It’s official. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) unveiled a new, revamped government mortgage refinancing program Monday.
The initiative involves a series of rule changes to the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) to allow more underwater homeowners to reduce their mortgage debt by taking advantage of today’s rock-bottom interest rates.
Under the revised HARP guidelines, the 125 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ceiling has been eliminated. Previously, only borrowers who owed up to 25 percent more than their home was worth could participate in HARP. That limitation has now been removed. The program will continue to be available to borrowers with LTV ratios above 80 percent.
The new program enhancements address several other key aspects of HARP that industry participants say have restricted its impact, including eliminating certain risk-based fees for borrowers who refinance into shorter-term mortgages and lowering fees for other borrowers, as well as allowing mortgage insurers to automatically transfer coverage from the original loan to the new loan.
In addition, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have done away with the requirement for a new property appraisal where there is a reliable AVM (automated valuation model) estimate already provided by the GSEs, and they’ve agreed to waive certain representations and warranties on loans refinanced through the program.
Not only are loans eligible for HARP considered “seasoned loans,” but a refinance helps borrowers strengthen their household finances, reducing the risk they pose to the GSEs. Thus, FHFA feels reps and warranties are not necessary for some of these loans.
With Monday’s announcement, the end date for HARP has been extended from June 30, 2012 to December 31, 2013.
The GSEs will release program instructions to lenders by the middle of next month, and FHFA expects some lenders will be ready to accept applications by December 1.
Since HARP was rolled out in early 2009, approximately 1 million homeowners have refinanced their mortgage loans through the program. FHFA estimates that with the revised guidelines, another 1 million will be able to take advantage of the program.
To qualify, borrowers must be current on their mortgage payments, but government officials believe by opening HARP up to more homeowners with higher thresholds of negative equity, it will help to prevent foreclosures by erasing the primary motivation behind strategic defaults.
Economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business estimate that roughly 35 percent of mortgage defaults are strategic. Numerous industry studies have found that homeowners who owe significantly more than their home is worth are more likely to throw in the towel and walk away from their mortgage debt even if they have the ability to continue making their payments.
“We anticipate that the package of improvements being made to HARP will reduce the Enterprises credit risk, bring greater stability to mortgage markets, and reduce foreclosure risks,” FHFA stated in its announcement Monday.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also released statements in response to the announcement.
Michael J. Williams, Fannie Mae’s president and CEO, called the program a “welcome development.”
“By removing some of the impediments to refinance, lenders can more easily participate in the program allowing more eligible homeowners to take advantage of the low interest rates,” Williams stated.
Charles E. Haldeman, Jr., CEO of Freddie Mac said, “These changes mark another step on the road to recovery for the nation’s housing market.”