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Congress Still Working Against Housing Recovery


Mortgage guidelines too tight, argue lawmakers.

Banks like Washington Mutual (JPM), Wachovia (WFC), and Countrywide (BAC) -- along with Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) -- once used mortgage underwriting guidelines that were thin at best, nonexistent at worst.

Congress, in turn, pushed for leniency for low-income borrowers and for those with spotty credit, assuring their constituencies that the American dream of home ownership would be available to all.

As a result, the housing bubble expanded -- and then it burst.

But it would appear that our elected officials have yet to learn their lesson: According to the Wall Street Journal, representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Anthony Weiner of New York are urging Fannie and Freddie to loosen up qualification requirements even more.

You see, Fannie and Freddie recently limited their exposure to condominiums where a high percentage of the owners were past due on their mortgages, or where many units remained unsold. Frank and Weiner claim the tighter rules are limiting condo sales, even though prices have come down to generate material buyer interest.

To wit, condos just off the Las Vegas strip can be snatched up for less than $50,000 apiece, and downtown San Diego remains surfeited with inventory, even though prices have fallen more than 50% since the market's peak, according to MDA Dataquick.

The law of supply and demand is a beautiful thing.

A quick tour of VRBO, a vacation rental website, illustrates why snapping up Vegas condos on the cheap may not be such a great idea. The monthly loan payments may be just a few hundred dollars, but surplus supply means rents have tumbled and vacancies have soared. In coastal cities like Miami and San Diego, massive overbuilding of condo complexes will depress local real estate markets for years to come. Metrostudy, a market research firm, estimates that Miami has a more than 40-month supply of condos.

Falling prices, which can provide opportunities for savvy investors, are part of a healthy correction process. To the extent the government continues to prop up prices by transferring risk to the taxpayer, these opportunistic investors will stay on the sidelines, thereby forestalling any eventual recovery.
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