Want a House? Move to Texas

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Resolution Trust Corporation hopes to dump 1,100 houses in Texas over a two-week period in November.Under its affordable-housing disposition program, the thrift cleanup agency will auction off the houses to low- and medium-income bidders. There will be no minimum sales price. At an RTC auction in New Orleans last June, houses sold for as little as $200. "This is not a moneymaker for the RTC," spokeswoman Teresa McUsic observes. "This is a social program." In the two years since Congress created the RTC, the agency has closed or sold 564 insolvent thrift institutions and liquidated or collected assets exceeding $179 billion. The affordable-housing program was established at the same time to give a silver lining to the S&L debacle, Ms. McUsic says. The program reserves homes in the RTC's portfolio that are worth $67,500 or less for buyers who earn less than 115 percent of the median income for that area. Nonprofit organizations and public agencies can also buy the houses. The homes to be sold next month are the bulk of what the RTC owns in Texas. McUsic says the agency won't be getting many more. "If nothing else, we're just running out of thrifts here." Texas, where much of the S&L crisis occurred, makes up one of the RTC's regions all by itself. Previously here, the agency had sold its affordable housing by sealed bid. McUsic says 13,000 offers were received on 7,600 houses that it inherited from the foreclosure portfolios of 137 defunct institutions. "There's a huge demand out there," she says. So far, buyers with low incomes (less than 80 percent of the median) have about equaled buyers with moderate incomes (80-120 percent). The November sales drive will be the first open outcry auction in this region. And taken together, the nine consecutive auctions in different cities around the state will be the largest the RTC has undertaken. Over half of the houses are in Houston and Dallas. The remainder are spread among San Antonio, Austin, and five other cities. For an individual, a qualifying income ranges from $27,000 to $35,000, depending on the city. For a family of four, the range is $37,000 to $50,000. In Houston, for instance, an individual could qualify with an income of $33,150. A couple could earn $37,900. People shouldn't assume it's just for poor people, says Tawriah El at Grand Capital Mortgage & Investment Inc. Her company is helping to prequalify bidders for the auctions in Houston and several other cities. "It's been kind of slow," Ms. El says of the interest generated by advertisements the RTC began placing in local newspapers last Sunday. For the Houston auction, which will feature 265 properties, her company had prequalified just 25 people in two days. "I think that's terrible, given the size of Houston," she says. Part of the problem, El says, is that people can't believe the auction is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it's made out to be. Typically, she estimates, a house worth $50,000 might sell for $20,000. But she says a fourplex in New Orleans sold for $1,500. A woman who had rented half of a duplex for 22 years bought the building for $3,000, and now gets rent from the other unit. A string of condos sold for $4,500 each. "Sheer giveaways," she says, with "almost nonexistent [monthly] payments." However, El says that prices may be higher in Texas, where the economy is recovering, compared to "devastated" Louisiana. Then there's the juicy financing: 8 percent interest, with the RTC paying up to 3 percent of the loan to cover the buyer's closing costs and up to 25 percent of the sales price for lender-required repairs. Getting rid of the houses, though, lets the RTC focus on commercial properties, McUsic says. Those are the bulk of its real estate inventory and the ones with the greatest potential for value recovery. She believes unloading the homes all at once will be good for those markets. "We have been a drag on the market since Day 1. The market won't correct itself until it gets out of the market," McUsic says. Besides, brokers will get a 6 percent commission if they bring in a bidder who buys a property. Hal Kuempel of Ripley Realtors (motto: "Believe it") agrees that the 59 properties the RTC will sell in Austin won't depress the market. The north side of town in particular has started growing again. In the last few months, contractors have begun "building as fast as they can." The RTC's asset inventory in Texas peaked a year ago at $40 billion, of which real estate of all types was $12 billion. Today the assets total $32 billion, of which real estate is $9 billion.

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