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Government shutdown threatens housing market, mortgages

A 'For Sale' sign is posted in front of a house on November 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, homes prices in November were up 0.6 percent from the previous month and 5.5 percent from the previous year.

Buying a home is hard enough these days, with mountains of paperwork and lenders enforcing tight standards. But it could get even worse during this month.

The government shutdown is hampering lots of different mortgage processing, and not just for Federal Housing Administration loans used by many first-time buyers with low or moderate income.

Limited staffing could potentially delay many FHA loans. But conventional loans could be slowed down as well, even for buyers with sparkling credit and orderly paperwork. With workers on furlough and some websites shut down, required IRS and Social Security verifications could be greatly delayed or impossible to get during the shutdown. Delays in financing hurt sellers and buyers alike.

"Some people aren’t in a position to wait around," says housing economist Michael Carliner. "They've made other plans; they've sold their previous house; the lease has run out."

That’s the position Matt Lipan and his family find themselves in. The Indianapolis family of four plans to apply for a mortgage Monday. On any other day, they would be feeling great, with their paperwork in order and buyers for their current home.

But with their loan application going in during the government shutdown, they now have additional anxiety. If unexpected delays mean they can't close on their new home in time, they'll have to depend on the buyers of their current home to be flexible on their existing closing date. If not, the Lipans will be looking for somewhere to sleep.

"If they really pressed it and said we need this closing date or we walk, then I think we would find ourselves really scrambling to figure out where the four of us would end up in the meantime," Lipan says.

He adds that the buyers — paying all cash — have been easy to work with throughout the process. But he doesn’t want a government shutdown to complicate the situation.

The longer the government is closed, the more housing deals could be delayed or even wrecked altogether. That’s why home buyers, sellers and bankers are worried. A prolonged government shutdown could really hurt the housing market, with consequences for the entire economy.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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