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Web site useful for troubled homeowners

March 24, 2009

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The Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have launched a Web site that provides basic information for troubled homeowners about the Obama administration’s “Making Home Affordable” program.

The site, makinghomeaffordable.gov, usefully arranges in one place information on the two-pronged approach of the new initiative.

There’s the refinancing part, designed to help homeowners who are paying their mortgages on time but are not able to refinance at the current low mortgage rates because of a decrease in the value of their homes.

Under the refinancing section, eligible first mortgage loans can’t exceed 105 percent of the current market value of the home. For example, if your home is worth $200,000 but you owe $210,000 or less, you may qualify. There’s no help to renegotiate a second home loan.

The second prong is aimed at homeowners who are struggling to make their monthly mortgage payments because their interest rates have increased or they’ve had a reduction in their incomes. This part aims to modify terms to get homeowners to a point where their monthly first lien mortgage payment is not more than 31 percent of their gross or pretax monthly income. In my view, affordable would be to use a person’s net monthly income, but that would just make too much sense.

On the Web site, you’ll find a calculator where you can estimate, based on a modified loan, what your new mortgage payment would be using the new 31 percent guideline.

Useful Q and A

One of the good things about this site is the page containing frequently asked questions. Read through them carefully because this is where you’ll find details of the programs and all the caveats.

For example, as explained by the Treasury under the modification program, you have to show you can successfully make your payments for three months. If you stay current at the end of the trial period, the interest rate you receive will stay fixed for five years. The federal government is providing incentives for loan servicers to offer interest rates as low as 2 percent so that a borrower’s monthly payment hits that 31 percent mark.

The Treasury says if a 2 percent interest rate does not result in a payment that is affordable, your servicer could extend your loan to 40 years or defer repayment on a portion of the amount you owe until a later time, or a portion of your mortgage debt could be forgiven. But the latter option is completely up to the discretion of the servicer. The program does not require principal forgiveness.

Under the modification part of the program, starting in the sixth year the interest rate may increase no more than 1 percentage point per year until it reaches the rate cap indicated in your modification agreement. This cap can never be higher than the market rate on the day your loan was modified.

Depending on which program fits your needs, you can take a quick four- or five-question test to see whether you qualify for help. If your answers show you’re eligible, you’re taken to a page with a checklist of the documents you will need when contacting your loan servicer.

Patience required

On this same page, you get this message from the Treasury: “Please be patient. Lenders and servicers have started to implement the program and there may be a slight delay before they are prepared to process all applications.”

I’m finding there’s more than a “slight” delay. Some distressed homeowners are being told to call back while their lender or mortgage servicer figures out how this new initiative will work.

A senior Treasury official said the government has met with and provided training about the program to 2,500 servicers, counselors, and borrower advocates. One lender reported that customers had downloaded 100,000 information packets about the new program and that 30 percent of those packets have been returned with completed forms. Officials estimated that Making Home Affordable will offer assistance to as many as 7 million to 9 million homeowners.

“We know servicers are working hard to get this going,” the official said. “People have to be patient.”

Many participating loan servicers have promised to postpone foreclosure sales on all mortgages that meet the minimum eligibility criteria for modification until borrowers can be evaluated, the official said.

However, if you are scheduled for a foreclosure, be proactive. Just because you appear to qualify for the Making Home Affordable program doesn’t mean you will get an automatic stay on your foreclosure. You need to contact your servicer. You should also call a HUD-approved housing counselor at (888) 995-4673.

If you are having trouble paying your mortgage or you’re facing foreclosure, check out the new site. If you’re having trouble refinancing, by all means go there to get some basic information. But don’t expect too much. You’ll have some calls to make and a lot of paperwork to complete before you can get help.

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