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‘Dig’ These New Apps

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TME-LSichelmanThere are apps – as in mortgage applications – and then there are apps – as in application software designed to help perform specific tasks. And the real estate space abounds in new apps, the latter kind anyway.

The latest newsmaker is Zillow’s Digs, the site’s new remodeling estimator. The tool allows users to click through thousands of images of remodeled spaces and then provides a ballpark estimate of what it would cost to reproduce the project in their own homes. The photos are taken from the 110-million homes in Zillow’s vast database, while the estimates are generated by contractors and designers.

Outfits like the seven-year-old Zillow, which has three other popular online tools, including one that focuses on the mortgage market, get all the buzz because of their sheer size. But there are many others that, though just as useful, never get any “ink”

Here’s a few that haven’t received much publicity but may prove to be handy. Many were previewed at the recent Real Estate Connect conference in New York:

>> Hubzu – This online residential marketplace makes it easy for consumers, investors and brokers to buy and sell houses. From start to finish – that is, from searching and bidding to financing and closing – the app provides a totally online experience. Hubzu, from Altisource Portfolio Solutions in Atlanta, isn’t entirely new, having replaced the firm’s GoHoming platform more than a year ago.

>> Clipix – The brainchild of New Jersey’s own Oded Berkowitz, a former Wall Street exec, this free online tool allows shoppers to bookmark any link they find on the web to create a single destination for the short list of properties to their liking. The list can be viewed, edited and shared at any time, plus you can ask for price drop alerts to monitor price reductions. Beyond saving web links, Clipix can upload any document, creating a complete paperless real estate organizer.

>> HomeZada – This tool is a Daytimer for the home, tying together everything needed to manage the property. The flexible system runs from basic to complete, including an inventory of all your possessions, plans for home improvement projects, various home-centric spending categories, checklists for home maintenance and news and alerts. If you have more than one property, HomeZada can manage them all.

>> REESIO – With this app, there should be no more piles of paperwork. REESIO takes the pain out of the real estate transaction by simplifying the experience every step of the way. You can upload and save all documents, e-sign those which require a signature, and remind participants of what needs to be done next. The tool also allows agents to schedule showings and transmit offers for the seller’s approval or rejection.

>> Contactuality – This tool automatically and tactically manage the users’ contacts by promoting actions that help you remain relevant and top-of-mind. It will tell you who’s most important on your list of previous contacts and those you haven’t contacted in a specific amount of time. The system will prompt you when to reconnect and, using such clues as social updates and recent conversations, when it matters most to reach out.

>> BlockAvenue – Moving? Search neighborhoods, block by block, to find out what it’s really like to live there. Data will include amenities, wining and dining, schools, transit and crime. Using this neighborhood platform, you also can communicate directly with folks who already live in the area for their assessments, good or bad.

>> Sensopia – No longer the purview of just crime scene investigators and archeologists, this app measures and draws floor plans. Simply snap a shot of the corners of each room and MagicPlan measures walls and doors, identifies the shape of the room and draws a plan for each one. Then you can assembles rooms with your fingers and even add in some furniture for placement purposes.

>> Revestor – Billed as the “new way” to hunt for real estate, this patent-pending, “next generation” search engine allows investors and others to seek properties based on their highest return rates. Enter the location, price range and how you want to search, by either capitalization rate or cash flow.

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Mortgage People Never Die

What is it with the old farts of the mortgage business? They just won’t go away. For every Joe Reppert, who unceremoniously threw in the towel as vice chairman at Core Logic this summer, there are four or five “generians” of one sort or another who refuse to call it quits.

I count myself among the many who refuse to ride off into the sunset. But I’m a reporter, and I like what I do. And I’m the exception. For every reporter like me, who can remember when Fannie May was only a candy store, there are what seem like dozen of upstarts, many of whom have never bought or sold a house and have no clue what they are writing about.

But I am talking about people like Herb Tasker, a former chair of the Mortgage Bankers Association, who just keeps rolling along. And folk like John Robbins and David Kittle, two other former MBA chairmen, who just announced a start-up called the Mortgage Collaborative. Along with Gary Acosta and Jim Park, Robbins and Kittle’s new venture is a cooperative designed to empower member to compete more effectively by boosting their collective buying power.

There’s a story there, and it’s been reported in numerous outlets, including this one. But to me the interesting part is that Robbins is at it again. For crying out loud, the man has founded and operated several national companies over the course of his 42 years in the business. Hasn’t he had enough?

Apparently not. I know he likes to fish and golf – I’ve joined him on several junkets. But he’d rather work than play.

I don’t know whether Kittle can swing a nine iron, or even drop a line overboard. But he, too, has been around the bend a few times. And now he’s back, 35 years and still going strong.

I never did hook up with Robbins at the recent MBA convention in Washington, and chatted only briefly with Kittle. But I did spend sometime with Acosta, who also seems to have nine lives. He is a mortgage broker who has owned and operated several mortgage-related businesses, but his real claim to fame is as co-founder the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

(Park hasn’t been around as long as his partners, but he is the youngster of the group. Still, he’s no piker. He was a vice president for housing and industry relations at Freddie Mac, a co-founder of New Vista Asset Management, and is a former chair of the Asian Real Estate Association of America.)

“If there was a Mt. Rushmore for mortgage bankers,” Acosta told me, “John Robbins would be up there.”

He said guys like JR believe they can still make a contribution – and make a few bucks at the same time. “The market goes through cycles, which create new niches,” he said. “And independent mortgage bankers are more nimble, so they tend to want to fill those niches first.”

Acosta, too, wants to continue making a contribution, and he said he’ll keep coming back. As long as he and his compatriots can add something to the mix, he said, you can count on them for their knowledge, understanding and friendship. I guess it’s just the natural order.

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Meets The HENRYs

As the mortgage market moves from refinancing to purchase money loans, lenders would be wise to hang their hats on the move-up market, especially the well-heeled segment of repeat buyers.

Affluent buyers are accounting for “a much higher percentage of (sales) activity” than normal, reports John Burns, who heads an Irvine, Calif., marketing and research firm named, aptly, John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

Foreign buyers also are “playing a significant role” in some markets, says Burns, who is hoping that so-called boomerang buyers will bounce back into the housing market.

There are several million of these former owners, and many are leasing houses with rents that are more expensive than the mortgage and property taxes on them. “How many of them can and will return to home ownership will be a key determinant” in the strength of housing moving forward, says Burns.

For the moment, then, it appears that the moneyed set – aka the HENRYs – is a lender’s best bet.

HENRY stands for High Earners Not Rich Yet. They have incomes of between $100,000 and $250,000 annually.

They’re not wealthy, a moniker that waits for folks who earn more than $260,000 a year or has amassed a fortune of more than $1 million. In fact, Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa., says they are an “unassuming mass segment of the affluent consumer market,” and they could be the most important target customer, now just for now, but also for the future.

Danziger is an internationally recognized expert specializing on consumer insights for marketeers. She has just published a new report – “Meets the HENRYs” – which highlights why these lower-income affluents are so important.

“The recent recession has left the true middle class severely limited in their ability to purchase goods and services in the near future,” says Danziger says. “That means HENRYs are the ‘new mass market’ for marketers and brands up and down the pricing scale.”

The 76-page report says the HENRYs are ready to respond in force, if not necessarily in high levels of individual spending. While less-affulents spend about half as much as do ultra-affluents on luxury and high end purchases, their significantly greater numbers (21.6 million households) mean that the total value of the HENRY market is about four times that of the ultra-affluent market (2.9 million households).

“Marketers have historically felt that ultra-affluents were their ideal consumer, but there simply aren’t enough of them to keep luxury brands afloat,” says Danziger.

Priced at a rather pricy $500, “Meet the HENRYs” examines the uniqueness of this demographic, its purchasing power and pyschographics. It distinguishes the purchasing style and drive of five different HENRY customers, and features five “Take Action” steps marketeers can take to start capturing a part of this mass-affluent group of potential customers.

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How’s Your Online Messaging?

Purveyors of mortgages spend most of their advertising dollars online, according to a new research report. Lenders spend a whopping 39 percent of their ad budgets online, the extensive 39-page report from Borrell Associates, an advertising firm in Williamsburg, Va., says. The other 61 percent is spread over numerous other media, with none commanding more than a 15 percent share.

Overall, lenders will spend some $10.16 billion this year on advertising, or about 4.4 percent more than they spent in 2012, according to the report.

Of that, $3.97 billion will go toward their online messages, while $1.42 billion (14 percent) will be thrown into cable TV. Also worthy of note is that some $95 million will be spent on broadcast TV, a 40 percent increased from 2012.

Lenders also will end up spending about $790 million in newspapers. That’s a 7.8 percent share of their ad budgets, and an 8.5 percent increase from last year.

That means the mortgage community is contributing to what may be the return of newspapers from the walking dead. While it is certainly too early to call it a trend, newspapers actually gaining market share in 2013, according to Borrell.

Save for a few markets, fat real estate sections in newspapers are probably gone forever, as are the clutter of homes magazines on street corners. But print “is by no means dead,” the company said in its report.

Indeed, real estate-related newspaper advertising has not only stabilized this year, it has actually increased a tad, up by 0.8% from 2012. At the same time, local magazines “are enjoying a sudden resurgence,” up 30.7%.

That’s not to say spending on digital media has faltered. Its up 16.9%, to a total of more than $15 billion, the study found. Fifteen years ago, when digital was in its infancy, it commanded less than 5% of all real estate ad dollars, Now, it holds a commanding 56% share.

But digital is not likely to grow, says the report’s principal author, executive vice president Kip Carsino. “We believe that the digital share of real estate advertising has peaked and that any future growth will be commensurate with overall growth in advertising expenditures.”

Borrell expects agent’s and brokers’ digital ad spending to peak in 2015 at $16.6 billion. After that, digital will be experience its first ever decline – and a sharp one – due largely to a mild cyclical recession in 2016, the report predicted. Than, spending on the digital medium should begin rising again.

The annual report, which sells for $995, examines the underlying trends in the resurgence of the real estate markets and breaks out spending by agents and brokers, developers, rental managers and mortgage providers.

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If Jobs Was A Builder

Even several years after his death, the name Steve Jobs draws a crowd. To be specific, an overflow crowd at Urban Land Institute’s fall meeting last month in Chicago, where the topic was what kind of bold innovations the legendary Apple founder would be undertaking had he been a residential developer.

“There has been very little true innovation over the last 50 years” in how homes are designed and built, said moderator Beth Callender of Greenhaus, a marketing and branding ad agency in San Diego, who asked the audience to shout out what changes Jobs might champion.

One yelled out something about disposable houses, another spoke about taking building regulations out of the hands of local politicians and allowing them to be written on a more coherent regional or state-wide basis.

“Our industry has largely been stuck” in the middle of the Bell Curve, said panelist Brett Herrington, president of Kukui’ula Development, which is building 1,000-acre master planned community on the southern coast of Kauai in Hawaii. “The biggest thing that’s happened is that housing has gotten bigger at about the same inflation-adjusted price per square foot.”

Consequently, Herrington postulized, Jobs would tinker with how space is used, and design a product salespeople would be proud to show and demonstrate for would-be buyers. “There’s a huge opportunity for the brightest minds in the business to come together and dare each other to do something different,” he said.

Builder-developer Randall Lewis tended to agree, maintaining that the housing sector “doesn’t do a good job building brand loyalty.” Jobs knew his customers better than they knew themselves, Lewis reminded, suggesting that as a builder, Jobs would “enhance the customer experience.”

Houses “should be more than just shelter,” said Lewis, who believes Jobs would have made his houses smarter than the competition. The California builder also thinks the Apple designer would be offering “more great looking houses at more price points” to attract the greatest number of buyers.

Nothing that Jobs married a couple of industries, another participant, Morad Fareed, co-founder of Delos Living, a New York-based real estate development company which is pioneering a new standard for healthy buildings, saw a “natural merger” of housing and wellness.. Builders should integrate medicine into their products to help prevent disease, improve energy levels and lengthen occupants’ life spans, he said.

“Why stop at building just houses?” asked Fareed, whose firm has married science and architecture, reshaping how homes are built to place well-being and personal sustainability at the heart of design and construction decisions.

Herrington, who spent some years at Disney’s award-winning Celebration development in Orlando, said Jobs would have insisted on more intelligent design and more efficient use of space – walls that can pivot out of the way, rooms that can be moved based on the season.

“It’s not about putting more gizmos in houses,” he said, maintaining that “by and large, residential architecture is vary sad.” Jobs’ houses, he said, “wouldn’t look like tacky little places. It would be about groupings, living spaces in the context of the way people live. There wouldn’t be rooms, it would be flexible space, private and shared. ”

Asked what innovations seems inevitable, Lewis suggested that energy would become more important. Energy is “not going to cost less,:” he said. “It’s no longer about what we are doing to our climate, it’s about what our climate is doing to us.”

The California builder also sees the end of hardwire telephone lines, and possibly even the demise of the television set. TV sets “are no longer the center of entertainment” they used to be, he said, suggesting that even flat-screen sets “are on the edge of completely disappearing” because people are relying more and more on laptops and hand-held devices.

In a sort of “Back to the Future” idea, Herrington said the community of the future would have more core-like areas that bring together houses and employment. “Whether its some great revelation or just natural forces,” he offered, “builders will find more ways to bring things back together again the way the used to be.”

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Old Bankers Never Die …

*Old Bankers Never Die…*
**By Lew Sichelman**

LewS***What is it with the old farts of the mortgage business? They just won’t go away. For every Joe Reppert, who unceremoniously threw in the towel as vice chairman at Core Logic this summer, there are four or five “generians” of one sort or another who refuse to call it quits.

****I count myself among the many who refuse to ride off into the sunset. But I’m a reporter, and I like what I do. And I’m the exception. For every reporter like me, who can remember when Fannie May was only a candy store, there are what seem like dozen of upstarts, many of whom have never bought or sold a house and have no clue what they are writing about.

****But I am talking about people like Herb Tasker, a former chair of the Mortgage Bankers Association, who just keeps rolling along. And folk like John Robbins and David Kittle, two other former MBA chairmen, who just announced a start-up called the Mortgage Collaborative. Along with Gary Acosta and Jim Park, Robbins and Kittle’s new venture is a cooperative designed to empower member to compete more effectively by boosting their collective buying power.

****There’s a story there, and it’s been reported in numerous outlets, including this one. But to me the interesting part is that Robbins is at it again. For crying out loud, the man has founded and operated several national companies over the course of his 42 years in the business. Hasn’t he had enough?

****Apparently not. I know he likes to fish and golf – I’ve joined him on several junkets. But he’d rather work than play.

****I don’t know whether Kittle can swing a nine iron, or even drop a line overboard. But he, too, has been around the bend a few times. And now he’s back, 35 years and still going strong.

****I never did hook up with Robbins at the recent MBA convention in Washington, and chatted only briefly with Kittle. But I did spend sometime with Acosta, who also seems to have nine lives. He is a mortgage broker who has owned and operated several mortgage-related businesses, but his real claim to fame is as co-founder the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

****(Park hasn’t been around as long as his partners, but he is the youngster of the group. Still, he’s no piker. He was a vice president for housing and industry relations at Freddie Mac, a co-founder of New Vista Asset Management, and is a former chair of the Asian Real Estate Association of America.)

****“If there was a Mt. Rushmore for mortgage bankers,” Acosta told me, “John Robbins would be up there.”

****He said guys like JR believe they can still make a contribution – and make a few bucks at the same time. “The market goes through cycles, which create new niches,” he said. “And independent mortgage bankers are more nimble, so they tend to want to fill those niches first.”

****Acosta, too, wants to continue making a contribution, and he said he’ll keep coming back. As long as he and his compatriots can add something to the mix, he said, you can count on them for their knowledge, understanding and friendship. I guess it’s just the natural order.

Financial Literacy

*Financial Literacy*
**By Lew Sichelman**

LewS***It’s incredible how much the American public doesn’t know about the very basics of their own financial well-being. Credit scores are a great example. According to a survey from the Consumer Federation of America, a large swath of otherwise decent, law-abiding citizens don’t know jack about their credit scores. And that’s too bad, because as CFA Director Stephen Brobeck pointed out, that’s going to cost them a boat-load of money.

****“Low credit scores will often cost car buyers more than $5,000 in additional finance charges and cost home purchasers tens of thousands of dollars in additional mortgage loan costs,” Brobeck said. “And low scores are likely to limit consumer access to, and increase the cost of, services such as cell phone service, electric service, and rental housing.”

****A more recent survey by the American Bankers Association found the same thing: Most consumers don’t even know their own score, despite its importance not only in determining whether they can get credit cards, auto loans and mortgages, but also in employment and insurance decisions.

****The survey of 1,000 adults conducted for the ABA by Ipsos Public Affairs, an independent market research firm, found that only 42 percent of consumers know their credit score. Fifty-six percent of respondents indicated they did not know their credit score, and 2 percent did not answer the question.

****In the CFA survey, which was done in conjunction with VantageScore Solutions, respondents were asked a wide-ranging set of questions about scoring. As many as two out of every five answered incorrectly.

****Here’s some of the highlights, or should I say low lights:

****>> 40 percent do not know that credit card issuers and mortgage lenders use credit scores in decisions about credit availability and pricing.

****>> 43 percent believe that personal characteristics such as age and marital status are used in calculating credit scores.

****>> 35 percent don’t know when lenders are required to inform borrowers of the credit score used in their lending decision.

****>> 26 percent do not know key how to raise or even maintain their scores.

****>> 36 percent believe that credit repair agencies are always or usually helpful in correcting credit report errors and improving scores.

****Hey, c’mon people, this is basic stuff. But it’s only basic because you and I deal with it on a daily basis. Credit scores have become part of the mortgage fabric. But ordinary people who buy houses only a few times in their lives don’t know any better.

****They should, though. And that’s why I believe financial literacy courses should be mandatory in high school. People need to know how to balance their checkbooks, and how to deal with credit. Yet, it surprising how few young people are taught those basics at home. It might even be shocking to find how many of their parents can’t perform those simple tasks, either. So it is left to our schools to pick up the slack.

Beware The Schneiderman

*Beware The Schneiderman*
**By Lew Sichelman**

LewS***Who is Eric Schneiderman and why is he out to get us? That may soon be the mantra of mortgage market players, if it isn’t already. And soon, very soon, the name Schneiderman could replace the names Cordray and Frank as the Man from the Dark Side who is hell bent to straighten out this business of making and selling home loans.

****If you haven’t heard of Eric Schneiderman, the Harvard law school graduate who is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in New York, the bet here is that you will. After all, the Empire State’s legal offices have been a virtual launching pad for careers in Washington as, among other posts, regulators, legislators, cabinet secretaries, federal judges – even a Supreme Court justice.

****I don’t have any inside information about New York’s top cop’s future intentions. But my guess is that sooner or later, Schneiderman will be pacing the official halls in Washington sooner or later, in one form or another.

****Why should that concern you? Just the other day, the 65th Attorney General of New York announced that he is suing Wells Fargo in an effort to get the bank to honor its commitments under last year’s landmark National Mortgage Settlement.

****At the same time, he announced that his office had reached an agreement to suspend an enforcement action against Bank of America, which has agreed to implement a robust set of systemic reforms intended to ensure that the standards outlined in the Mortgage Settlement are honored throughout his state. If the reforms are successful, it is anticipated that Bank of America will replicate them nationwide.

****“Too many homeowners in our state are facing unnecessary challenges as they fight to keep their homes,” the NY AG said. “While Bank of America has chosen to work with us to take the steps required to adhere to their commitments, Wells Fargo has taken a different path. (But) both of these cases should send a strong message that the big banks must comply with the legally binding Servicing Standards negotiated in the National Mortgage Settlement, or face the consequences.”

****But Schneiderman is hardly a one-trick pony. Here’s a look at his resume since his election in November 2010 as the Empire State’s 65th Attorney General:

****In his first weeks in office, the NY AG launched a new “Taxpayer Protection Bureau” to root out fraud and return money illegally stolen from New York taxpayers at no additional cost to the state. He also bolstered the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which has since already recovered millions for taxpayers. And as part of his effort to crack down on corruption and restore the public’s trust in government, Schneiderman launched a groundbreaking initiative expanding his office’s authority to investigate public corruption involving taxpayer funds.

****And that was just the start. In year one of his watch, Attorney General Schneiderman filed a legal challenge to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act to compel the Uncle Sam to treat all New York marriages equally; sued federal regulators to force a health and environmental impact review of proposed gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin, and challenged the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s practices related to high-level radioactive waste storage, earthquake preparedness and fire safety.

****More recently, he’s gone after the smartphone business in an attempt to curb thefts by encouraging the cell phone industry to adopt technologies to deter the rising epidemic of violent incidents of smartphone theft by drying up the secondary market on which stolen devices are sold.

****But more germane to this audience is the fact that Schneiderman has taken a leading role in the national fight for a comprehensive investigation of misconduct in the mortgage market. He has demanded a fair settlement for home owners, one that holds banks accountable for their role in the foreclosure crisis, provides meaningful relief to owners and investors, and allows a full airing out of the facts to ensure that abuses of this scale never happen again.

****Toward that end, the Attorney General filed suit in June against HSBC Bank USA and HSBC Mortgage Corporation for failing to follow state law related to foreclosure actions and the way the companies placed homeowners at a greater risk of losing their homes.

****Attorney General Schneiderman is committed to bringing similar actions against other mortgage lenders who hold borrowers in the shadow docket in defiance of state law, his office says. So be on guard, now and into the future.

But Will It Fly?

*But Will It Fly?*
**By Lew Sichelman**

LewS***One of the cardinal rules of journalism is to write the story first and the headline will follow. Another is that writers should not write the headline; that’s best left to the editors. But I violated those canons here because I just can’t help thinking America’s Homeowner Alliance is likely to fall flat on its kisser.

****Not because it’s not a noble idea. In fact, any body that wants to speak up for the American homeowner has my vote, though not necessarily my money. But because it has been tried before and it never got off the ground.

****Despite what the AHA says is the “first of its kind” attempt at being a voice for the country’s 75 million homeowners, it’s not. At least twice in my memory – and after 40-plus years of covering the housing and housing finance markets, I have a lot of memory – persons or groups have attempted to organize homeowners a la AARP. And neither one lasted very long.

****I don’t know why they didn’t make it. Perhaps they failed because they were the wrong folks to pull it off. Maybe they were after a quick buck and had no staying power. Or maybe they flunked because it was just the wrong time. Or perhaps it was both the wrong people at the wrong time.

****So now, for at least the third time that I know of, someone is stepping forward in an attempt to save homeowners from damnation – or lead them to the promised land, depending on your point of view. This time, the effort is being led by mortgage market luminary Phil Bracken, a giant of the sector if there ever was one. His creds include the Andrew Woodward Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor that can be bestowed by the Mortgage Banker Association.

****He is being joined by Tino Diaz, former chair of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals; Armando Falcon, a former director of the Office of Federal Housing Oversight, the forerunner of the current Federal Housing Finance Agency; and Joe Murin, a former president of Ginnie Mae. Other members of the board aren’t as well known. But for the most part, they come from the housing sector.

****And I suppose that’s one of the things that bothers me. The group is terribly industry top heavy. Good? Bad? Indifferent? I dunno. It just bothers me.

****Certainly, the AHA has some lofty goals. The Alliance intends to serve as the advocacy voice to protect against policies that fail to promote sustainable ownership for all segments of society. That means, among other things, defending the mortgage interest deduction and the low downpayment, 30-year mortgage, protecting home values, and addressing the lack of funding for new home construction.

****I suppose that this is something else that has my antenna wiggling. Because if these objectives sound familiar, they should. The National Association of Realtors, the Mortgage Bankers Association and the National Association of Home Builders all espouse to the very same things. And that’s just the giants among the many trade organizations which have similar stances.

****The million-strong NAR has done a particularly good job of brainwashing the masses into thinking that it speaks for them. But of course, it really doesn’t. Never has, and never will. To be sure, the interests of real estate professionals and homeowners often align. But when they don’t, guess who NAR speaks for first?

****But more than that, I fear the nation’s owners don’t want their own advocacy, or don’t think they need it. At least, not for $20 bucks a pop. AHA also promises retail and reward-based purchasing benefits from more than 1,000 outlets, Sears, Lowes and Home Depot among them. But I fear that won’t be enough. Where’s the slick magazine, the insurance deals, the newsletters and how-to bulletins? It’s going to take more than a press release to attract dues-paying members.

****I don’t know how AARP got its start many years ago. But I have been a card-carrying member for as long as I became a senior in the AARP’s eyes, and I can tell you the $40 it cost me for the first 10 years was some of the best money I have spent. But I just don’t know about this AHA outfit. I can certainly spare an Andrew Jackson every year, but I don’t think I’m ready to part with him. At least not just yet. I’m going to need more persuading first.

Top Of Mind Stuff

*Top of Mind Stuff*
**By Lew Sichelman**

LewS***Paul Muolo, my friend and former colleague at a publication that shall remain nameless, sure stirred up a hornet’s nest when he wrote late last moth that the Federal Housing Finance Agency is contemplating a big change – read that DROP – in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s loan limits. He and others who quickly jumped on the bandwagon have pressed the FHFA about when the big announcement would be coming, and the agency responded that it would do so in due time. But what’s the big deal, here?

****Like clockwork, announcements about changes in the limits – currently $417,000 in most places but $625,500 in high cost markets  – have always come during Thanksgiving week, never before and rarely after. So hold your horses, guys. Unless somebody spills something to Wikileaks, it’s going to be a few more weeks before we know anything for certain.

***** * * *

****I have no issue whatsoever with the roughly $300 million settlement with JPMorgan Chase over force-placed insurance. After all, the big bank has been helping itself to a big share of the ungodly premiums insurers are slapping borrowers who, for one reason or another, don’t carry their own home owners’ policies.

****But I do wonder how much of all that will actually make its way back to the some 1.3 million people who were actually harmed by the practice of forcing borrowers to pay unjustified premiums and then taking a big share of the loot in kickbacks? My bet is, not much. My bet is, the attorneys are in for a big payday, not their clients.

****And if I’m right, isn’t that just as egregious as force-placed insurance? Maybe Shakespeare had it right when he wrote, “The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers.”

***** * * *

****With Halloween just around the corner, you are likely to run across articles or programs about haunted houses and how well they sell – or not. But they are all late to the party.

****I wrote my first piece about the topic in the late 1970s at the Washington Star. And two places I wrote about are still top-of-mind: One was a place in Bowie, Md., where two young men conspired to kill each other’s wives. After one was murdered, but before the other dastardly deed took place, the guys were apprehended.

****The house where the woman was killed was later sold to an investor, who rented it out. But what is still unnerving to this day has to do with the family that rented the place. The wife had the first name as the woman who was killed, and the daughter had the same name as the woman’s child.

****One of the other houses I discussed belonged to Bradford Bishop, the foreign service officer who bludgeoned his family to death with a sledgehammer. After he learned he was being passed over for a promotion, Bishop bought the aforementioned murder weapon, went home to his Bethesda house and hammered his wife, mother and three sleeping children. Bishop, who was trained as a spy and speaks several languages, is still a fugitive.

****Anyway, the buyer of that fateful place had no idea what had gone on there, and his realty agent saw no need to tell him. (Nowadays, the law requires the disclosure of such information). But shortly before closing, a neighbor told him of the murderous events, and he was able to renegotiate the price. Down, of course.