Home mortgage lenders easing up on home loans

A man enters a Bank of America branch in New York.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
A man enters a Bank of America branch in New York.

The new year may bring new opportunities for consumers hoping to get a home mortgage.

More lenders are reporting easing credit standards, according to Fannie Mae, and expect standards to ease rather than tighten in the near future. This could help affordability in the housing market, which has been suffering under both tight credit and tight supply of homes for sale.

The share of lenders who expect to ease standards for government-backed loans rose to 16 percent, and the share expecting to tighten fell to 2 percent, according to a Fannie Mae survey. This is across all types of loan products.

A total of 213 senior executives completed the survey from Nov. 4 to 13, representing 194 lending institutions.

"These current practices and expectations toward easing among lenders compares to a historically relatively tight mortgage credit standard base," said Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist of Fannie Mae.

Duncan, however, points to several challenges to improvement in the housing market in 2016, affordability for first-time buyers topping the list. There are still very few starter homes on the market, and home price appreciation is lapping household income growth.

"Lenders' thoughtful easing of credit standards should help mitigate some of this affordability decline," he said.

The potential for rising interest rates, which would narrow the field of customers for loans, may increase competition among lenders and force them to ease some of the extra safeguards they added after being sued by the government for billions of dollars over bad loans dating back to the last housing boom.


Government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the Federal Housing Administration have been clarifying lender liabilities for bad loans and have been pushing lenders to ease up as well.

Borrowers may also benefit from a new credit scoring model. Fannie Mae announced recently that it will start using so-called trended data in looking at mortgage applicants. This is a wider look at a borrower's credit history, which could help boost some scores.

Using trended data, the percentage of consumers in the super-prime risk tier would increase from 12 percent of the population to 21 percent, according to a recent study by TransUnion. These consumers generally have the greatest access to new loans at the lowest pricing.

"We are a long way from returning to prerecession levels in terms of mortgage accounts, but changing consumer preferences for housing also may play a role in this slow recovery," said Steve Chaouki, executive vice president and head of TransUnion's financial services business unit. "If the economy continues to perform well, we believe the net number of mortgages will increase over the next year."

Despite the potential easing in credit, about two-thirds of consumers surveyed by the National Association of Realtors think it would be very or somewhat difficult to get a mortgage today.

Another survey by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, a network of real estate brokerages, polled 2,500 homeowners and potential buyers and found 67 percent of potential homebuyers thought mortgage rates today were either "average" or "high." Today's rates are actually very close to record lows.