In Falling-Rate Limbo

By Kenneth R. Harney
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Could a 4.5 percent mortgage be your personal piece of the bailout pie?

Apparently large numbers of consumers thought precisely that during the week after the disclosure that the Treasury Department was working on plans to slash loan rates for consumers who buy houses in the coming months.

But in the meantime, the news threw a wrench into the marketplace -- making some shoppers reluctant to commit to purchase without guaranteed access to 4.5 percent mortgage money. In some cases, it stalled deals that were ready to go.

"It put us into limbo," said Dennis Badagliacco, chief executive of Altera Real Estate, a brokerage firm in San Jose. "Once [news] leaked out, it immediately slowed down" the pace of sales contracts and discussions, he said -- an ironic side effect of a plan meant to stimulate real estate transactions.

Customers didn't want to gamble that they'd be locked into a 5.5 percent mortgage when 4.5 percent financing might be readily available if they simply waited a week or two, Badagliacco said.

Another irony of the situation: The National Association of Realtors, of which Badagliacco is a director, was the primary force behind the concept of federal intervention to lower rates by a full percentage point. Representatives of the association brought the proposal to federal officials as part of a multi-point plan to kick-start the economy through housing.

The Federal Reserve has already formally adopted one of the group's recommendations, committing to buy $500 billion in mortgage securities to inject liquidity into a market burdened by investors' fears and to buy $100 billion in debt issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those moves knocked 30-year mortgage rates down by half a percentage point within a day, from 6 percent to 5.5 percent.

But setting up a program whereby the government would purchase securities backed by loans originated by private lenders at 4.5 percent would take longer to implement.

After reports of the plan leaked out, it created a lot of confusion among lenders and loan applicants, said William C. Emerson, chief executive of Quicken Loans, a national lender based in Livonia, Mich. Not only were details sketchy about eligible types of loans, maximum mortgage amounts and underwriting criteria, but it wasn't immediately clear how much help, if any, a 4.5 percent rate could provide to consumers who are in the most serious trouble -- behind on their payments and underwater on their houses, with market values below the mortgage balance.

"Four and a half can help, no question," he said. "Maybe you'll save $50 to $150 a month off your payments." But that doesn't solve the other key issues and job losses that are keeping people out of the home-buying market.

What's the actual impact of a 4.5 percent rate? On a $200,000 30-year loan, reducing a 5.5 percent rate to 4.5 percent lowers principal and interest payments from $1,135.58 to $1,013.37, a savings of $122.21 per month. On a $300,000 loan, the same rate cut saves $183.31 a month, while on a $400,000 mortgage the savings come to $244.42. In other words, the bigger the mortgage you need to buy a house, the more you save with a 4.5 percent rate.

Paul Skeens, president of Colonial Mortgage Group in Waldorf, welcomes the idea of government assistance to lower home buyers' rates for as long as necessary to put a floor under depressed housing prices.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company