|Fall Real Estate 2004
Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004
Balancing act -- security vs. savings
by Alex Doniach
Imagine you are a prospective homeowner, looking to purchase your first home in Palo Alto. But you work as a low-level employee at a local law firm, and you wonder just what you and your new spouse can afford.
A quick flip through the real estate section and your heart sinks: The answer is, not much, on your salary. With a hefty loan, you can just squeeze out the down payment on a two-bedroom bungalow. But a consultation with a mortgage broker leaves you more confused: Do you take the 30-year, fixed mortgage? Or do you risk it with an adjustable-rate mortgage, and pay only the interest for a few years before receiving that promotion?
Choosing a mortgage, especially for a first-time homeowner, can be tricky business. An adjustable-rate mortgage can save more than $500 per month, but a market plunge could spike the adjustable rates and leave your family in the red. A 30-year fixed plan might help you sleep at night, but may be unnecessary since you don't anticipate this house as a family-fixture for the next 30 years.
The question boils down to: security or potential savings?
Real estate and mortgage experts will tell you that right now may be a safe time
to invest in an adjustable mortgage. Home loans look like they aren't going to
rise anytime soon.
The consumer price index, a popular gauge of U.S. inflation, slid 0.1 percent
in July, according to the Labor Department. What does this mean for interest
rates? Wall Street traders guess the low readings mean the Federal Reserve won't
need to push up rates to ward off inflation.
And, this may mean good things for homeowners shopping for a new mortgage on
their home. According to Joel Spolin, president of Absolute Mortgage Banking
in Palo Alto, these numbers show that right now, adjustable-rate mortgages are
an appealing option and a safe bet for buyers who aren't ready to make a 30-year
"Adjustable-rate mortgages are really popular right now," Spolin said. "They
appear to be going up more slowly than people predicted a few months
Adjustables make a few appealing guarantees. Unlike their more stable counterpart,
these plans expire much more quickly, meaning that borrowers aren't wedded to
a 30-year commitment. Also, rates rise for each additional year that a plan is
fixed. While a one-year plan might be set at 4.5 percent, interest rates for
a 30-year plan could be up to 6 percent.
"Adjustables help people get into houses that they would not normally be
able to afford," Engel said. "By getting a lower rate
than a fixed, 30-year mortgage, it helps people qualify for more.
down the road, as their incomes grow, they will refinance and fix
the rate for a longer period of time."
"The average Californian moves in a 30-year period," he said. "Do
they really need 30 years of fixed-rate payments?"
The flexibility of ARMs makes them an ever-increasing option for first-time homeowners.
But, their volatility also makes them prone to drastic market variations.
Fixed payments are undoubtedly the more secure option. As the name implies, fixed
rates won't change, even if the market does. But you pay for that kind of security.
Mid-August of this year, the Federal Reserve set 30-year interest rates at 5.85
percent and one-year adjustable rates at 4.08 percent. These rates change on
a weekly basis but haven't fluctuated much in the past few months. This June,
30-year rates were 6.3 percent while one-year rates were slightly less than the
August figure at 4.14 percent.
"It really depends on what kind of person you are," Spolin said. "Some
people want to eliminate all risk, some people are willing to take
on that risk."
Still, in an area with a lot of upward mobility, people who know they are going
to get a salary raise or a promotion in the next few years are attracted to the
lower initial payments, Spolin said.
Adjustables are much more temperamental because they can be directly affected
by short-term market changes, said Gus Mendy, a mortgage loan consultant with
Washington Mutual in Palo Alto.
The vulnerability of adjustables in the wake of short-term variations is exactly
what makes these plans so risky. Banks borrow money from the government and when
this rate increases, adjustable rates do, too. The bond market similarly impacts
interest rates. When the bond market goes up, interest rates also rise and any
loan fixed for a short period of time will be affected.
Mendy predicts calm waters in the coming months. In the wake of a national election,
he doesn't think the government will change rates before the election, he said.
He also stresses that adjustable rates could never rise like they did in the
1970s because there are more protections that shield adjustables from drastic
spikes. Monthly rates, for example, are capped at about 9.95 percent. Similarly,
short-term rates for three, five, seven or 10-year loans are capped at about
5 percent above their starting value.
Still, Mendy urges borrowers to trust predictions with caution.
"People might say that adjustables are going to go up," he said. "But,
people need to weigh the situation individually because for a
first-time home owner it's a good deal. Plus it's just really hard to look into
the crystal ball and make an accurate prediction of the future market. No
look like for sure, not even Wall Street. You could end up saving
hundreds of dollars taking a risk with an adjustable loan."
ARMs aren't the only options available to first-time homebuyers. Loan packages
range from interest-only payments to negative amortizations, and can be catered
to a variety of needs.
How does this relate to Palo Alto real estate? Low rates increase potential buyers,
said Engel. But, regardless of oil changes and Federal Reserve figures, Palo
Alto real estate stays fairly stable.
"Palo Alto and surrounding environs is just a desirable place to invest," he said. Buyers will stretch beyond their means to buy a house here, and for many, adjustable rates are an essential element to affording a home in the area.