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More can afford a home, but lenders remain tight-fisted

Even gold-plated applicants must justify the smallest quirks in their finances in excruciating detail. And processing mortgage applications can take months.

March 07, 2013|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times
  • Lenders say their caution over approving mortgages stems in part from uncertainty over a tougher new regulatory environment. Above, homes are under construction in Beaumont.
Lenders say their caution over approving mortgages stems in part from uncertainty… (Patrick T. Fallon, Bloomberg )

Nearly half of all California households can now afford the median-priced home in the state — but that's no help if they can't get mortgages.

Six years after the subprime mortgage meltdown, banks remain tight-fisted, even with solid borrowers — a fact they attribute to shifts in government regulation and demands that they buy back bad loans. Mortgage credit has not eased much since 2007, according to Federal Reserve surveys of loan officers, even while low rates and the housing recovery have borrowers lined up seeking financing.

First-time buyers and the self-employed must jump through especially complex hoops. Even gold-plated applicants must justify the smallest quirks in their finances in excruciating detail. And processing applications can take months.

An unpaid $8 utility bill nearly derailed Sam Dogen's bid for a refinancing. He had already waited 80 days with increasing frustration when he got an urgent call from his bank officer.

"We can't go through with this," he recalled the officer saying. "Your credit score came back at 680."

Quiz: How much do you know about mortgages?

Dogen was floored. He's an investment banker and personal finance blogger who owned three other homes and had savings of nearly $1 million. It turned out that two of the big credit-rating firms still scored him at 790, but the third had whacked him over an $8 electric bill that a former tenant had left unpaid two years earlier — a debt he said the utility hadn't told him about.

Dogen, who operates the Financial Samurai website, said it took a series of angry phone calls and nearly three more weeks to straighten things out with Pacific Gas & Electric and Citibank and finally get the deal done.

All this marks a reversal from 2006, when the California Assn. of Realtors said just 12% of households could afford the median-priced home in the state, but seemingly anyone could get a mortgage to buy one. The turnabout highlights a cruel fact of the housing crash: Many who were crushed by lost home values — or other economic pain related to the housing meltdown — may now miss out on record low prices and interest rates if they want to buy again.

"We've been saying the same thing in the business for the past five or six years: If you can qualify for a loan, you don't need one," said Dave Emerson, a longtime Lakewood real estate broker. "The banks are still doing what they've always done — swinging from one extreme to another."

Lenders say their caution stems in part from uncertainty over a tougher new regulatory environment, along with unrelenting demands from government-sponsored mortgage buyers that the banks repurchase soured loans. Bank of America Corp. last year stopped doing any new business with Fannie Mae, the largest loan buyer, saying its buyback demands had become unprecedented in scope. The bank reached a $10-billion settlement with Fannie over the claims in January.

Complaints about tight-fisted lenders have emanated not just from potential buyers and industry sources, but from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who at least twice in the last year has remarked on how the pendulum has swung too far.

"Overly tight lending standards may now be preventing creditworthy borrowers from buying homes, thereby slowing the revival in housing and impeding the economic recovery," Bernanke said in November.

There is no indication that things have improved since those comments.

"Respondents reported little change in their standards," the Fed said in its latest survey of loan officers, issued last month, adding: "Demand for prime residential mortgage loans had reportedly increased over the past three months."

The grim availability situation contrasts with a shining affordability picture. For the nation as a whole, two-thirds make enough to afford payments on the median-priced house, compared with about 40% in 2006, said Kenneth T. Rosen, chairman of UC Berkeley's Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics.

The rub is getting a mortgage financed with help from Uncle Sam. Housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, seized by the government in 2008, backed nearly two-thirds of last year's mortgages. An additional 20% were insured by the Federal Housing Administration, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or rural housing programs, according to Inside Mortgage Finance.

Credit scores, which range from 300 to 850, are a key factor. An often-applied standard before the housing crisis pegged a subprime score at less than 620, with 720 considered excellent. But the bar has since moved higher.

At Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which control the lion's share of the government-backed loans, the average credit score has risen to more than 760 in recent years from about 720 in 2007, Rosen said at a housing conference in Oakland last month.

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