Friday, November 25, 2011


The government's expanded refinance program for underwater homeowners, dubbed HARP 2, looks better than expected for both borrowers and banks.

The Obama administration announced the broad outlines of the plan on Oct. 24. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac filled in most of the details in guidance bulletins issued late Tuesday.

The new program greatly reduces or eliminates the risk-based fees Fannie and Freddie charge on many loans and virtually eliminates the chance that lenders will have to pay for losses on loans that go into default if they made underwriting mistakes. It also vastly streamlines the underwriting process.

Many borrowers won't qualify for the new program, but those who do could find it much easier and possibly cheaper to refinance than those who don't. Although lenders can begin taking applications Dec. 1, it could take several months before the new loans are made. Fannie Mae said it won't begin buying certain types of refinanced loans until March.

To qualify, your existing loan must have been sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac on or before May 31, 2009. Your loan balance must be more than 80 percent of your home's market value. You can have no late payments on your existing mortgage in the past six months and no more than one late payment in the past 12 months. You are ineligible if you previously refinanced through HARP.

They've eased up on the qualifying factors over the HARP program.

The new program improves on the existing HARP refi program by letting borrowers refinance into a new fixed-rate loan no matter how much they owe. The existing program caps the new loan at 125 percent of the home's market value.

You can also refinance into a new adjustable rate loan that has a fixed rate for at least the first five years, but in this case your new first mortgage cannot exceed 105 percent of the home's value.

The new program greatly reduces or eliminates the fees Fannie and Freddie charge on loans based on risk characteristics such as the borrower's credit score and loan-to-value ratio. On a riskier loan, these fees sometimes exceed 3 percent of the loan balance and make refinancing uneconomical for many borrowers.

Under HARP 2, the fees will be capped at 0.75 percent on most loans and will be zero on fixed-rate loans with a term of 20 years or less.

In most cases, borrowers won't have to pay for a new appraisal (Fannie or Freddie will use their automated in-house appraisals) or have any particular debt-to-income ratio or credit score.

Borrowers who refinance through their existing loan servicer generally won't have to document their income or assets or have a particular credit score or debt-to-income ratio. The lender will only have to verify that one borrower on the loan has a job or other source of income, but not the amount of income.

If they refinance through a new lender, they will have to meet additional underwriting requirements, but not as many as people who are refinancing through traditional routes.

Effects on Second Mortgages.

Borrowers can have a second loan on the house of any amount and still qualify, as long as the holder of the second mortgage resubordinates it to the new loan. Most of the big lenders have agreed to do so, but there is no guarantee they or others will. "It's going to be case by case," says Brad Seibel, director of residential lending with Fremont Bank.

If borrowers have mortgage insurance on the existing loan, they must maintain it, but they should be able to transfer that insurance to the new loan at the old premium rate, according to Freddie Mac. The big mortgage insurers have agreed to allow this, but again there is no guarantee all will.

It's a big plus if they do. Normally refinancers must take out a new policy at today's rates, and rates have gone up significantly in the past few years. The higher cost has discouraged some homeowners from refinancing.

Although the original HARP program let homeowners take out a new loan of up to 125 percent of the home's value, many lenders were unwilling to make them up to that limit because if the borrower defaulted, the lender might have to pay for losses if they made any underwriting errors. And no lender wanted to run that risk on a deeply underwater home.

The new program, in many cases, will virtually eliminate the risk that lenders will have to pay for losses on either the existing or the refinanced loan under HARP 2. This could be a big incentive for lenders to refinance loans, especially ones they already own.

FBR analyst Edward Mills said the details on the liability waiver and the fee reduction were both better than he was expecting.

But there are still many questions about the program, such as what interest rates banks will charge, whether they will impose additional fees or underwriting requirements beyond what Fannie and Freddie require and whether investors will be willing to buy securities backed by these new HARP 2 loans.

Most lenders I spoke to said they are eager to make the new loans, but are still digesting the extremely complex details. (You can read Fannie's guidance at and Freddie's at

Mills says the program will definitely reach the government's target of refinancing 1 million loans, and possibly even 2 million.

There will be losses for some but seemingly only to profits

While borrowers will clearly benefit, the losers will be investors who own the guaranteed loans that are refinanced. They will be repaid, but will have to reinvest their proceeds, probably at a lower rate. These investors include Fannie and Freddie, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve - in other words, U.S. taxpayers.

The hope is that taxpayers as a whole will benefit if homeowners who lower their monthly payments under the program spend some of their savings (thus boosting the economy) and become more likely to stay in their underwater homes and not default.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congress decides in favor of Borrowers

Today, the vote is in to return the FHA loan limits to the previously set amounts which expired on october 1st. Read the complete Wall Street Journal story below:

U.S. lawmakers moved Thursday to increase the maximum size of loans that can be guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, even as a top Obama administration official expressed doubt about the need for the change.

A spending bill passed by Congress increases to $729,750 the maximum size of a mortgage that can be backed by the FHA, which guarantees loans to buyers with down payments as low as 3.5%. The Senate voted to approve the bill Thursday evening, after the House voted earlier in the day.

Some Republicans in the House and Senate were upset by the move, arguing that it contradicts a goal of both parties to reduce the U.S. government’s role in propping up the housing market. “I am just absolutely so discouraged at Congress in lacking the courage to deal with this issue,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.).

An earlier version of the legislation in the Senate would have increased loan limits for mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well, but that was stripped out due to opposition from House Republicans.

The loan limit fell to $625,500 on Oct. 1 in expensive markets like New York, San Francisco and Washington. They declined in around 250 counties for Fannie and Freddie, and around 600 counties saw FHA limits drop. In some cases, the FHA loan limits fell below those of Fannie and Freddie.

Carol Galante, the Obama administration’s nominee to lead the FHA, told Senate lawmakers that the administration continues to support reducing the limits.

“We maintain that it is appropriate to take a step back on the loan limits,” Ms. Galante told Senate lawmakers. However, she noted that because housing markets around the country remain weak, “there are reasonable people who may want to see us continue to stay in the business.”

The move by Congress will give borrowers seeking loans between $625,500 and $729,750 in pricey markets two options. They can take out “jumbo” loans that carry higher interest rates than those backed by Fannie and Freddie and require down payments of at least 20%. Or, they can take out an FHA loan, which allows for lower down payments but charges insurance premiums that add to borrowers’ costs.

Housing industry lobbyists pushed for Congress to reinstate the higher limits for Fannie, Freddie and FHA, citing concerns that any steps to raise borrowing costs might be too much for fragile housing markets to bear. Another Republican criticism of the action is that it would primarily benefit affluent neighborhoods.

“This means that taxpayers will be subsidizing the purchase of expensive homes by wealthy buyers,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).

However, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said that restoring the loan limits will benefit the housing market at a time when it is weak. Doing so, he said, “won’t cost taxpayers a dime” and will benefit the housing market in many other parts of the country besides those cities.

The move by Congress came after an annual independent audit found the FHA’s cash reserves are now so depleted that there is close to 50% chance the agency could run out of money and require a taxpayer bailout in the next year.

In the past four years, as private lenders have pulled back from the mortgage market, the FHA’s market share has swollen. It backed one third of mortgages used to finance home purchases last year, up from around 5% in 2006. The FHA doesn’t make loans but insures lenders against defaults on mortgages that meet its standards.