Nation's Housing: Qualifying for a mortgage may be easier than you think

Many Americans think they won't qualify for a mortgage, but standards are being loosened

When it comes to buying a house, are you in the "no way I could possibly qualify" category? Not enough cash in the bank for a down payment or closing costs? Credit scores good but not great? So much deferred student loan debt that you assume any lender would slam the door?

Join the crowd. Large numbers of Americans feel the same, in part because they read and hear that qualifying standards for mortgages are the strictest they've been in decades. A study based on a statistical sample of potential home buyers conducted earlier in the year by the mortgage company LoanDepot found that nearly 60% of people who say they want to buy a home aren't pursuing it because they think there's just no point — they are convinced their applications would be rejected. Three-quarters of them, however, concede that they haven't done a thing to check out current lender requirements.

But here's some good news for these folks: Changes are underway in the mortgage market that could give them a better shot at qualifying. Start with recent policy shifts at giant mortgage investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two dominant funding sources for new loans. Late in November, both companies announced procedural changes that should encourage lenders to be less fearful that the mortgages they approve will be subject to costly "buyback" demands if borrowers go delinquent.

In a buyback, an investor such as Fannie Mae requires the lender that originated the mortgage to repurchase it because of alleged defects in underwriting that ultimately led to the borrower's nonpayments. To avoid buybacks, lenders in recent years not only have ratcheted up their underwriting requirements but have added extra fees — so-called overlays — that are designed to compensate them for losses on loans to borrowers who have below-average credit scores, small down payments and minimal assets in reserve.

Though the technical details of the recent changes would glaze most consumers' eyeballs, their intended net effect is important. They tell lenders: OK, guys. You can loosen up a little on mortgage applicants, give some breaks on credit scores and other criteria that you wouldn't have previously.

David Lowman, a Freddie Mac executive vice president, was explicit about the desired end result. The policy revisions "should encourage lenders to serve a broader range of qualified borrowers," he said. His counterpart at Fannie Mae, Andrew Bon Salle, said he expected lenders to make "mortgages available to more borrowers."

Who are those additional borrowers? They could be you — or a friend or relative who wants to purchase a first home but hasn't checked out the possibilities lately.

Another big change in the wings: Fannie and Freddie plan to resume lending to buyers who can make down payments as low as 3%. Currently their minimum is 5% down. The Federal Housing Administration requires 3.5% down payment, but its insurance premiums often make its loans more expensive than Fannie's and Freddie's. So cutting the minimum back to just 3% could prove helpful for many cash-short borrowers, even if the two companies impose other requirements such as pre-purchase financial counseling.

Lenders and private mortgage insurers strongly support Fannie's and Freddie's recent moves to open the lid on the credit box a little wider. They want to make more mortgages, especially to qualified first-timers, but don't want to be penalized for doing so.

Major insurers such as Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp. are telling realty agents, banks and personal-financial advisors that they should get the word out to consumers who are sitting on the sidelines.

Borrowers need to know that gifts can cover 100% of their down payment. They need to know that minimum credit score standards may no longer be as high as they feared. The average FICO score for all types of closed loans during October was 726, not the widely assumed 750 to 760, according to the software firm Ellie Mae. At FHA, the average for successful purchasers was just 683 during the same month.

Vance Edwards, marketing program manager for Mortgage Guaranty Insurance, says: "There are many people who can now afford to buy a home and qualify for a mortgage but simply don't realize it."

The message here: Getting a mortgage can still be tough — you still have to be able to make the payments — but there is an easing process underway that you shouldn't ignore.

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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