WASHINGTON — Nationwide home prices fell 5.3% in July compared with a year earlier, a government agency said Tuesday, and have now receded to October 2005 levels.
Prices were down 0.6% from June on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The national decline in home values coupled with reckless lending standards during the real estate boom are the driving forces behind rising mortgage defaults and foreclosures. They have spurred a credit crisis that has shaken Wall Street to its core and caused the Bush administration to propose a $700-billion financial industry bailout.
The real estate industry expects more weak news today when the National Assn. of Realtors releases existing home sales figures for August.
The housing agency's director, James Lockhart, suggested Tuesday that mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could loosen lending standards to help more home buyers qualify for a loan and stabilize the market. The government took control of Fannie and Freddie this month.
"I expect any changes to reflect both safe-and-sound business strategy and attentiveness to the [companies'] mission," Lockhart said Tuesday in testimony prepared for a Senate Banking Committee hearing. He also said that modifying loans for troubled borrowers should be a "high priority."
Over the last year, the companies have tightened requirements and raised fees substantially, making it hard for borrowers with any blemish on their credit reports to qualify for a loan.
Lockhart explained that the government had little option but to seize control of Fannie and Freddie. Both companies, he said, were unable to raise money to gird against losses without aid from the government.
Without new money, the only other option was to stop doing new business and shed assets in a weak market. "That would have been disastrous for the mortgage markets, and mortgage rates would have continued to move higher," Lockhart said.
But rates are creeping back up.
The national average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 6.26% on Monday, up from 6.11% on Friday as details of the government's rescue plan remained in flux, according to financial publisher HSH Associates.
The rate had fallen as low as 5.87% on Sept. 16.