Oct282009

Ownership cost: property taxes and Mello Roos

Four Major Variables that Determine Market Price

Over the last two days we looked at the four main variables that determine home price:California_Ponzi_housing_market

  1. borrower income,
  2. allowable debt-to-income ratios,
  3. interest rates, and
  4. down paymentrequirements.

Today we are looking at some of the minor cost inputs that work by influencing the four major ones; property taxes and Mello Roos taxes.

When you qualify for a loan, the difference between what your income can support and the payment you can make to the lender is a number of related expenses that only homeowners must pay; property taxes, special assessments and Mello Roos, insurance and homeowners associations. These expenses (1) reduce your payment to the lender, (2) reduce the amount you can borrow and bid, and thereby (3) reduce the value of real estate. Over the rest of this week, we will look at these costs of ownership.

Property Taxes

Property taxes have long been a source of local government tax revenues. Real property cannot be moved out of a government’s jurisdiction, and values can be estimated by an appraisal, so it is a convenient item to tax. In most states, local governments add up the cost of running the government and divide by the total property value in the jurisdiction to establish a millage tax rate.

California is forced to do things differently by Proposition 13 which effectively limits the appraised value and total tax revenue from real property. Local governments are forced to find revenue from other sources.

Proposition 13 limits the tax rate to 1% of purchase price with a small inflation multiplier allowing yearly increases. In California, the first half of regular secured property tax bills are due November 1st, and delinquent after December 10th; the second half are due February 1st, and delinquent after April 10th each year. If the delinquent date falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or government holiday, then the due date is the following business day.

Often the lender will compel the borrower to include extra money in the monthly payment to cover property taxes, homeowners insurance, and private mortgage insurance, and these bills will be paid by the lender when they come due. If these payments are not escrowed by the lender, then the borrower will need to make these payments. We have had some contentious discussions about impound accounts, and I remain a fan of them. The tiny amount of extra interest you may make saving in your own account is not worth the hassle.

Due to Proposition 13, the property tax bill is very easy to calculate; take one percent of the purchase price. Divide it by twelve to get the monthly cost.

Automatic re-assessment for cash-out refinancing

An idea emerged from the aftermath of the housing bubble; limit HELOC abuse by making cash-out refinancing in excess of the original purchase price an event that triggers property tax re-assessment. The effect is to drive up the cost of borrower money and discourage the behavior. It would probably be very effective.

The lenders would cry foul, and in particular there may need to be an exception for reverse mortgages to accommodate seniors (I think reverse mortgages are a bad idea, but forcing retired people to leave their homes is probably worse). Despite the resistance, the legislation if passed would curtail HELOC abuse, but in an economy dependent upon Ponzi Scheme financing, such legislation is unlikely; although, if the budget shortfall gets bad enough, everything will be on the table.

Mello Roos Taxes

In our reports, we classify these as other taxes and assessments because Mello Roos fees are paid through your tax bill. To understand how this became a tax you pay, a brief overview of the Community Facilities District Act is in order (What is Mello Roos?.pdf). From Wikipedia:

A Mello-Roos District is an area where a special property tax on real estate, in addition to the normal property tax, is imposed on those real property owners within a Community Facilities District. These districts seek public financing through the sale of bonds for the purpose of financing public improvements and services. These services may include streets, water, sewage and drainage, electricity, infrastructure, schools, parks and police protection to newly developing areas. The tax paid is used to make the payments of principal and interest on the bonds.

Mello-Roos is deductible in some cases but not in others.

That is the textbook version, now I will give you mine. Imagine you are a real estate developer, and you have a parcel of land that would be worth $10,000,000 if it had infrastructure installed; unfortunately, you do not have the money to install this infrastructure and wait for the investment to come back to you in land or home sales.

What if you could take out a 30-year mortgage on your infrastructure improvements and borrow the money? Now you can finance the deal and develop the land, but there is still a problem. How do you get the homeowner to pay off the infrastructure mortgage after they buy the house?

The solution elected officials came up with was to create a special tax district so the repayment of the bonds to fund the infrastructure is bumped up the payment priority list. In short, you can’t avoid paying Mello Roos, or the tax man will be after you, and he has the power of foreclosure, though it is seldom used.

For those of you that are homeowners, the next time you write that check for Mello Roos, realize that you are paying down the loan for the infrastructure around you. You didn’t think the developer absorbed those costs, did you? That would cut into profits.

Realistically, Community Facilities Districts do encourage private development by making marginal projects feasible. It keeps development in the hands of private individuals rather than municipalities developing their own roads, streets and utility systems. To the degree you believe these results are desirable, you should support Mello Roos.

Without the ability to develop marginal projects, supply is always lagging behind. The Community Facilities District Act does encourage development to lead into growing markets and blunt the impact of supply shortages. Despite the additional supply this law puts on the market, it has failed to prevent housing bubbles.

Determining Mello Roos

Property taxes and Mello Roos fees are deducted from a borrower’s available income to service cashflow, and thereby it reduces the amount they can finance. In essence, there is already a 30-year mortgage on the property you must pay off — your portion of the Mello Roos — so the purchaser money mortgage must be paid with left-over funds.

Builders and developers both know the impact of Mello Roos, so builders will pay less for lots with high Mello Roos fees because they know they will have to discount the purchase price of the final product in order to qualify any buyers. Developers want the Mello Roos fees to be as high as possible because the higher the fees, the greater the bond revenue developers receive. Builders want the Mello Roos to be as low as possible to give them competitive advantage. The resulting compromise usually puts Mello Roos at between 0.5% and 0.8% of total value.

The good news with Mello Roos is that the fees are fixed. As house prices go up, the Mello Roos fees become less burdensome to later buyers. If the Mello Roos are set at 0.8% of an initial $200,000 sales price, the same figure represents only 0.4% of a $400,000 resale price. Of course, the reverse is also true.

When the Irvine Company first opened Woodbury and Portola Springs, they were priced to the peak and they had maximum Mello Roos. Now that houses are selling for lower price points, the Mello Roos start to become onerous. If the original sale price of a condo was $400,000, and the Mello Roos were 0.8% of value, if the condo resells for $200,000, the Mello Roos now represent 1.6% of the purchase price. That is a stiff property tax bill by California standards.

Does anyone know if the Irvine Company has bought down the bonds on Woodbury or Portola Springs, or are new buyers going to get a huge Mello Roos tax bill and an unsettling surprise?