Home Buyers Back Out Of Deals in Record Numbers
June Fletcher and Ruth Simon
Some of the cancellations are by people who signed new-home contracts at one price months ago, haven't yet closed, and are now stunned to see the builder drastically cutting prices on identical properties. Some are by speculators caught short by other investments they can't unload. And some are by people trapped in a chain reaction: They can't sell their old home — or the buyer has canceled the contract — so they are being forced to cancel the deal on a new house they are buying somewhere else.
"There are a whole lot of people running from contracts," says Alexandria, Va., real-estate attorney Beau Brincefield. He is currently representing more than 50 buyers who are seeking to get out of contracts on single-family homes, townhouses and condos, compared with none a year ago.
Even though it may mean losing a deposit that could run tens of thousands of dollars — deposits typically range from 1 percent to 5 percent of the purchase price — many buyers are deciding that is less onerous than the alternative. With median new-home prices already 9.7 percent below last year's levels, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, bailing out now may be less painful than committing to an expensive, and possibly depreciating, investment.
It's a far cry from the home-flipping exuberance of the past few years, when rising home values fueled a buy-and-sell mentality among millions of homeowners, and trading up became a staple of reality TV and home-improvement shows.
New-home builders are taking a big hit from record numbers of contract cancellations, or "kickouts." Fort Worth, Texas-based D.R. Horton Inc., the nation's biggest developer, says its cancellation rate is currently 40 percent, compared with 29 percent a year ago. Meritage Homes Corp., in Scottsdale, Ariz., is reporting a 37 percent kickout rate, compared with 21 percent a year ago. And Standard Pacific Corp. says that 50 percent of its contracts fell through in the third quarter of this year, compared with 18 percent for the same period last year. The Irvine, Calif.-based developer built 11,400 homes across the country last year. Among its current projects: Glenmeadow, a gated community in Simi Valley, Calif., where three- and four-bedroom homes range from $1.1 million to $1.3 million.
Caught Between Two Mortgages
Cancellations by buyers of existing homes are up as well. Although no formal measures exist, historically they have been in the 2 percent range, according to the National Association of Realtors. In September, however, nearly half of the 454 agents responding to an online NAR survey said they had recently experienced cancellation rates higher than that.
Sean Shallis, senior real-estate strategist for the Shallis Team of Re/Max Villa Realtors in Jersey City, N.J., says that roughly 22 percent of his sales have fallen apart before closing this year because the buyers backed out, up from 10 percent last year. With the market cooling, buyers have decided they can buy a similar property for less. For others, adjustable-rate mortgages have gotten more expensive, making a home purchase too costly, Shallis says. To reduce the chances of cancellation, he is advising his clients to close their deals as quickly as possible after the offer is accepted, and to put fewer contingencies in the contract. "The longer your property is under contract, the longer the buyer has to talk and think about it and watch the market change."
Shallis himself is among the would-be buyers with cold feet. Late last year, he agreed to pay $595,000 for a new two-bedroom condominium in Jersey City for his in-laws. He pulled the plug on the deal this summer after his father-in-law's illness scotched the planned move. "My exit strategy was if they didn't move into it, we could sell it or rent it," Shallis says. But that plan made less sense after the price of similar properties dropped to as low as $529,000. At the same time, higher short-term interest rates made it unlikely that he would be able to cover his mortgage payments and other costs if he found a renter. Instead, Shallis walked away from the contract and lost his $30,000 deposit.
A sinking home appraisal quashed the deal for retirees Denis and Michael Budge. The couple put their two-bedroom house in Carson City, Nev., on the market a little more than a year ago at $495,000, so they could move to another home they had already bought in Waldport, Ore. After some nail-biting months with few showings and no offers, they finally landed a buyer, who signed a contract in June for $425,000.
Rising Interest Rates
But during the escrow period, as prices in their area continued to slide, the appraisal came in — at $395,000. The Budges were still willing to sell, even at that greatly reduced price, but the buyer backed out the day before the closing. (Through his agent, he declined to comment.) The Budges pocketed the $1,000 deposit, of course, but now they are stuck with two mortgages — a hardship on their fixed incomes. "We thought we were going to relax and enjoy our retirement," says Budge. "Not any more."
Kickouts were high nationwide in the late '80s, and in California and New England in the early '90s, spurred by massive job losses. But until now there's never been a period where cancellations have spiked in the absence of a recession, according to Amy Crews Cutts, deputy chief economist at Freddie Mac. Cutts says the current jitters are largely a result of investors fleeing the housing market in the last few months, which "slammed [it] into reverse," and consumers' fears that the bubble had burst. Rising interest rates earlier this year also gave buyers who hadn't yet closed on their homes cold feet. The result: a huge backlog of unsold homes, which could further depress prices.But mortgage rates have fallen recently, and if they stay below 6.5 percent, Cutts expects that buyers will regain their confidence by late spring, causing cancellations to ease up. Vienna, Va., housing economist Thomas Lawler agrees, but says builders must continue to cut their production and sell off their inventory so supply and demand can get back in balance. "Builders need to take a bullet," he says.
Buyer's remorse does have legal consequences, but the laws vary from state to state and depend on how the purchase contract was written. Usually, a buyer who defaults will have to give up the "good faith" or "earnest money" deposit that was made when the contract was accepted. But typically there is also some wiggle room written into contracts that allows buyers to cancel without penalty — for instance, if they can't get financing, if the home inspection uncovers defects that the seller won't correct, or if the seller doesn't make certain disclosures. Just changing your mind, however, isn't a valid excuse to cancel. A court could find that a buyer who got cold feet is in breach of contract and liable for the seller's expenses, plus damages — or could even force the sale.
Of course, it is better not to wind up in court. To keep deals from falling apart, builders are offering everything from free vacations and cars to help with closing costs and mortgage-rate buy-downs — and they are cutting prices, too. "They're hungry," says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the National Association of Home Builders, the organization that sponsored last week's forecast conference.
Most of these incentives are dangled to attract new customers. But as the market has cooled and kickout rates have risen, nervous builders have also been quietly sweetening the pot for buyers they have already snagged but whose contracts haven't yet closed — just to keep them from bailing out of the deal. Some are even offering to drop the selling price after contracts have been signed.
Two years ago, Rosemary and Paul Owen, both federal employees, signed a $350,000 contract on a three-bedroom condo in Cape Canaveral, Fla., that was yet to be built. Since they knew it would take a long time for the building to be completed — and the housing market was rapidly rising — they took their time getting their old house in West Melbourne, Fla., ready for sale. By the time they were ready to sell their three-bedroom home this January, buyers weren't biting. Though they lowered their asking price to $359,000 from $439,000, only 18 people looked at their home over a 10-month period, and no one made an offer.
So they went to the builder in Cape Canaveral to get out of the deal and to get back the $22,000 they had paid for a deposit and upgrades. He wouldn't allow that, but he did offer to lower the price of the condo by $21,000 to $329,000 — the amount he was asking new buyers to pay for a unit that was identical to the one the Owens had purchased two years ago. He also extended the deadline for closing until the end of November. The Owens haven't decided whether they will walk away from their deposit if they can't sell their old home by then. "We don't need two places," says Owen.
Meanwhile, builders' willingness to lard up their incentives is putting added pressure on sellers of existing homes to do the same. Many are finding it necessary to add thousands of dollars in upgrades to compete with what builders are giving away. Jim Parker, an exclusive buyer's agent in Atlanta, says that in the last quarter, three out of the five buyers he's been working with have bailed out of a contract, while no one canceled during the same period a year ago. "Before, if something was not perfect, they'd buy it anyway. Now they won't," Parker says. Buyers are also demanding more upgrades. "They're asking for everything, right down to the flat-screen television," he says. "They're comparing houses to a brand-new house, and they expect the house to be updated with new paint and carpeting."
Since most people who are buying are also selling — seven out of 10 households already own homes — some are finding themselves of two minds when it comes to kickouts. Glenn Nudell, a shipping executive, recently got $115,000 in concessions, including help with closing costs and fix-up money, when he bought a 12-year-old five-bedroom home in Skillman, N.J., for almost $1.1 million. If the seller hadn't agreed, he says, "I'd have backed away." But then he had to sell his eight-year-old, four-bedroom home in Princeton, N.J. He made sure it was as polished as a builder's model, with new wood floors and carpeting, new cabinets and even a newly finished basement — but he couldn't sell it until he had knocked $70,000 off of his original $630,000 asking price. Is he concerned that the buyer of his house might back away from the deal before it closes next month? "Of course," he says.