FHA to toughen rules for borrowers

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Federal Housing Administration is proposing to increase the up-front cash paid by borrowers as part of an effort to shore up the agency's finances, which have been staggered by rising defaults in its flagship mortgage insurance program, according to FHA officials.

The changes also include raising minimum credit scores for borrowers who receive FHA-backed mortgages and limiting the amount of money sellers can kick in, including paying closing costs or giving free upgrades.

These measures are designed to increase the amount borrowers invest in the homes they buy, thereby making it less attractive for them to default on loans and walk away from properties, as many people have done during the current housing crisis.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan is scheduled to announce the agency's policy changes when he testifies Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee.

The FHA has played a critical role in propping up the housing market by insuring lenders against default after the mortgage market unraveled. Currently, the agency backs about 30 percent of all loans for home purchases and 20 percent of refinancings. In the past, the FHA has resisted raising down payments or insurance premiums for fear of shutting out qualified borrowers and stunting the housing market's slow but steady recovery.

But Donovan plans to tell the House committee that the exploding volume of loans the FHA is now handling requires stricter risk controls than the previous administration had in place, according to a copy of his prepared testimony. A recent audit shows that the FHA's financial cushion already has eroded below the level required by law.

"We've learned from recent history that the market is fragile, and we have to plan for the unexpected," Donovan's prepared statement says. "That uncertainty is complicated by an organization we inherited that, to be honest, was simply not properly managing or monitoring its risk."

By requiring that borrowers bring more cash to the table, the agency is seeking to ensure they have "more skin in the game and a stronger equity position in their loans," Donovan says. But he does not specify the size of the proposed increase. FHA officials said they have yet to determine how much cash will be required.

"There are several ways to accomplish this, and so we are currently analyzing various options to determine which is the most effective and consistent with our mission," Donovan says.

Up-front cash can include down payments as well as other payments. For now, FHA borrowers can put down as little as 3.5 percent, a level that many FHA critics say is too low. One lawmaker has introduced legislation that would boost the minimum down payment to 5 percent.

As for seller concessions, the agency now allows sellers to kick in 6 percent of the home's value. Donovan said he wants the maximum permissible level to be lowered to 3 percent, in line with industry norms.

Agency staff are reviewing whether to increase the monthly insurance premiums charged to borrowers, officials said. These payments come on top of insurance paid up front.

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