Obama housing fix open for business

Officials release details of $75 billion loan modification and refinancing programs. Borrowers can start contacting loan servicers, though companies will need time.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Obama administration's foreclosure prevention program was launched Wednesday.

The multipronged fix calls for companies to help as many 4 million struggling borrowers by modifying loans so housing payments are no more than 31% of monthly gross income. Separately, homeowners who haven't missed a payment can refinance into lower-cost loans even if they have little or no equity. This is expected to help up to 5 million homeowners.

While borrowers are being encouraged to contact their loan servicers, companies said it would be several weeks before they can start processing applications.

The $75 billion loan modification plan will provide incentives to borrowers, servicers and mortgage investors. The government will also subsidize interest rate reductions to get borrowers to affordable monthly payments.

"This plan will help make home ownership more affordable for nine million American families and in doing so, help to stop the damaging impact that declining home prices have on all Americans," said Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan.

Administration officials once again stressed that they are not using taxpayer money to bail out irresponsible homebuyers, listing those who will not qualify for assistance: people who bought investment properties, lied on their mortgage documents or purchased multimillion dollar homes.

"The cost of not acting outstrips that of acting boldly," said a senior administration official.

Borrowers can now contact their servicers to see whether they are eligible for assistance. Federal officials have posted additional information for borrowers to determine their eligibility at www.hud.gov. They will also promote the program at homeownership events nationwide.

However, servicers, who just received the guidelines on Wednesday, said it will take them some time to upgrade their systems and train their staffs to handle borrower calls. Fannie Mae, for instance, said the lenders and mortgage brokers it works with will be able to process refinancing applications starting in April.

Many firms, however, have said they will put foreclosures on hold until they can implement the guidelines.

Who's eligible?

The administration Wednesday released additional eligibility criteria and guidelines for the refinancing and modification prongs of the program.

The refinancing portion, which is open to homeowners who took out loans from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, allows borrowers with less than 20% equity in their homes to refinance to the current prevailing rate. However, borrowers cannot owe more than 105% of the value of their home and must be current on their payments.

The program ends in June 2010. Each servicer will provide details on the terms and costs associated with refinancing, which is aimed at helping borrowers suffering from the decline in home values.

The government provided far more information on the loan modification plan, which it is spearheading. This portion focuses on people who are behind in their payments or are at risk of default.

Federal officials clarified the definition of "at risk" as those: suffering serious hardships, declines in income or increase in expenses; facing an interest rate hike; having high mortgage debt compared to income; owing more than their house is worth, or demonstrating other reasons for being close to default.

The modification program will be in effect until the end of 2012, but loans can only be adjusted once.

Officials also unveiled more details on how servicers will modify the loans. First, they must reduce interest rates so that borrowers' total house payments are not more than 38% of their monthly income. The government will then subsidize servicers dollar-for-dollar to lower that ratio to 31% - but the interest rate can't go below 2%.

The new interest rate would then remain in place for five years, after which it will increase by 1 percentage point a year until it reaches either the original rate or the prevailing mortgage rate at the time of the modification, whichever is lower. This should prevent borrowers from suffering the "payment shock" that sent many borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgage into default in recent years.

If rate reductions aren't enough to get payments to 31% of income, a lender can extend the term up to 40 years, or shift part of the principal to the end of the loan at no interest. Servicers also have the option of reducing the loan's balance.

Servicers will receive $1,000 for each loan modified, as well as additional annual bonuses if borrowers keep up with payments. Mortgage investors will receive one-time $1,500 incentive payments for restructuring qualifying loans that are not yet delinquent. Finally, borrowers who keep up with their new payments will receive up to $1,000 a year in principal reduction, for up to five years.

While the program is voluntary, once servicers commit to participating, they must evaluate all loans that may be eligible. Financial institutions that receive government money going forward must participate.

Only loans where the cost of the foreclosure would be higher than the cost of modification would qualify.

The government is also providing incentives to servicers and borrowers to enter into "short sales" or "deed-in-lieu of foreclosure" agreements with those who can't afford to stay in their homes. In these cases, the bank agrees to take back the home for less than what's owed without filing for foreclosure.

The program also includes a new provision to eliminate borrowers' second mortgages, which will reduce their overall debt levels. Investors in those mortgages, who at times have blocked modifications because they don't benefit from the adjustments, will be paid to eliminate those claims. Details on how much they'll receive will be announced in coming weeks, senior government officials said. Servicers that get second-mortgage holders to participate will receive an additional $250.

Be patient

While borrowers can now start contacting servicers, it may take several weeks for companies to implement the guidelines, said a senior mortgage industry official in a conference call with reporters.

Servicers are adding staff to handle the expected deluge of calls. Bank of America, for instance, just boosted its servicing staff by 1,000 people.

JPMorgan Chase, which said it "strongly supports" the president's plan, will need a few weeks to get the program up and running, a spokesman said.

Officials warned borrowers - many of whom have complained of long waits and unresponsive staff at servicers - to be patient. Until then, they can find out whether they meet the basic criteria and can start gathering the financial documents they'll need to give their servicer.

"There will definitely be a flood of activity, so it's important for consumers to be patient and be persistent and to take a hard look at their own personal financial situation so they can come prepared to really move the process forward as rapidly as possible," the official said. To top of page

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