New Mortgage to Get Pricier for 2014

Consumers can expect to pay more to get a mortgage next year, the result of changes meant to reduce the role that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac play in the market.

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The mortgage giants said late Monday that, at the direction of their regulator, they will charge higher fees on loans to borrowers who don’t make large down payments or don’t have high credit scores—a group that represents a large share of home buyers. Such fees are typically passed along to borrowers, resulting in higher mortgage rates.

Fannie and Freddie, which currently back about two-thirds of new mortgages, don’t directly make mortgages but instead buy them from lenders. The changes are aimed at leveling the playing field between the government-owned companies and private providers of capital, who are mostly out of the mortgage market now. Fannie and Freddie were bailed out by the government during the financial crisis but are now highly profitable.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency last week signaled the fee increases but didn’t provide details. The agency’s move came one day before the Senate voted to confirm Rep. Mel Watt (D., N.C.) as its director. It isn’t clear whether Mr. Watt, who hasn’t yet been sworn in, weighed in on the changes. An FHFA spokeswoman declined to comment on any discussions with Mr. Watt, who also declined to comment.

Mr. Watt will face heavy pressure by consumer groups and the real-estate industry to reverse course, industry officials said Tuesday. “There will be significant opposition very quickly once people understand what is actually being implemented,” said Martin Eakes, chief executive of the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, N.C., a consumer-advocacy nonprofit.

The changes take effect in March but will be phased in by lenders earlier. The fee increases come as the Federal Reserve contemplates an end to its bond-buying program, which has kept mortgages rates low, and as new mortgage-lending regulations take effect next month.

“The timing of it is impeccably bad,” said Lewis Ranieri, co-inventor of the mortgage-backed security. “The question becomes: how much can housing take?”

In updates posted to their websites on Monday, Fannie and Freddie showed that fees will rise sharply for many borrowers who don’t have down payments of at least 20% and who have credit scores of 680 to 760. (Under a system devised by Fair Isaac Corp., credit scores range from 300 to a top of 850.)

A borrower seeking a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with a credit score of 735 and making a 10% down payment, for instance, would pay fees totaling 2% of the loan amount, up from 0.75% now. The 2% upfront fee could raise the mortgage rate by around 0.4 percentage points.

Borrowers with larger down payments could also be affected. Fees for a loan with a 690 credit score and a 25% down payment would rise to 2.25% from 1.5%.

Executives at Fannie and Freddie said last month that the fees they have been charging are enough to cover expected losses, but that those fees might need to rise in order to allow private investors, which target a higher rate of return, to compete. An FHFA official Tuesday said that even with the latest changes, Fannie’s and Freddie’s fees would be considered low relative to private firms’.

Mr. Ranieri, who runs a mortgage-investment firm, predicted that the move would backfire and hit the economy. Because the private sector isn’t strong enough to lend more, “all this will do is tighten credit. You’re just making housing less affordable,” he said.

Industry executives also said the magnitude of the increases was a surprise. “It’s like Beyoncé’s album: It all of a sudden hit the market,” said David Stevens, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

In recent months, some large banks have been offering “jumbo” mortgages, which are too large for government backing, at rates below the conforming mortgages that are eligible for purchase by Fannie and Freddie for borrowers with the best credit. The higher fees could make conforming mortgages even more expensive than jumbos.

The changes follow other announcements in recent weeks that could raise loan costs for some borrowers. The Federal Housing Administration, a government agency that guarantees loans with down payments as small as 3.5%, said earlier this month that it would drop the maximum loan limit in around 650 counties. In San Bernardino, Calif., for example, the loan limit will fall to $335,350 next month from the current level of $500,000.

Separately, the FHFA said Monday it would study reducing the loan amounts that Fannie and Freddie guarantee by around 4%, bringing the national limit to $400,000 from its current level of $417,000. Those changes won’t take effect before October 2014, the agency said.

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