Make no mistake: Mortgage credit is still very tight by historical standards, and only borrowers with the most pristine credit and healthy down payments can get the lowest rates. But there are signs that the noose is loosening, if only slightly, in response to lower mortgage volume.
Volume has fallen because rates are rising. Originations were down nearly 20 percent in the third quarter from the same period in 2012, according to Mortgage Daily.
Refinances are down more than 50 percent from a year ago because of higher rates, the Mortgage Bankers Association says.
The drop in volume has lenders looking for more business, however, and possibly easing up on some standards—or at least removing costly overlays on loans.
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"New originations will be down, and nonprime borrowers will start to re-emerge," said Tim Martin of TransUnion, which reported a 23 percent drop in borrowers' making late payments in the third quarter versus a year earlier.
Since the recession began in 2008, the percentage of nonprime borrowers—or those with a Vantage Score lower than 700, according to Martin—has fallen from 12 percent of all originations to below 6 percent. That share is ticking up slightly.
"The origination volumes are starting to lower, so [banks say] let's start easing up a little bit, take a little bit more risk and help some folks get some mortgages done," Martin said.
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After tightening in August and September, credit eased slightly in October, according to a monthly report from the Mortgage Bankers Association.
"Some investors reduced minimum credit scores on certain products," the report said. "At the same time, other investors reduced the availability of cash-out refinances and limited other programs to primary residences in programs which previously allowed for second and investor homes. The net impact was a slight increase in the index for the month."
That slight easing may again be just for the most creditworthy borrowers. Options for those with smaller down payments and lower scores are still limited.
D.R. Horton, the nation's largest home builder, said the share of buyers using low-down-payment loans from the Federal Housing Administration is dropping, as the agency has raised its insurance premiums.
The entry-level builder, which reported fiscal fourth-quarter earnings Tuesday, said the share of first-time buyers dropped to 43 percent from 53 percent year over year. The average FICO score for a D.R. Horton buyer is 723—high by historical standards.
"We've not seen any significant changes in the underwriting standards to our customers" said Stacey Dwyer, executive vice president and treasurer of D.R. Horton. In terms of overall loosening, we're not seeing anything significant,"
It is seeing effects from rising mortgage rates, however—a negative for home sales and refinances but a positive for credit availability as banks seek more business. Rising rates combined with rising home prices will sideline some buyers, especially first-timers.
It remains to be seen if the slight credit easing, though apparently not significant in the eyes of a major home builder, will help sales.
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On an earnings conference call with analysts, Donald Tomnitz, CEO of D.R. Horton, said, "I do know one thing: Rates are going to go up, and we're going to have to deal with that."
—By CNBC's Diana Olick. Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick.