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Start up creates online platform to make building homes easier

(HOMEOWNERSHIP) Atmos wants to help simplify the dream home building process by moving it online. Their platform will help you find builders, designers, and financing options.

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A start-up plans to bring together people, processes, and tools into one digital place for buyers to design and build their homes from start to finish. Co-founder and CEO of Atmos, Nicholas Donahue, grew up in a homebuilding family and always wondered what it would look like to use technology to rebuild the industry.

“Nearly everyone used to want to build a home; it was the American dream, but most people choose not to do it because of the complexity,” Donahue said, “While everything else has moved fully online, homebuilding is still the same in-person process. We are making the process simple enough that anyone can build the home of their dreams, modernizing and revitalizing the American dream.”

The way Atmos works is that they partner with local home builders that they claim to vet based on accreditation, reputation, proof (insurance + funds for construction loans), and pricing. Customers input their desired location and floor plan for the site on the platform. Atmos finds builders that best match the plan and coordinate the rest of the tasks to get the home built, including design, fixture packages, and financing. The company partners with local real estate agents to help sell a client’s existing home, or allows customers to use their own real estate agents if they prefer.

Atmos is participating in the California-based Y-Combinator accelerator, most known for launching companies like Airbnb, DoorDash and Instacart. The company has raised more than $2 million in VC seed round funding from Sam Altman of YC/ OpenAI, Adam Nash of Wealthfront, JLL Spark, and others.

According to Donahue, the rise in demand for housing in emerging cities coupled with low inventory makes building a more attractive option for buyers. He said “homeowners are converting from buying to building and when doing so are being forced to go online because of in-person restrictions. This has provided a huge opportunity for an online alternative to come into the space.”

Additionally, an increasing number of remote workers have come to envision their homes as combined office, schooling, and family spaces. In response, real estate agents report more requests for larger homes with outdoor space and dedicated offices, particularly for homes in the under $400k price range.

Atmos is currently focusing on Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte markets as they continue to refine their business model. Long-term, Donahue says the goal is to “redefine the way people live by enabling the next generation of homes and neighborhoods to exist.”

Yasmin Diallo Turk is a long-time Austinite, non-profit professional in the field of sexual and domestic violence, and graduate of both Huston-Tillotson University and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. When not writing for AG she should be writing her dissertation but is probably just watching Netflix with her husband and 3 kids or running volunteer projects for HOPE for Senegal.

Homeownership

Homeownership dreams suddenly abandoned by many millennials – why?

(REAL ESTATE) A perfect storm has arrived in the American housing market, and it’s not just a global pandemic that has dramatically shifted plans.

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Millennials, a generation often bemoaned for their comparatively nomadic tendencies as far as housing is concerned, looked for a while to be settling down in a more traditional sense. Now, in the wake of a pandemic and talk of a housing bubble, nearly two-thirds of those who were formerly interested in homeownership are changing their minds.

According to a Legal & General study, nearly half (47%) of millennials reported that COVID “negatively affected” their home-buying plans, with a whopping 61% of millennials who had saved for a down payment deciding to cancel or postpone the process.

The study also shows that 12% of millennials who were interested in homeownership “completely abandoned their home owning plans,” having been entirely disheartened by things like home scarcity, atrociously high bidding wars, and rapidly increasing cost of living in urban spaces.

That last criterion was also a damaging factor for many. Legal & General quotes millennial participants, one of whom laments being “priced out of my community, my county, to make way for the rich and for overpaid tech workers who are running us out of town and out of the state.”

Others referenced things like heavily politicized policies that “[drove] up the cost of living,” debts in a post-COVID relief society, wage stagnation, and the general dissonance of enjoyable activities and locations being almost entirely inaccessible to middle-class workers who cannot afford to live in the city.

But Legal & General points out that COVID-19 resulted in “aggravating existing housing trends, rather than generating a new pattern of trends”, signifying something many already knew – that millennials are reluctant to purchase what feels like a permanent investment in a world framed by extreme precarity.

“Our generation has had many setbacks to home ownership between the stock market crash and the pandemic, student loan crisis, the cost of living going up much faster than
the rate of salary increases…” says one participant in Legal & General’s study. “…it has been extremely difficult to even be in a position to save money.”

With almost 70% of millennials admitting that COVID and other related factors changed the way that they think about their future (specifically regarding where they might want to live) it seems like this generation is, once again, experiencing a profound setback to the plan espoused as the norm by prior generations.

However, the seeming exodus from densely populated areas to smaller, more suburban areas (seen toward the beginning of the pandemic) along with some pockets of resistance to wage stagnation in the last year does inspire some hope for a paradigm shift.

As the world reckons with the devastating effects of the pandemic and the rebuilding to follow, it is very possible that millennials will once again find their footing and once again plan on homeownership.

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Homeownership

What the real estate industry must do now to drive equity in housing

(REAL ESTATE) While some folks remain complacent, and others digest the causes, these industry experts are focused on what actions will improve equity in housing.

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A difficult discussion has finally come to light in America regarding inequities in our systems. DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts are being made in corporate environments, typically stemming from leadership and executed by HR departments as a way of improving work cultures to attract top talent.

Yet independent real estate practitioners don’t always know exactly what their specific role in housing can be when it comes to DEI. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) updated their Code of Ethics to include barring anyone from membership who uses harassing or hate speech (online or offline) toward any protected class. That’s progress. But more can be done.

At the NAR 2021 iOi Summit, NAR CEO, Bob Goldberg moderated the first panel that kicked off the event and set the tone, entitled “Can Tech Drive Fairness & Equity in Housing?”

Surprisingly, the panel didn’t focus exclusively on what types of inequities persist (as has become standard at many conferences), rather what actions can be taken to remedy them – a point Goldberg repeatedly brought the topic back to. Actions.

Panelist Melissa Koide, FinRegLab Founder and CEO noted that there are up to 60 million Americans who are “insufficiently able to be credit risk assessed,” a concept known as credit invisibility, which disproportionately impacts consumers of color. Obviously credit is the mechanism used to underwrite all loans, especially mortgages, so improving this process is critical to equity in housing.

Goldberg asked, “Technology drives all aspects of the homeownership process and the rental process. How can we make invisible credit visible?”

Koide noted that people can be brought into eligibility by evaluating other indicators of financial stability like bank account data. In other words, during the pandemic when folks received federal aid, did someone pay down their credit card debt, or did they prioritize their rent or mortgage payments?

It sounds idealistic, despite Fannie Mae recently announcing that rental history payments (by identifying bank account data) to qualify more buyers without repeating the ridiculous no-doc loans that played a large role in the housing crash in 2008.

But it’s already being put into play – Koide says several large banks are already implementing pilot programs to look at this kind of banking data to determine who they can extend credit to in the pool of credit invisible. And it’s not new – over a decade ago, CoreLogic began putting their massive data collection efforts to work by implementing an alternative credit scoring model. Yet many folks remain credit invisible.

With organizations slowly improving how they serve the credit invisible, panelist Bryan Greene, VP of Policy Advocate at NAR said that looking to bank records to raise credit visibility has “a very positive domino effect,” wherein newly qualified consumers may get credit on more favorable loans at lower rates which he notes will lower their debt burdens.

Panelist Lisa Rice, President and CEO at the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) points to redlining and disinvestment as creators of expanding credit deserts where mainstream lending products are not available (even banking), noting that 30% of African American and Latino consumers in America are credit invisible as a result.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not credit worthy,” Rice said, “it’s that they’re using forms of credit not reported to credit repositories.” She notes that predators like payday lenders have come in to fill that gap.

In addition to addressing the credit invisible to improve equity in housing, Goldberg asked how to get people to pay attention to the algorithmic fairness that “obviously must be taken into account to make it fair for under-served communities.”

Rice asserted that a tremendous obstacle is that regulators have not come up with a definition for algorithmic fairness, despite “a lot of brilliant minds grappling with how to define that fairness.” Although we can test for fairness, we can recognize what is not fair, we’re “in a state of purgatory where we are comfortable with finding alternatives that are less discriminatory then utilizing and employing those less discriminatory alternatives into the marketplace.”

Greene added that algorithmic testing has been around for at least 60 years and involves a scenario where “two people with comparable housing profiles seek a housing opportunity and present the same information about their financial circumstances and evaluate the results,” which is used to spot discrimination in housing, a practice the Supreme Court has validated as the method for testing fairness. We simply move that practice to the technology space to indicate algorithmic fairness.

The challenge, Greene notes, is that “algorithms might not take into account other things that determine creditworthiness. Systems don’t take into account all aspects of creditworthiness.”

Implicit bias is part of the human condition, and Rice importantly points out that this bias is embedded into the data we use. “Our Tech Equity Initiative is toying with ways of de-biasing tech, extricating the bias embedded in the data that is looking to generate despair in the outcomes.”

“Garbage in, garbage out” is a common phrase in tech, indicating that if bad data is input, the output can’t be good. For example, some want to take humans out of the parole process, using AI to make those decisions without human biases. But the data it would use to make those decisions is historical data which obviously is rife with human error. It simply cannot be fairly done with current data.

So if tech can’t create fairness, nor can humans, what is the answer? The two must be married.

Greene illustrates this concept by noting human appraisers are still necessary to review automated valuations, especially to check for those biases. He states, “We hear of these situations where there’s a biracial couple and when a black spouse is home, [there is a] lower appreciation, if the white spouse is home, [it’s] higher. To have a system to check and make sure people have considered all appropriate variables could be helpful.”

Goldberg asked what policy changes need to be put into place.

Rice contends that “deep expertise” required to craft policy exists primarily in the private market, so “technology has outpaced the policies and the policymakers.” Algorithmic fairness will persist until the people writing laws actually understand the subject matter.

Koide upholds that being able to explain the algorithms is essential, that transparency around data privacy is crucial, and that using alternative financial data in underwriting is what must now happen. “It’s not the sexy stuff,” she affirmed, “but it’s foundational as to how we’ll overcome the historical disparities.”

Goldberg closed by asking what attendees (tech leaders in the real estate vertical) can do to address this challenge.

Greene said, “Continue to question assumptions about how people live and what makes people creditworthy,” adding that it is critical to “test and validate” to make sure practices are fair and representative.

Koide urged real estate tech to support research by sharing data with organizations like hers, or with people in academia. “It’s critical to how we’ll get this right and get traction.”

“Lead with equity,” Rice said. “We got to this place because we lead with inequity deliberately and purposely. So we have to deliberately lead with equity.”

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Homeownership

Rental history will soon help folks qualify for a mortgage

(REAL ESTATE) Historically, rental history has not been reported to credit bureaus which doesn’t help anyone with obtaining a mortgage. Soon, that all changes.

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Mortgage papers held in hands with a pen, being handed to the other hands.

Effective September 18, more renters may qualify for a mortgage under Fannie Mae’s updated underwriting process. The rules have changed to incorporate consumers’ rent payments to better serve the “credit invisible” of America who are historically under-served by traditional lending products.

Fannie Mae’s Desktop Underwriter® will automatically identify recurring rent payments based on banking data to improve mortgage eligibility.

It’s estimated that about 17% of previously rejected applicants could now be approved for a mortgage, simply due to their rental history.

Hugh R. Frater, Chief Executive Officer of Fannie Mae said that this is “but one important step in correcting the housing inequities of the past, creating a more inclusive mortgage credit evaluation process going forward, and encouraging the housing system to develop new ways of safely assessing and determining mortgage eligibility in order to fairly serve all potential homeowners.”

Rent payments will only positively impact eligibility.

Although Fannie Mae does not handle loans simply backs them, applicants can be pre-approved through their process to private lenders. Credit history is one of the most important factors in getting approved for a mortgage, but less than 5% of renters have their rent history on their credit report.

Fannie Mae is changing this to expand opportunities for under-served consumers. Even more importantly, the rent payment history will only be used to improve eligibility. Missed payments or inconsistent history will not negatively affect a person’s ability to qualify for a loan.

However, consumers will need to have a digital history of making payments, whether to the property management company through their payment portal or by check or another digital solution.

Rental history directly relates to paying your mortgage on time.

Lenders want their mortgage payments to be on time. That’s the simplified bottom line.

Rent is one of the biggest expenses in any renter’s budget, but it rarely gets reported to the credit bureau without a third party reporting tool like CoreLogic’s RentTrack. This move by Fannie Mae will help level the playing field for renters who are responsible borrowers.

Welcome to the 21st century, Fannie Mae (and America).

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