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Engineering at its finest

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Cool Pictures

The World’s Most Incredible Bridges

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Yahoo! Travel

Starting with simple logs from fallen trees or a few stones strategically placed across a stream, bridges and humans have had a long history. Many are designed exclusively for people on foot or on bike; others are for use by cars, boats or trains. Some bridges connect continents; others are known more for their histories and the cultural interest they inspire.

“Few man-made structures combine the technical with the aesthetic in such an evocative way as bridges” wrote David J. Brown, a bridge historian and author of Bridges: Three Thousand Years of Defying Nature. With the help of Brown, and Judith Dupré, a structural historian and bridge expert, we’ve searched the globe for incredible specimens of architecture that span physical obstacles — better known as bridges.

The Singapore Helix Bridge, Singapore

The almost 1,000 foot long curved Singapore Helix Bridge connects Singapore’s Youth Olympic Park with the new Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. Designed by architecture firms the Cox Group and Architects 61, and international engineering firm Arup, the Singapore Helix is the world’s first bridge in the form of an interlocking double helix, and also utilizes lights to highlight its unique structure, Brown said. The bridge has viewing platforms, and also serves as a gallery.

The Singapore Helix Bridge, Singapore

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

Florence’s Ponte Vecchio (which means “Old Bridge”), crosses the Arno River, and is an inhabited bridge, common in Europe during the Middle Ages when merchants and residences occupied the space. “The Ponte Vecchio is more than a bridge. It is a street, a marketplace, a public square, and an enduring icon of Florence,” Dupré writes. Today, she said, the bridge houses gold shops and, on the top level, the “secret” Vasari Corridor that Renaissance nobility once used to cross between the Pitti and Vecchio palaces. The bridge is considered to be the first segmental arch bridge built in the West, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and “is an outstanding engineering achievement of the European Middle Ages.” Built in 1345, it required fewer piers than the Roman semicircular-arch design, as the shallower segmental arch offered less obstruction to navigation and freer passage to floodwaters. Its design is generally attributed to Taddeo Gaddi, better known as a painter and pupil of Giotto. During World War II, it was the only bridge in Florence spared from destruction by German bombs, because Hitler took a fancy to it.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

Sundial Bridge, Redding, CA

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge stretches across the Sacramento River in Redding, California, linking the two campuses of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Opened in 2004, the bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists also serves as a gateway to the Sacramento River Trail system, and its soaring backward-leaning mast with cables stretched like the strings of a harp, is a working sundial, said David J. Brown, a bridge historian and author of Bridges: Three Thousand Years of Defying Nature. The bridge is also environmentally sensitive to its setting. The free-standing construction allows the bridge to avoid impacting the nearby salmon-spawning habitat, as there are no supports in the water, yet its glass-bottom encourages public appreciation of the river, according to Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The Sundial Bridge is one of about fifty — and the first built in the United States — designed by Calatrava, writes Brown.

Sundial Bridge, Redding, California, United States

Leonardo’s "Golden Horn" Bridge, Aas (near Oslo), Norway

Designed in 1502 by Leonardo da Vinci to span the “Golden Horn,” the famous waterway in Istanbul that separates Europe and Asia, the stone bridge was never built because the Turkish sultan feared that it was not technically feasible. A scaled down, laminated wood and stainless steel version based on the famous artist’s original plan is now a footbridge near Oslo, Norway. “For 500 years the beauty and symbolism of this graceful bridge remained an obscure drawing in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, until it was brought into being in Norway in 2001 by the contemporary artist Vebjorn Sand,” according to the website of The Leonardo Bridge Project, a global public arts project. Built in collaboration with the Norwegian transportation ministry, the bridge was the first civil engineering idea by Leonardo to be realized.

Leonardo's 'Golden Horn' Bridge, Aas (near Oslo), Norway

Millau Viaduct, Millau, France

Rising above the clouds, the Millau Viaduct is the tallest road bridge in the world, said Brown, a bridge historian and author of Bridges. With its loftiest pier higher than the Eiffel Tower, it was financed by the same company that built the famous French monument. Conceived by engineer Michel Virlogeux and designed by architect Sir Norman Foster, the cable-stayed bridge (in which the deck is supported from towers by a series of cables), comprises seven concrete piers and a steel deck, and spans more than one-and-a-half miles across the valley of the river Tarn near Millau in southern France. Completed in 2004 after only three years’ construction, the Millau Viaduct was created to have the "delicacy of a butterfly," said Foster in news reports. "A work of man must fuse with nature. The pillars had to look almost organic, like they had grown from the earth," said the English architect, who was interviewed by a regional paper and quoted in a BBC news report.

Millau Viaduct, Millau, France

Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome, Italy

Ponte Sant’Angelo spanning the Tiber in Rome, one of the eight stone bridges the Romans are known to have built over the Tiber between 200 B.C. and A.D. 260, is the most celebrated of the six “massive beauties” still in use, said Judith Dupré, author of Bridges. “The Romans perfected the masonry arch,” she said, allowing them to span much greater distances than previously. “Much of Roman engineering genius is underwater, hidden from view, but their inventions — including the cofferdam, cutwater piers that divide water current, and pozzolano, a type of waterproof concrete—are still used today,” Dupré said. Ponte Sant’ Angelo, originally named for Hadrian, the emperor who reigned during its construction, leads to his mausoleum, Castel Sant’ Angelo, a popular tourist attraction in Rome.

Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome, Italy

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 27, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Cool Pictures

Senate leaders announce bipartisan agreement to avert government shutdown

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The Washington Post

Senate leaders agreed to a deal Monday evening that is almost certain to avert a federal government shutdown, a prospect that had unexpectedly arisen when congressional leaders deadlocked over disaster relief funding.

After days of brinkmanship reminiscent of the budget battles that have consumed Washington this year, key senators clinched a compromise that would provide less money for disaster relief than Democrats sought but would also strip away spending cuts that Republicans demanded. The pact, which the Senate approved 79 to 12 and the House is expected to ratify next week, is expected to keep federal agencies open until Nov. 18.

“It will be a win for everyone,” said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the plan “a reasonable way to keep the government operational.”

Aides to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he will support the compromise.

The spending battle marked the third time this year that congressional acrimony has brought the government to the edge of calamity. In April, Boehner and President Obama reached a deal on funding for 2011 about 90 minutes before a government shutdown was to begin. On Aug. 2, just hours before the deadline, Congress gave final approval to legislation lifting the government’s borrowing authority, averting a partial shutdown and the potential for a default on the federal debt.

Although this week’s fight ended with days, rather than hours, to spare, it drained many in Congress, who thought it was a senseless fight. Reid summed up the feeling of many lawmakers when he quoted Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who said there was too little money in dispute to raise the specter of a shutdown and to halt payments to those affected by natural disasters.

“Let’s fight when there’s something to fight about,” Reid quoted Isakson as saying during a speech on the Senate floor.

At issue was a dispute over how to fund disaster relief, a concern that was heightened in late August after an earthquake struck central Virginia and Hurricane Irene caused flooding in the Northeast.

Although Democrats said the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed more funding, they agreed to accept a Republican plan to spend $3.65 billion in disaster relief money, $1 billion of which would have gone toward the budget for the current fiscal year, which will end Friday. Republicans, concerned about adding to the budget deficit, refused to support the funding without $1.6 billion in accompanying cuts. Their largest target was an auto loan program popular with Democrats, leading to the standoff.

The showdown between the two sides was averted on Monday, when FEMA said it could make ends meet through the end of the week. That led to an agreement that calls for the agency and other government disaster relief programs to forgo the $1 billion in proposed funding for this week. Beginning Saturday and running to Nov. 18, FEMA can begin to tap the remaining $2.65 billion for ongoing efforts.

With the House out of session this week, the Senate approved a resolution that will keep the government open through next Tuesday. The House is expected to approve that extension in a voice vote Thursday, which does not require all members to be present, and then approve the longer-term bill next Tuesday.

Some lawmakers from hard-hit states are unhappy with the compromise, saying that it would result in a slight delay in processing aid to victims, and that the overall total of FEMA funding wouldn’t be enough to account for the damage caused by the disasters.

“They would delay the process by punting back to the House,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The deal “also stripped $1 billion in disaster relief and provides less emergency funding for Missourians in the wake of record flooding and tornadoes,” he added.

The debate over the budget bill turned on sharp — and familiar — political lines that scuttled earlier talk that the two parties were going to tone down their attacks.

Republicans, particularly House conservatives, said they were unwilling to add to the federal deficit, even for disaster funding, and accused Democrats of overspending. Democrats used the debate to portray Republicans as “holding hostage” relief checks for those struck by tornadoes, flooding, forest fires and droughts, focusing much of their criticism on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R), who represents Mineral, Va., the epicenter of the earthquake.

Although the agreement lifts the imminent specter of a government shutdown, it will not resolve the fight over how much FEMA needs to help disaster victims and whether that money must be offset with spending cuts.

The White House has said FEMA will need $4.6 billion for the next fiscal year — a figure many Democrats say underestimates the agency’s needs.

Democrats will push to fully fund FEMA’s request and perhaps broaden it during negotiations over spending for the rest of the year, but they were split Monday over what the compromise would mean for future funding battles.

“This is a very big and important move. It says we met each other halfway. We saved the jobs,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), referring to the the auto loan program. “We figured out a way to fund FEMA that was acceptable to them. It’s a template. We have to figure out how to meet each other halfway here.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), whose state was hit hard by flooding from Hurricane Irene, said the deal would solve the disaster issue — but only temporarily.

“I’m concerned about the fact that we give blank checks to Iraq and [Afghanistan] and we don’t want to take care of America for Americans,” he said. “It’s wrong, it’s foolish and it will come back to haunt us.”

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Economy

Freddie Mac Loan Deal Defective, Report Says

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The New York Times

Freddie Mac used a flawed analysis when it accepted $1.35 billion from Bank of America to settle claims that the bank misled it about loans purchased during the mortgage boom, according to an oversight report scheduled for release on Tuesday.

The faulty methodology significantly increased the probable losses in Freddie Mac’s portfolio of loans, according to the report, prepared by the inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the company. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were taken over by the government in 2008 so additional losses would be shouldered by taxpayers.

The report also noted that the settlement with Bank of America in December was completed over the objections of a senior examiner at the agency. Freddie Mac officials did not want to jeopardize the company’s relationship with Bank of America, from which it continues to buy loans, the report concluded.

The agency official who questioned the loan review methodology contended that Freddie Mac’s analysis greatly underestimated the number of dubious loans bought from the Countrywide unit of Bank of America from 2005 to 2007. The deal between Freddie Mac and the bank resolved claims associated with 787,000 loans, some of which were repurchased by the bank, and cannot be rescinded.

“An effective mortgage repurchase process is critical in limiting the enterprises’, and ultimately, the taxpayers’ exposure to credit losses resulting from the financial crisis,” said Steve A. Linick, the inspector general who oversaw the report. “F.H.F.A. and Freddie Mac must do more to ensure that high-dollar settlements of repurchase claims are accurately estimated and in the best interests of taxpayers.”

When selling loans to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Countrywide and other originators vouched that the mortgages met certain quality standards or characteristics, like accurately representing a borrower’s income or the appraised value of a property. These promises require mortgage originators to buy back at full value those loans that do not meet the standards.

Companies often review loans for possible buybacks after experiencing large numbers of defaults. Not all defaults, of course, occur after misrepresentations.

The inspector general’s report does not specify how much additional money Freddie Mac could have received from Bank of America had it used a more effective analysis. But the senior examiner who questioned the deal told the inspector general’s staff that Freddie Mac’s faulty process could cost the company “billions of dollars of losses.”

A Freddie Mac spokesman, Douglas Duvall, declined to comment, but said that it continued to believe its deal with Bank of America was “commercially reasonable based upon our internal evaluation and judgments.”

Because of the faulty methodology, Freddie Mac failed to review 100,000 loans from 2006 for possible irregularities, the report said. As of June 2010, some 93 percent of foreclosed mortgages from 2005 and 2006 had not been analyzed, eliminating “any chance to put ineligible loans back to the lenders for those years.”

The report also noted that 300,000 foreclosed loans originated from 2004 to 2007 and owned by Freddie Mac were not reviewed for possible claims. These loans have a combined unpaid principal balance exceeding $50 billion, the report said.

Freddie Mac’s review process was faulty, according to the report, because it did not change its analysis to account for new types of mortgages issued during the housing boom. These included mortgages that had rock-bottom interest rates initially — known as teaser rates — lasting three years to five years before adjusting upward.

The loan review analysis used by Freddie Mac focused on mortgages that went bad within two years, because historically that had been the period during which defaults related to possible loan improprieties were most likely to occur. Reasoning that the new types of mortgages with artificially low initial rates would probably lengthen the period before large numbers of defaults occurred, the senior agency examiner urged Freddie Mac’s management in June 2010 to review loans that experienced problems well after two years, the report said.

The company declined to change its methodology. At a July 2010 meeting of Freddie Mac’s credit risk subcommittee, a company manager told housing finance agency staff that loan repurchase reviews were “not the highest and best use of his limited resources,” the report said. Freddie Mac officials also disagreed with the concerns expressed by the senior examiner at the agency, the report said, “partly because they believed a change to a more aggressive approach to repurchase claims would adversely affect Freddie Mac’s business relationships with Bank of America and other large loan sellers.”

A few months later, the deal was made with Bank of America. As they considered the merits of the deal, Freddie Mac’s directors were told that it would improve the company’s “ongoing relationship with Bank of America.”

The $1.35 billion buyback deal was done despite questions about its review process from the company’s internal auditors, the inspector general’s report said.

Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican who leads the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, said: “After reading the I.G.’s report, I am concerned that F.H.F.A. is not exercising independent judgment. The American taxpayers deserve better than business as usual, especially when they have already spent $160 billion to keep Freddie and Fannie afloat.”

The report also noted that superiors at the agency declined to help the senior examiner prod Freddie Mac to expand its review process. One of those superiors, a senior manager who was not identified, told the inspector general that he had not opened the attachment to an e-mail from the senior examiner outlining problems with the company’s methodology.

Responding to the inspector general’s report, the agency said it continued to believe that the Bank of America settlement was “appropriate and reasonable.” But the agency agreed that it lacked policies and procedures where “an examiner has a safety and soundness concern” but encountered resistance in pursuing it. The agency said it would soon issue such policies.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has suspended all future mortgage repurchase settlements affected by the methodology underlying Freddie Mac’s loan review process.

Last June, Freddie Mac’s internal auditors advised the company that its controls regarding the loan review process were “unsatisfactory” and said that “opportunities for increasing the repurchase benefit justify an expansion of our sampling approach” after the second year of the loan, the report said. A company official told the Freddie Mac directors that a more in-depth loan review could generate as much as $1 billion in additional revenue.

Two months ago, Freddie Mac began a more rigorous review of foreclosed, interest-only loans. In late August, it told the housing finance agency staff that the study showed 15 percent of the sampled loans — a higher figure than that in the Bank of America settlement — contained defects that might result in buybacks among originators.

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 27, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Freddie Mac

Fed bond-buying decision keeps mortgage rates at record lows

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Housingwire

The Federal Reserve‘s plan to reinvest principal payments on some bonds into mortgage-backed securities is already contributing to the nation’s record low mortgage interest rates, Bankrate said Thursday.

Bankrate said the Federal Open Market Committee seems to be taking direct aim at mortgage rates by shifting $400 billion from short-term holdings into long-term government bonds. The program, which begins Oct. 3 and runs through June, will involve longer-term Treasury securities with remaining maturities of six years to 30 years, and will be financed through the sale of shorter-term Treasurys with maturities of three years or less.

"This program should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative," the FOMC said in a statement following its two-day meeting.

Analysts also said anemic economic growth and European debt fears are keeping investors on the sidelines.

Rates are unlikely to increase until mortgage refinancing and purchasing activity picks up, Bankrate said.

"In order to get the most economic impact out of low mortgage rates, the pool of prospective refinancers needs to be expanded. Deeply upside-down homeowners, those with second liens or mortgage insurance, and lender concerns about buyback liability are all formidable impediments to refinancing," according to the firm, which aggregates rate data from across the country.

The Freddie Mac primary mortgage market survey showed the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage remained unchanged this week at 4.09%, while the 15-year, fixed rate dropped one basis point to a new record low of 3.29%.

Meanwhile, the five-year, Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage averaged 3.02%, up from 2.99% last week and down from 3.54% a year ago.

The one-year, Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.82% this week, up from 2.81% a week earlier and down from 3.46% last year.

"A sluggish economy and investor concerns over the European debt markets left mortgage rates largely unchanged this week," said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist for Freddie Mac.

"Manufacturing activity in both the New York and Philadelphia regions contracted in September," he said. "Moreover, the Federal Reserve board reported that households lost nearly $150 billion in net worth in the second quarter, representing the first quarterly decline in a year."

Bankrate data show the 30-year FRM at record lows for the fifth consecutive week. The average rate for a traditional mortgage fell to 4.29%, from 4.32% last week, while the 15-year FRM declined to 3.42% from 3.44%.

In addition, the 5/1 ARM decreased to 3.05% from 3.07% last week.

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Posted in Federal Reserve

What New Jumbo Mortgage Rules Mean for Expensive Zip Codes

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Yahoo! Finance

On Oct. 1, the size of mortgages eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will shrink. That isn’t necessarily a big deal in most parts of the country; the new lower limit of $625,500 — down from today’s $729,750 — still is big enough to cover most homes in almost all markets in the United States.

Furthermore, mortgage bankers are stepping up with new money to cover those bigger loans, reports Mortgage Daily. "Programs here and there are popping up," says publisher Sam Garcia. He reports that some new lenders, including TMS Funding and New Penn Financial LLC, are launching programs that will make mortgages as big as $2 million available to lenders with good credit scores and enough cash to keep up with the payments. And many existing mortgage lenders currently will make those so-called "jumbo" loans and just keep them in their portfolios instead of selling them.

But those loans will cost more. Currently the difference between rates on so-called conforming loans and private-made loans is about 0.64 percent. Over the last two years that spread has been as low as 0.48 percent and higher than one percent, says Garcia.

So in some pricey places, the new limits will really pinch borrowers. Those limits vary from market to market and are determined in part by local housing prices. In expensive housing markets where prices have fallen, the limits will drop the most. Hardest to be hit, according to a new analysis by Move.com, will be San Diego, where loans up until $697,500 qualify for Fannie and Freddie until Sept. 30. On Oct. 1, that limit drops to $546,250, a $151,250 difference.

Folks there who want to borrow a bunch for a home will see their costs rise significantly. A San Diego homebuyer who needs $600,000 would pay $2,937 a month for a 30-year loan at today’s rate of 4.18 percent, according to Bankrate.com. Starting next month, if rates stay stable and that borrower goes to a private lender, he would pay $3,155 a month. That’s $228 more a month, or $82,080 more over 30 years.

Some buyers (and lenders) may try to get around that by piggy-backing loans; piling a smaller non-conforming loan onto a conforming loan.

Here are some other areas, most often searched on Realtor.com, that could see significant changes in their loan limits, according to the Move analysis.

Untitled

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 26, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Economy

FHFA lacks staff to effectively monitor GSEs, report says

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Housingwire

The Federal Housing Finance Agency lacks the staff to properly monitor the mortgage giants it has in conservatorship, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General.

The report said the agency also failed to provide adequate oversight over default services legal issues.

The Office of the Inspector General for the federal regulator said the FHFA "has far too few examiners" to properly handle its examination system to monitor Fannie Mae,Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks

The inspector general report also "identified shortfalls in the agency’s examination coverage, particularly in the areas of real estate owned and default-related legal services," which it blames on the staffing shortages.

In another report, the inspector general said the FHFA over the past five years "repeatedly found Fannie Mae had not established an acceptable and effective operational risk management program despite outstanding requirements to do so." The auditor said the regulator hasn’t exercised its power as conservator to force the company to do as much, and recommends the FHFA compel Fannie to establish stronger controls.

"Fannie Mae’s lack of an acceptable and effective operational risk management program may have resulted in missed opportunities to strengthen the oversight of law firms it contracts with to process foreclosures," according to the auditor’s report.

"Given Fannie Mae’s history of noncompliance, (the Office of the Inspector General) believes that the agency must exercise maximum diligence and take forceful action to ensure that Fannie Mae meets the agency’s expectations in this regard. Otherwise, FHFA’s safety and soundness examination program, as well as its delegated approach to conservatorship management, may be adversely affected."

Fannie Mae declined comment.

Edward DeMarco, acting director of the FHFA, has said the agency is having trouble hiring experienced examiners because many don’t want to move to Washington and there’s the perception the government-sponsored enterprises will ultimately go away.

The FHFA has 120 examiners and plans to hire another 26, but "has expressed concern that its current hiring initiative will neither enable it to overcome its examination capacity shortfalls nor ensure the effectiveness of its 2011 reorganization," according to the inspector general report.

The agency wanted all the new examiners on board by the end of September, but now expects to have them all working by the end of the year.

The agency wants to assign 20 to 25 examiners to each examination team, yet is only staffing them with 13. The FHFA indicated only 34% of the 120 nonexecutive examiners are accredited federal financial examiners, and there is no accreditation program currently in place.

The federal auditor recommends the FHFA further study its staffing problems, implement an examiner accreditation program and use contractors to mitigate the shortage.

"Moreover, FHFA has not reported upon its examination capacity shortfalls in a systematic manner," according to the report. "Given FHFA’s critical responsibilities, it is essential that it keeps Congress, the executive branch and the public fully and currently informed about its examination capacity."

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 26, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Government, GSE