Gloomy ideas about mortgage terms may be deterring qualified people from applying

December 23, 2011

Could gloomy popular assumptions about how tough it is to get a mortgage be deterring large numbers of qualified people from even applying?

Could the same worries — I can’t come up with the big down payment I need, my credit scores are too low, my bank account has almost none of the reserves that lenders want to see — put a needless damper on a housing recovery in the new year?

You bet. Lenders and economists will tell you flat-out: The lack of accurate information about loan programs designed to address special needs is discouraging far too many consumers from even considering an application, much less shopping around.

Alex Stenback of the Residential Mortgage Group in Minnetonka, Minn., sees it every day: “People just aren’t aware of what’s possible right now,” the loan officer says, and, as a result, they are needlessly missing out on real estate prices and long-term interest rate opportunities. Doug Lebda, founder and chief executive of LendingTree, which operates an online site where banks make competing offers to applicants, believes that “the fear of being rejected” — because they don’t conform to standards that may not even exist — is keeping qualified applicants on the sidelines.

For example, what’s needed for a down payment? Is it 20 percent? 10 percent? Less? Yes, it’s less — potentially a lot less if you qualify for the right program.

The widespread but erroneous assumption that banks require a minimum 20 percent for conventional loans may have arisen from heavy media coverage of a controversial proposal by federal agencies calling for borrowers to put down that much if they want to get the best interest rates and lowest fees.

Also contributing to incorrect beliefs about down payments: The Obama administration floated the idea of a phased-in move to 10 percent upfront cash for all loans eligible for purchase by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together dominate the conventional home-loan sector. But neither the 20 percent nor the 10 percent plan has been adopted, and the odds of either moving forward in 2012 are remote. Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s standard minimums are still 5 percent with mandatory mortgage insurance coverage.

Even if you have little or no cash to put down, there are multiple options for you: FHA requires just 3.5 percent down on its insured mortgages. Other programs let you go to zero — and even finance more than the price on the house when fees are rolled into the mortgage — provided you fit into an eligibility niche. If you qualify as a veteran or active member of the military, you can get a zero-down VA-guaranteed mortgage. Plus, the VA allows your seller to pay your loan fees and closing costs, provided they don’t exceed 6 percent of the house price.

You can also buy with nothing down in communities qualified for guaranteed mortgages under the Rural Development program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The property may be located on the outskirts of a large metropolitan area and might not strike you as particularly rural, but if the local population is below roughly 20,000, there’s a decent chance you’re eligible. The program, by the way, is booming. In the past fiscal year, according to housing administrator Tammye Trevino, more than 130,000 borrowers received guaranteed mortgages with low or no down payments, quadruple the number in 2006.

What about credit? Haven’t lenders been pushing up minimum FICO scores into the mid-700s and rejecting applications with lower scores outright? Not everywhere. Though most lenders doing FHA loans require scores of 620 to 640, a few of the biggest FHA originators, such as Quicken Loans, will accept scores as low as 580. Bob Walters, Quicken’s chief economist, says underwriters scrutinize low FICO applications extra carefully but are seeing good to excellent performance from them: Not one has gone seriously delinquent this year.

And how about debt-to-income ratios? Aren’t they tighter than ever? Not really. Lenders say that when loan applications go through the automated-underwriting systems used by Fannie, Freddie and FHA, borrowers with debt levels of 45 percent to 55 percent of household income — well beyond the posted limits — frequently get approved if they have positive compensating information elsewhere in the application.

Bottom line: Don’t assume you can’t qualify for a mortgage in 2012. Talk to lenders and seek out loan products that offer flexibility where you need it. You just might be surprised.

Ken Harney’s e-mail address is kenharney@earthlink.net.

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