The Obama administration's> proposals this morning to extricate the government from mortgage lending sounded the death knell for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They weren't good news for homebuyers, either. In the proposals were changes that will mean more expensive mortgages, with higher fees and, probably, higher interest rates, larger down payments and, in the near term, fewer lenders to choose from.
The changes aren't effective immediately, and, some, if passed by Congress, won't go into effect for several years. Even so, they pose a dilemma for today's would-be homebuyers: loans are cheaper today than they're likely to be in the future but one of the unintended consequences of the proposals could be another drop in home prices should higher mortgage costs dampen demand. Unfortunately, there's no single right answer, experts say. "Buyers shouldn't rush in but there's no reason in most markets to delay waiting for something better to come along it probably won't," says Barry Zigas, director of housing policy at the Consumer Federation of America.
Congress will ultimately decide whether Fannie and Freddie have a future, and whether the other changes could go into effect as soon as this fall. Here are the big three:
In October, the maximum size of mortgages backed by Fannie and Freddie will shrink. (That's when the current limits are set to expire, and the president's report is calling for them to not be extended.) Currently, in high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco, homebuyers can borrow up to $729,750 for a single-family home; that amount drops 14% to $625,500. The $417,000 amount for more moderately priced areas will remain the same. The new limitation would, for example, render 10% of homes in San Francisco County ineligible for financing backed by Fannie or Freddie, according to analysis by the California Association of Realtors. It could also crimp refinancing for borrowers who try to get a home loan beyond these limits.
In November, the Federal Housing Administration could raise annual mortgage insurance premium fees by 0.25% for all borrowers, according to proposals. The hike comes out to an extra $250 per $100,000 of mortgage per year, which borrowers can pay upfront or have rolled into their mortgage. The new premium could be as high as 1.2%, up from a previous maximum of 0.95%. Over the life of a 30-year $300,000 mortgage, the higher rate means at least an additional $12,000 more in payments. Separately, two of the administration's proposals would provide mortgage insurance for some mortgages -- for a fee, which would be passed along to the borrower.
Bigger down payments
Currently, borrowers can try to get a mortgage from a bank with just 5% down by taking on mortgage insurance mostly because that mortgage is then sold off to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. That requirement would gradually increase to 10%, according to the proposals, but a Freddie Mac spokesman says no implementation details are available at this time.
There are other government groups with a similar agenda, and similar effects on homebuyers. Housing regulators are currently considering making it harder to get a mortgage higher down payments are possible, as are other hurdles and are expected to offer specifics in April. Around the same time, mortgages backed by Freddie Mac (starting March 1) and Fannie Mae (starting April 1) will get more expensive by 0.25% to 0.50%. Later in the summer, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is expected to make mortgages a top priority, could make the process of originating a mortgage more expensive for the lender by requiring, for example, more personnel to check documentation, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president at HSH Associates, which tracks the mortgage market. And those costs will likely be passed along to borrowers as well.
Long term, consumer advocates worry that if the government stops backing private mortgages, as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do currently, lenders will get out of the market and consumers will have fewer options. But for now, it's simply possible that mortgages will become more expensive, as lenders react to the uncertainty that's just been introduced to the market. As it is, mortgages have already become more difficult to obtain. In August 2010, the most recent data available from mortgage data firm CoreLogic, the average mortgage borrower had a credit score of 767, higher than the average score of 761 six months prior.
And in the long term, should these proposals go into play, a healthier housing market could ensue, says Stu Feldstein, president at SMR Research, which tracks home loan data. The most sweeping message of the proposals is that the government won't help every American buy a home, especially if they can't afford it. "Houses will be sold to people with financial wherewithal to buy them and will reduce foreclosures going forward," he says.