line of credit from a bank. And she can refinance her mortgage or take out a home-equity loan. But the total amount of debt on a home cannot exceed 80 percent of its appraised value, and any proceeds cannot be used to pay off other debts.
Until 1998, Texans couldn’t take out home-equity loans at all. The roots of this fierce resistance to debt’s temptations go deep in Texas history. Seven years before the republic joined the union in 1845, a bank panic and resulting foreclosures lost many homesteaders their property. Drawing from Mexican codes protecting landholders—much beloved by flocks of U.S. debtors who had taken refuge from creditors by relocating to Texas homesteads—the new constitution of the state of Texas forbade lenders from peddling mortgages to homesteaders.
There are reasonable exceptions to the constitution’s restrictions on home-mortgage borrowing. Starting in the 1870s, homeowners could take out mortgages to buy a home, or pay for improvements or property taxes. And once a homeowner has paid down debts below 80 percent of a home’s value, they can borrow against that.
Not everyone loves the state’s rules. Financial services companies have periodically lobbied to scale back the restrictions on home-equity borrowing, noting that the costs of compliance increase borrowers’ interest rates. But another reason the loans are more costly is that the Texas rules are unique in the nation, giving borrowers less opportunity to shop around.
As Texas is now discovering, increased costs are a small price to pay for one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the country. The home-equity restrictions have not only helped keep cash-out refinances a rare breed in Texas; other risky mortgages were scarce there, too. The home-equity borrowing restrictions helped keep home prices from overinflating, and homebuyers therefore didn’t need to turn to exotic mortgages with features like 2/28 ARMs, interest-only payments, or negative amortization in order to purchase a home. Even when they did, Texas law requires these risky features to be clearly disclosed. Fewer than 20 percent of Texas subprime mortgages included any of them.
That’s not to say that Texas borrowers didn’t get into bubble trouble. Plenty bought overpriced houses, which is why 1 in 8 Texans now owe more than their home is worth. And it was easy enough for lenders to get around the home-equity borrowing limits by using creative appraisals that pretend a home is worth more than it really is. But the casualties are orders of magnitude less than they would have been without the home-equity limits.
Thursday, April 01, 2010
The economies of Texas and the southern Plains states have weathered the recession considerably-better than the coastal states have, and this is an important reason why: