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These days, if you bid on a house, especially a foreclosure, you might be in for a surprise. Your offer could be trumped by a lower bid if the other buyer is willing to pay cash. In recent years, a growing share of homes have sold for cash, and NPR's Annie Baxter reports that despite their low bids, cash buyers are now playing an important role in the housing market.
ANNIE BAXTER, BYLINE: Not everyone wants to buy a mold-infested foreclosure, but Dan Grohs does. He and his realtor show me into a three-bedroom house in Minneapolis. Grohs recently bid on it. The copper pipes have been stolen by vandals, and the heat doesn't work.
Ooh, it is a little chilly in here.
DAN GROHS: Yeah, it is.
BAXTER: But Grohs sees potential.
GROHS: Well, it's got a nice flow to it. You walk in, living room, dining room, kitchen, good spacious rooms.
BAXTER: The bank that owns this foreclosure wants about 48 grand for it. But Grohs has offered $40,000 in cash. If the deal goes through, he plans to renovate the house and resell it. That's how he and his brothers make their living.
How many cash deals do you think you've done altogether in your buying history?
GROHS: With my brothers included, it's in the hundreds. Maybe more than 500, I would say, in 33 years.
BAXTER: In general, there are a lot more investors paying cash lately. Campbell Surveys and Inside Mortgage Finance say 34 percent of completed home sales in January were paid for with cash. But share has picked up from just a couple years ago, and it's way above the 10 percent range typical in a more normal market.
Sometimes buyers who want to occupy a home are paying cash. But more often, it's investors. One reason for their interest was kind of unexpected. Tom Popik with Campbell Surveys says it has to do with the Fed's promise to keep interest rates low for a long while.
TOM POPIK: A lot of people are just throwing in the towel and deciding that they would rather invest in real estate than have their money in a deposit account in the bank.
BAXTER: Popik says theoretically, those low interest rates should be enticing other homebuyers to get mortgages. But these days, it's a lot harder to qualify for one. Of course, cash buyers don't have to deal with stuff like a lengthy loan approval process or even an appraisal. And that's appealing to banks that own or service foreclosures and want to unload them.
BOB DAVIS: That's why they might turn down a higher purchase price made by someone they feel has questionable ability to get the mortgage.
BAXTER: Bob Davis is with the American Bankers Association. He says at the end of the day, a bank's looking to get rid of its foreclosures. It will probably have to book them as a loss no matter what. Cash buyers can help a bank take its lumps more quickly.
DAVIS: It's all about the calculation of which buyer will result in the most loss mitigation to the bank.
BAXTER: But the steep discounts cash investors want are pushing overall home prices down. Surprisingly, that's OK with Richard Green, a real estate expert at the University of Southern California. He says any pain that cash buyers bring about in terms of price is kind of worth the tradeoff. They're also eating into the overhang of foreclosures.
DR. RICHARD GREEN: These cash buyers are mopping up inventory, and that's probably the most important thing that can happen right now, because you're not going to see a recovery in prices until inventories return to more normal levels.
BAXTER: And Green says inventories are starting to stabilize. Meanwhile, Dan Grohs, the cash buyer in Minneapolis, believes he's doing a lot of good for the neighborhoods where he's investing, which are typically dense with foreclosures.
GROHS: Any time you can take a house that's boarded, vacant and or condemned, fix it up nice and then it's occupied, I just believe it has to stabilize and improve the neighborhood.
BAXTER: Of course, it doesn't hurt that Grohs turns a tidy profit along the way. He says he pulls in at least 100 grand a year. Annie Baxter, NPR News, St. Paul.
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