As Loan Rates Fall, Borrowers Seek 'Taste of the Bailout Pie'

A half-renovated Victorian for sale in Los Angeles. This week's drop in mortgage rates has pushed some prospective buyers to act fast.
A half-renovated Victorian for sale in Los Angeles. This week's drop in mortgage rates has pushed some prospective buyers to act fast. (By Damian Dovarganes -- Associated Press)
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By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Would-be mortgage borrowers have rushed to refinance their loans and even weighed plans to buy homes following the government's move this week to loosen consumer lending.

With interest rates suddenly plummeting, "the phone is ringing, the e-mails keep coming," said Jennifer Du Plessis, a mortgage adviser at Prosperity Mortgage, the lending arm of Long & Foster. "Real estate agents are hovering outside our office saying: 'I've got another client who wants to refinance.' "

"Our loan officers were here well past midnight," Bob Walters of Internet lender Quicken Loans said regarding Tuesday, when the government announced its plan. Quicken received $400 million worth of mortgage applications that day, more than quadrupling the number of loans from the day before, he said. It was on track to meet that number yesterday, too.

Vivianne Couts, a Northern Virginia real estate agent, said one of her clients had planned to buy a house in Fairfax County this spring but yesterday sent her an e-mail saying, "Interest rates are low. I don't know what's going to happen in the future, so let's go for it."

Almost immediately after the Federal Reserve announced plans Tuesday to buy a sizable chunk of mortgage-based securities, interest rates dropped to the mid-5 percent range and stayed there through yesterday. The move is giving borrowers a "taste of the bailout pie," said analyst Mike Larson of Weiss Research. Until now, most government mortgage initiatives have been aimed at lenders or at distressed borrowers.

Rates on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped a quarter of a percentage point from Monday to 5.76 percent yesterday -- the lowest since early February, according to research firm HSH Associates.

Lenders said most inquiries came from clients eager to refinance because they were angst-ridden about the economy or their jobs and wanted to get any savings they could find. When interest rates drop, the first borrowers to take advantage tend to be refinancers, because there's little hassle or downside.

However, whether those refinancers will actually get this week's rates remains to be seen.

Some may not have the credit scores necessary. For instance, many credit card companies have been slashing credit lines in a way that could hurt credit scores, Du Plessis said.

"If the credit card company reduces your line limit down to your balance, that kills your credit score," she said.

Given the drop in home values in many pockets of this region, others who hope to refinance may not have the home equity they thought they had. "Locking in the rate is just the first step," said Brian Bonnet, president of Signature Mortgage Services in Alexandria. "Deteriorating home values are the next hurdle."

That's what worries Bob Walker, a Loudoun County resident who wants to refinance.

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