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Mortgages: Life After Bankruptcy

Mortgage Problems
Mortgage Problems

Every month tens of thousands of people file for federal bankruptcy protection, mostly to wipe out debts and start anew.

Many of these filers mistakenly think that it will be many years before they can obtain a mortgage or refinance an existing home loan, if they ever can — perhaps because notice of a bankruptcy filing typically stays on a credit report for 7 to 10 years.

In reality, they could become eligible in as little as one year, as long as they work diligently to improve their financial picture.

Mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration are permitted one year after a consumer exits a Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization, which requires a repayment plan that is often a fraction of what is owed, and two years after the more common Chapter 7 liquidation, which discharges most or all debts.

Conventional mortgage guidelines from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, meanwhile, call for a wait of two to four years.

“There’s a lot of other things that go into your ability to get approved” for a mortgage after a bankruptcy, said John Walsh, the president of Total Mortgage, a direct lender based in Milford, Conn.

The most important point, he and other industry experts say, is that consumers re-establish their credit and show that they can manage it responsibly. They can do this by paying rent and utility bills on time, or perhaps by obtaining a secured credit card, according to Mr. Walsh.

If a bankruptcy filing was the result of a one-time occurrence, like the death of a spouse, divorce or illness, the waiting period to apply for a mortgage may be reduced. Lenders will often want borrowers to write a hardship letter explaining their situation, backed by documentation like hospital bills or a court-approved divorce settlement.

If the person has paid back 85 to 95 percent of his debts during the bankruptcy process, he will need to mention that in the letter as well, said Bruce Feinstein, a bankruptcy lawyer in Richmond Hill, Queens.

But examples of shortening the waiting period through hardship letters are “few and far between, and tough to get,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Feinstein says he has seen a few clients qualify for a mortgage only two years after filing for Chapter 7, though generally borrowers can obtain a loan quicker after a Chapter 13 reorganization, because of the partial repayment of debts, he said.

As Mr. Walsh noted, “Chapter 13 is a little more responsible” way to go from the lenders’ perspective, so lender guidelines are a bit more lenient.

Almost 70 percent of personal bankruptcies are filed under Chapter 7, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, a research organization. The institute data noted that last year there were 1.362 million personal bankruptcy filings nationwide, down from 1.53 million in 2010, and closer to the norm over the last 15 years.

At the end of the first quarter of this year there were 311,975 filings, which is 5 percent less than the first quarter of 2011.

Rebuilding credit after a personal bankruptcy will take some work. Mr. Feinstein suggests that individuals maintain or take out one or two credit cards and routinely use them. “If the payment’s due on the first, make sure it’s paid by the 25th” of the previous month, he said.

A personal bankruptcy filing will have a larger impact on a credit score than any other credit issue, according to a July report by VantageScore, which provides credit scores to lenders. Filing for bankruptcy protection will reduce a credit score by 200 to 350 or more points, it said, compared with a decline of 80 to 170 points for a foreclosure. VantageScore’s scores range from 501 to 990.

For the larger rival FICO, bankruptcy could cut a credit score by 130 to 240 points.

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