FHA revises ‘anti-flipping’ rule

Call it three birds with one stone: The federal government hopes simultaneously to help low-down-payment home buyers, investors who fix up foreclosures, and local communities burdened with too many bank-owned and foreclosed homes -- all with one potentially far-reaching policy change.

The Federal Housing Administration is revising its long-standing “anti-flipping” rule starting Monday and just might score a hit with all three target groups.

For years the FHA has had a strict prohibition: It wouldn’t insure a mortgage on a house whose seller had owned it less than 90 days. The ban was a reaction to fraudulent quick flips of houses that inflated their values far beyond true market worth.

The flips often were pure cons: Buyer A would acquire a low-cost house in bad repair, do minor cosmetic changes and resell within days to Buyer B, who was also part of the scheme, at a significantly higher price. The sequence could involve a string of serial flippers within a month or two, and trumped-up prices spiraling upward.

The end game usually went like this: Find a hapless buyer for the flipped house who would apply for a low-down-payment FHA loan. Typically that buyer defaulted quickly -- leaving the FHA with a foreclosed house on its books and a loss to its insurance funds.

The FHA maintained its 90-day anti-flipping rule through much of the last decade. But now it’s suspending the policy, at least for the next year. In an advisory to lenders, FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said the agency would once again provide mortgage insurance for some purchases in which the seller had closed on the property less than 90 days earlier.

The objective, Stevens said, will be to speed sales of renovated houses to first-time buyers and other purchasers. With foreclosures at record levels -- an estimated 2.8 million filings last year alone -- many communities are faced with excesses of bank-owned properties sitting unsold, often in poor repair.

By waiving the 90-day rule, private investors will be more likely to bid on these houses, fix them up and sell them to buyers who will now be able to gain early access to FHA financing, which offers 3.5% down payments.

What’s the significance of the 90-day timeline? It’s huge, say investors who specialize in acquiring and renovating foreclosures and bank-owned properties. Paul Wylie, an investor active in the Los Angeles area, says his group generally can acquire and rehab a house and list it for resale within 60 days.

But under FHA’s previous policy, large numbers of potential buyers couldn’t bid on Wylie’s properties as soon as they hit the market.

Barred from using low-down-payment loans until after 90 days, these buyers were forced to look to conventional mortgage sources, which often required 10% down plus private mortgage insurance.

“A lot of the people who want to buy our houses just don’t have 10%,” Wylie said. “But they can afford a 3.5% FHA down payment.”

Bobby Taylor, a broker with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate in Salem, Ore., said the FHA’s change of heart “is going to be absolutely terrific” for anyone looking to bid on a moderate-priced post-foreclosure house in good physical condition.

Some lucky buyers will even be able to combine the $8,000 federal tax credit with 3.5% FHA financing -- provided their contracts are signed by April 30 and closed by June 30, when the credit program expires.

FHA’s revised policy does not throw open the floodgates to all post-foreclosure renovations, however. Stevens laid down two key restrictions designed to protect end buyers and FHA alike:

* There can’t be game playing or conflicts of interest among buyers, sellers, realty agents or others involved in the deal. “All transactions must be arm’s-length, with no identity of interest” among any of the participants.

* Price run-ups must be relatively modest and justifiable from the time of the investor’s acquisition to what’s paid by the applicant seeking FHA financing. Generally the limit will be 20%.

When the price jump exceeds 20%, FHA expects participating lenders to require extensive documentation of the renovation expenditures made by the investors to justify the hefty price increase.

Lenders also are required to order an independent property inspection so the buyer can understand the house’s physical condition and the improvements made.

The takeaway for buyers and investors: Check out FHA financing early in the game on foreclosure turnarounds. It’s now available and it just might work for you.

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.