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The Next Hit: Quick Defaults

More FHA-Backed Mortgages Go Bad Without a Single Payment

The Palm Hill Condominium project in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a default rate at 80 percent for loans from one lender. A dozen loans went bad after no payment or one. The apartments built 28 years ago on former Everglades swampland were converted to condominiums three years ago.
The Palm Hill Condominium project in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a default rate at 80 percent for loans from one lender. A dozen loans went bad after no payment or one. The apartments built 28 years ago on former Everglades swampland were converted to condominiums three years ago. (By Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 8, 2009; Page A01

The last time the housing market was this bad, Congress set up the Federal Housing Administration to insure Depression-era mortgages that lenders wouldn't otherwise make.

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This decade's housing boom rendered the agency irrelevant. Americans raced to aggressive lenders, seduced by easy credit and loans with no upfront costs. But the subprime mortgage market has crashed and borrowers are flocking back to the FHA, which has become the only option for those who lack hefty down payments or stellar credit. The agency's historic role in backing mortgages is more crucial now than at any time since its founding.

With the surge in new loans, however, comes a new threat. Many borrowers are defaulting as quickly as they take out the loans. In the past year alone, the number of borrowers who failed to make more than a single payment before defaulting on FHA-backed mortgages has nearly tripled, far outpacing the agency's overall growth in new loans, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data.

Many industry experts attribute the jump in these instant defaults to factors that include the weak economy, lax scrutiny of prospective borrowers and most notably, foul play among unscrupulous lenders looking to make a quick buck.

If a loan "is going into default immediately, it clearly suggests impropriety and fraudulent activity," said Kenneth Donohue, the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which includes the FHA.

The spike in quick defaults follows the pattern that preceded the collapse of the subprime market as some of the same flawed lending practices that contributed to the mortgage crisis are now eroding one of the main federal agencies charged with addressing it. During the subprime lending boom, many mortgage brokers and small lenders milked the market for commissions and fees by making as many loans as possible with little regard for whether they could be repaid.

Once again, thousands of borrowers are getting loans they do not stand a chance of repaying. Only now, unlike in the subprime meltdown, Congress would have to bail out the lenders if the FHA cannot make good on guarantees from its existing reserves. And those once-robust reserves are showing signs of stress, raising the possibility that taxpayers may have to pick up the tab for the first time since the agency was established in 1934.

More than 9,200 of the loans insured by the FHA in the past two years have gone into default after no or only one payment, according to the Post analysis. The pace of these instant defaults has tripled in one year. By last fall, more than two dozen FHA home loans on average were defaulting this way every day, seven days a week.

The overall default rate on FHA loans is accelerating rapidly as well but not as dramatically as that of instant defaults.

The agency's share of the mortgage market is up from 2 percent three years ago to nearly a third of the mortgages now made, its highest level in at least two decades, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry trade publication. The FHA does not lend money directly. It provides mortgage insurance for borrowers working with FHA-approved lenders and uses the premiums to cover its losses. If the premiums are not enough, taxpayers could be on the hook.

At the same time, Congress has substantially increased the amount a homeowner can borrow on an FHA loan in pricey areas, thrusting the agency into markets it was previously shut out of, such as California, where plunging home prices have made people more vulnerable to foreclosure. Moreover, lawmakers last year put the FHA in charge of a program created to address the roots of the financial crisis by helping delinquent borrowers refinance into new mortgages.

On top of all these strains, the agency now faces this swell of loans that default almost immediately.


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