House flippers buy run-down properties, fix them up and resell them quickly at a higher price. Above, a home under renovation in Amsterdam, N.Y. (Mike Groll / Associated Press)
Can you still do a short-term house flip using federally insured, low-down payment mortgage money? That’s an important question for buyers, sellers, investors and realty agents who’ve taken part in a nationwide wave of renovations and quick resales using Federal Housing Administration-backed loans during the last four years.
The answer is yes: You can still flip and finance short term. But get your rehabs done soon. The federal agency whose policy change in 2010 made tens of thousands of quick flips possible — and helped large numbers of first-time and minority buyers with moderate incomes acquire a home — is about to shut down the program, FHA officials confirmed to me.
In an effort to stimulate repairs and sales in neighborhoods hard hit by the mortgage crisis and recession, the FHA waived its standard prohibition against financing short-term house flips. Before the policy change, if you were an investor or property rehab specialist, you had to own a house for at least 90 days before reselling — flipping it — to a new buyer at a higher price using FHA financing. Under the waiver of the rule, you could buy a house, fix it up and resell it as quickly as possible to a buyer using an FHA mortgage — provided that you followed guidelines designed to protect consumers from being ripped off with hyper-inflated prices and shoddy construction.
Since then, according to FHA estimates, about 102,000 homes have been renovated and resold using the waiver. The reason for the upcoming termination: The program has done its job, stimulated billions of dollars of investments, stabilized prices and provided homes for families who were often newcomers to ownership.
However, even though the waiver program has functioned well, officials say, inherent dangers exist when there are no minimum ownership periods for flippers. In the 1990s, the FHA witnessed this firsthand when teams of con artists began buying run-down houses, slapped a little paint on the exterior and resold them within days — using fraudulent appraisals — for hyper-inflated prices and profits. Their buyers, who obtained FHA-backed mortgages, often couldn’t afford the payments and defaulted. Sometimes the buyers were themselves part of the scam and never made any payments on their loans — leaving the FHA, a government-owned insurer, with steep losses.
For these reasons, officials say, it’s time to revert to the more restrictive anti-quick-flip rules that prevailed before the waiver: The 90-day standard will come back into effect after Dec. 31.
But not everybody thinks that’s a great idea. Clem Ziroli Jr., president of First Mortgage Corp., an FHA lender in Ontario, says reversion to the 90-day rule will hurt moderate-income buyers who found the program helpful in opening the door to home ownership.
“The sad part,” Ziroli said in an email, “is the majority of these properties were improved and [located] in underserved areas. Having a rehabilitated house available to these borrowers” helped them acquire houses that had been in poor physical shape but now were repaired, inspected and safe to occupy.
Paul Skeens, president of Colonial Mortgage in Waldorf, Md., and an active rehab investor in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., said the upcoming policy change will cost him money and inevitably raise the prices of the homes he sells after completing repairs and improvements. Efficient renovators, Skeens told me in an interview, can substantially improve a house within 45 days, at which point the property is ready to list and resell. By extending the mandatory ownership period to 90 days, the FHA will increase Skeens’ holding costs — financing expenses, taxes, maintenance and utilities — all of which will need to be added onto the price to a new buyer.
Paul Wylie, a member of an investor group in the Los Angeles area, says he sees “more harm than good by not extending the waiver. There are protections built into the program that have served [the FHA] well,” he said in an email. If the government reimposes the 90-day requirement, “it will harm those [buyers] that FHA intends to help” with its 3.5% minimum-down-payment loans. “Investors will adapt and sell to non-FHA-financed buyers. Entry-level consumers will be harmed unnecessarily.”
Bottom line: Whether fix-up investors like it or not, the FHA seems dead set on reverting to its pre-bust flipping restrictions. Financing will still be available, but selling prices of the end product — rehabbed houses for moderate-income buyers — are almost certain to be more expensive.
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