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Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Refinancing program misses its mark

Bob Moon Aug 13, 2009
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Refinancing program misses its mark

Bob Moon Aug 13, 2009


TESS VIGELAND: College debt may not be as awful as we thought, but the mortgage debt problem isn’t getting any better. This week, RealtyTrac reported that foreclosure activity set a record last month: One in every 355 households with a home loan faced default, auction or repossession. One in 355!

All kinds of government programs are trying to help. One is called the “Home Affordable Refinance Program” – HARP for short. It’s part of the government’s Making Home Affordable effort. And it’s supposed to help folks get better mortgages before it’s too late.

But our senior business correspondent Bob Moon says learning to play this HARP can be anything but heavenly.

Bob Moon: Figuring out who qualifies and who doesn’t for this complicated government program is about as simple as this:

Costello: You know the guys’ names?

Abbott: I’m telling you their names.

Costello: Well, who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well, go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: Who?

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who is on first?

Costello: What are you asking me for? I’m asking you!

On the face of it, at least the goal of the HARP program seems clear: Helping those who find themselves stuck in homes worth far less than they owe. Lacking equity, many can’t refinance their way out of an adjustable-rate house payment that threatens to explode.

So Bankrate.com senior analyst Greg McBride says the aim is keeping them in their homes.

Greg McBride: “I’ve got a loan I don’t want. I want to refinance into a fixed rate at these very low rates, but I can’t because I’m upside-down.” That’s what the Home Affordable Refinancing Plan is designed to do, is help somebody refinance, and that way, when interest rates go up, that’s one less borrower we have to worry about getting decked with a big payment increase.

If only it were that simple. The government is now guaranteeing refinancing worth up to 125 percent of a home’s current market value, as long as the homeowner isn’t behind in payments.

But Amy Bohutinsky, of the real estate listing site Zillow.com, says that leaves out many homeowners:

Amy Bohutinsky: There are places in the country where home values have fallen 30, 40, even 50 percent since the peak of the market. So there are people who owe much more than 125 percent of their mortgage and these people are not going to qualify for this program.

And others face still other hurdles.

Bohutinsky: You also have to have your loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and only 60 percent of loans in the country are backed by either Fannie or Freddie. And then you also need to have a conforming loan, which in many places in the country means a loan under $417,000.

That limit rules out many homeowners who happen to live in higher-priced metropolitan areas. And even figuring out if your current mortgage is backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac can be a hassle, despite Web sites that are supposed to make it easy. So says Kent Mikkola, a mortgage consultant from Roseville, Minn.:

Kent Mikkola: The systems that they have in place, you could have just a simple syntax error, such as, you know, just eliminating a period from a street address, and it tells you that the borrower is ineligible for the program.

And some of those posting complaints on the Zillow Web site have had trouble taking advantage of the program, even if they do qualify.

Bohutinsky: What we’re hearing in the forums is they’re not able to find a whole lot of lenders who are participating. This has been getting better, it sounds like, over the last couple of months. But it appears that it’s still not helping as many people as it would intend to, at least in the early stages.

If you do find a lender that offers these loans, expect long waits. And mortgage consultant Kent Mikkola says prepare to pay for the privilege.

Mikkola: Additional fees added to the mortgage, due to such factors as your credit score, your loan-to-value ratio, so when you do start getting into that 100 percent, 125 percent, the rates that have to be charged to you are, frankly, not attractive and not helpful to the borrower at all.

The Obama administration and officials of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, say they’re working on trying to streamline the process and encouraging lenders to give borrowers the break they need. But for now, getting this government help can require plenty of perseverance and patience.

I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace Money.

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