New Policy Can Help Underwater Homeowners

Many could qualify to purchase a new home, but have been prevented from doing so. They either don’t have — or don’t wish to spend — the thousands of dollars needed to settle up with their lender as part of any sale. So they stay put. Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, estimates that 56 percent of underwater borrowers have owned their homes for nine years or longer. Nearly three-quarters have owned for six years or more.

“These (are) the folks who most likely would have had some life circumstance that makes it necessary for them to move,” such as a new job, a bigger family or simply a desire to live in a different neighborhood, he told me last week. Yet they haven’t because of their negative equity position.

Enter Fannie Mae’s recent policy change. With no fanfare or public announcement, Fannie has informed lenders that when owners seek to convert their primary homes to rental investment properties and buy a replacement home with a new mortgage, there will no longer be a minimum equity stake they are required to have in the current home. Under previous rules, put in place during the past decade to counter fraud schemes, you needed at least 30 percent equity in your primary residence if you wanted to convert it into a rental, counting the rent toward your qualifying income for a mortgage on a new primary home. Plus you needed six months of liquid financial assets.

That’s all changed. Now you don’t need a minimum equity amount. Nor do you need a mandatory six months of liquid reserves — maybe just two months. In its notice to lenders, Fannie said it feels that it now has adequate controls on credit requirements, rental income and financial reserves in place to ensure that qualified borrowers who want to convert their primary homes into rental investments and buy a new house can do so responsibly.

How can this help owners who have been underwater and need a way out of their current houses? Take this real-life example. It involves a 37-year-old Maryland resident who bought her two-bedroom house at the peak of the price bubble — 2006. She owes $270,000 on it, but its current market value is just below $200,000. She’s never missed a payment — $1,615 a month — and has FICO credit scores in the low 700s. She earns $65,000 a year and needs a larger home, ideally with three bedrooms.

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