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Real Estate

Americans split on mortgage bailout

Only a slight majority of Americans want to see special treatment for those at risk of default; most blame borrowers for woes.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

Do you think the mortgage 'freeze' is a good idea?
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Americans are nearly equally divided on whether those facing defaults on their mortgages should get special help, with most believing the borrowers are to blame for their own problems.

A poll conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp. found that 51 percent of Americans surveyed believed that those at risk of defaulting on their mortgages and losing their homes "should receive special treatment." But 46 percent said there should not be any special treatment afforded to those in trouble.

In addition, when asked which statement comes closer to their feelings on the topic, 51 percent agreed they felt sorry for those whose homes are at risk, but that those borrowers willingly entered into those agreements and have no one to blame but themselves. The survey found 46 percent agreed that they think the borrowers are the victims of bad lending policies by the banks who provided mortgages to them.

The only question on the subject with a clear-cut majority is the opposition Americans feel towards any help offered to lenders. Only 26 percent said banks and other financial institutions that currently hold bad home loans should receive special treatment that would prevent them from losing money on those mortgages, while 72 percent said they would oppose any such special treatment.

The survey of 1,002 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, which means that the answers to the two questions about borrowers are within that margin. The four days of polling started Dec. 6, the day the Bush administration unveiled its plan to work with lenders to freeze up to 1.2 million variable-rate mortgages.

Also on Dec. 6, the Mortgage Bankers Association announced that the third quarter of this year saw record levels of significantly late payments and mortgage foreclosures, with the problem particularly bad on subprime mortgages made to those without top credit ratings and which have variable interest rates. Nearly one in six of those loans are now either 90 days or more late or are in the foreclosure process.

The problems of rising late payments and defaults has raised the risk that the already battered housing and home building markets could sink further in 2008 and possibly trigger a recession in the broader U.S. economy.

The meltdown in the mortgage market made many major lenders pull back from making subprime mortgage loans, which in turn helped send home sales, prices and new construction sharply lower. Countrywide Financial (Charts, Fortune 500), the nation's largest mortgage lender, was one of the banks to pull back from making subprime loans. Washington Mutual (Charts, Fortune 500), the nation's largest thrift, announced Monday evening it would take a loss in the current quarter, slash its dividend and lay off more than 3,000 workers.

In addition to the effect on homeowners and mortgage lenders, many of the top Wall Street firms, including financial giant Citigroup (Charts, Fortune 500) and No. 1 brokerage Merrill Lynch (Charts, Fortune 500), have been hit by the mortgage meltdown. Both took billions in writedowns from subprime losses, and their chief executives were forced to resign.

The two government-sponsored mortgage finance firms, Fannie Mae (Charts) and Freddie Mac (Charts, Fortune 500), have also both been hit with losses stemming from problems in the mortgage market. As a result, they've been left them scrambling to raise cash.

Homebuilders have also been badly hurt by the problems, with No. 1 builder Lennar (Charts, Fortune 500) announcing late last week it was selling 11,000 properties for only 40 percent of their previously-stated value. To top of page

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