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Loans with Little Down?

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Posted On: 07/20/2011

QUESTION:

My broker says now is the time to buy real estate because prices are low, mortgage rates are down, and it will soon be difficult to finance a property with less than 20 percent down. Why will it become hard to get loans with little down?

ANSWER:

There's been considerable confusion about this, so let's try to straighten it out.

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act lenders are allowed to make whatever mortgages they like. However, if they make mortgages with certain characteristics - say, with fully documented loan applications and points and fees equal to no more than 3 percent of the loan amount - they then get certain benefits such as less liability and no need to set aside 5 percent of the loan amount in a reserve fund.

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Dodd-Frank also says that loans within the "safe harbor" created to protect lenders from liability must have 20 percent down. But - and here's the part you don't hear too much about - there are huge exceptions. For instance, the 20-percent rule does not apply to FHA or VA financing, conventional loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or loans that lenders keep in portfolio.

The question is this: Who would benefit if mortgages with little money down were increasingly unavailable? Not sellers. Fewer sales would mean lower prices. Not lenders. They would originate fewer loans and lose substantial business. Not servicers. They would have less to manage on behalf of mortgage investors. Not real estate brokers. They would have fewer homes to sell. Not states and local communities. With fewer real estate transactions their tax collections would plummet.

There's now an effort to raise the FHA down payment from 3.5 percent to 5 percent and exchange Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for institutions from the private sector. But even if we make changes, borrowers will still want loans with little down, and, as a matter of self-interest lenders, brokers and government will still want to make sure that such financing is available with far less than 20 percent down.

Peter G. Miller is the author of The Common-Sense Mortgage and a veteran real estate columnist. Have a question? Please write to peter@ctwfeatures.com.

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