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Banker Turned Builder Shares Insight On Housing Collapse

The great American Dream became a nightmare for millions of people who lost their homes in the financial collapse. Ironically, a push to get more people into homes of their own may have started the spiral that brought down banks and led to the bailouts.

A Georgia builder who saw it all for himself has written a book on the subject named "The Great American Housing Fiasco."

"I think your homeowners have seen their values, their nest eggs just crumble," said Hugh Morton as he walked down the sidewalk of a local neighborhood.

Morton is the perfect person to write about it. He's a former banker who became a builder.

"Quite candidly, I sat on the bank board of one that failed. I watched how the FDIC did it," he said.

He's seen banks fail, builders go belly-up and hardworking people lose their homes.

"We've been in this thing for three years, of supposed recovery," the author said, "and it's still going down."

Morton said there were a lot of causes for the housing collapse, starting with programs designed to get more people into homes. People who might not have been able to afford them before.

"These are noble goals," Morton said. "Don't misunderstand me. Very noble goals. I spent a lifetime trying to put people into housing."

But many of these loans were for 100 percent. In other words, no money down. What's wrong with a 100 percent loan?

"Number one, " he said, "you got a buyer that has no skin in the deal. You know, rainy day -- hard times, he has no investment -- it's easy to walk on the deal. If they can't save a little money for a down payment, how can we expect 'em to make a mortgage payment?"

In short, Morton says the easy money let people buy more house than they could really afford.

Even if you're not buying or selling a home, don't make the mistake of thinking none of this matters to you. One big problem for you could be as close as the home down the street in foreclosure. Once a home in your neighborhood goes into foreclosure, it can bring down the value of the homes around it -- even if those families never missed a mortgage payment. When the bank cuts the price and sells a foreclosure, appraisals nearby can drop, too.

"We need to make 'em accountable," Morton said, talking about the banks. "If nothing else, they can put a sign in the yard telling them who's fixing to destroy their values -- make 'em publish it in the newspaper."

In his book, Morton makes the argument that there's plenty of blame to go around: from the people who took on homes they couldn't afford to the banks that loaned them the money. He lays blame at the feet of developers who got greedy during the good times and the builders who did the same.

"I still have a bunch of lots I'm sitting on for three years now," he admitted. "And they've devalued so much, there's nothing I can do with them."

And Morton said things won't improve until builders can once again buy a lot, build a home and make money on the deal.

If there's any good news in any of this, with a lot of homes on the market and interest rates historically low, it's still a buyers' market. That is, if you don't have to sell your own home first.


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