Government announces new program to help ‘underwater’ homeowners

By Zachary A. Goldfarb, Updated: Monday, October 24, 11:32 AM

The federal government on Monday announced new rules that would allow many more struggling borrowers to refinance their mortgages at today’s ultra-low rates, reducing monthly payments for some homeowners and potentially providing a modest boost to the economy.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, working with the Obama administration, said that up to 1 million “underwater” borrowers might benefit from an expanded program that targets homeowners who owe more than their properties are worth.But the program might not have a major impact on the economy. There are about 11 million underwater borrowers in the country. And under an illustrative example provided by FHFA, borrowers might reduce their payments by just $26 per month; the Obama administration is touting savings of up to $200 per month. It will depend on the fees charged to borrowers for taking part in the program.

President Obama is planning to tout the expanded program during a visit with homeowners in hard-hit Nevada, as part of a new “We Can’t Wait” campaign. The president called for additional help in underwater borrowers in his speech to a joint session of Congress in September. The president is planning to cite the effort as an example of something being done to boost the economy while Congress refuses to take more dramatic action to reduce unemployment.

“We’re doing everything we can do to get the economy moving while we continue to pressure Congress and congressional Republicans in particular to step up and pass the American Jobs Act,” the president’s $447 billion proposal, said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director. Obama will propose executive actions to reduce student loan costs on Wednesday in Denver.

Mortgage rates are at a near rock bottom of 4.11 percent. But most underwater borrowers, who have not been permitted to refinance or face significant barriers in refinancing, pay rates far above that. According to research firm CoreLogic, more than 40 percent of borrowers who owe more than 125 percent than their properties are worth pay rates above 6 percent.

The regulators are revising an existing program, the Home Affordable Refinance Program, which has fallen far short of expectations since being rolled out in early 2009. At the time, officials said it might reach 5 million borrowers. To date, it’s reached 822,000, less than a tenth of whom have been significantly underwater borrowers.

“We know that there are many homeowners who are eligible to refinance under HARP, and those are the borrowers we want to reach,” FHFA Acting Director Edward J. DeMarco said.

The FHFA’s new rules slash fees for borrowers looking to refinance. And while in the past only borrowers who owed up to 25 percent more than their properties were worth could take part in the program, now there will be no cap on how much a borrower can owe.

Only loans that are guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be eligible. Borrowers must check with their lender or Fannie or Freddie to see whether they are eligible. Borrowers also must be current on their mortgage and not have made a late payment in the past 12 months.

To avoid all fees, borrowers, many of whom have 30-year mortgages, will have to take out a new mortgage of 20 years or less. That will mean that homeowners have fewer years to pay off their total balance, largely offsetting whatever they might be saving by taking advantage of today’s low mortgage rates. The plus side is that borrowers will pay off their mortgages more quickly.

On the other hand, if borrowers pay fees, they will be able to get a 30-year mortgage at the new low rates. That could potentially lead to $200 in savings per month.

One unknown is whether the fees will prevent borrowers from participating. FHFA is to publish final details in mid-November.

Thomas Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said Monday that refinancing initiatives are helpful, but not enough to address the nation’s housing crisis.

“Stabilizing the housing sector is particularly important because housing equity is an important part of household wealth,” he said. “This calls for a comprehensive approach to housing policy, starting with an urgent effort to remove the obstacles that make it difficult for all borrowers to refinance at today’s low mortgage rates, but extending beyond this to tackle other problems weighing on housing.”