Homeowners Losing Equity Lines
Saturday, February 23, 2008
In one brief phone call, Nancy Corazzi's lender yanked away what was left of the $95,000 home equity line of credit that she and her husband took out five months ago.
The lender informed her that her Howard County home had plummeted in value and the company did not want the risk that she would owe more than the house was worth.
"I got off the phone and I was shaking," said Corazzi, who was using the money to pay preschool tuition for her twins ."I was near tears. We needed this credit line to get us through some tough times."
Several of the nation's largest lenders, along with smaller ones, are shutting off access to home equity lines in areas where home values are declining. It's an unusually aggressive move as the industry grapples with fallout from the mortgage crisis that began unfolding last year.
Now that home prices have dropped in many parts of the country, lenders are nervous that they may never collect the money that they extended to borrowers. They are responding by freezing or lowering the credit limits on home equity lines, leaving thousands of borrowers like Corazzi in the lurch.
"Nearly all the top home equity lenders I know of are doing this or considering doing this," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, which represents some of the nation's largest home equity lenders. "They are all looking at how to protect themselves as real estate values go down, and it's just not good for the borrowers to get so overextended."
Countrywide Financial, the nation's largest mortgage lender, suspended the home equity lines of 122,000 customers last month after reviewing their property values and outstanding loan balances. The company, like others, has an internal automated appraisal system that tracks values.
The company declined to disclose how many of the affected borrowers lived in the Washington area. About 381,000 borrowers in the region had home equity lines at the end of last year, according to Moody's economy.com.
USAA Federal Savings Bank froze or reduced credit lines for 15,000 of its customers, including Corazzi, and will not reconsider its decisions until "real estate values improve substantially," the company said in a statement.
Bank of America is starting to do the same and is contacting some borrowers, said Terry Francisco, a bank spokesman.
"We know this can cause hardship to our customers," Francisco said. "If they used the credit to make payments that are in the pipeline, we will work with them to make sure the payment goes through."
The appeal of home equity lines has always been their flexibility.