The prospect of mortgage debt forgiveness will entice hundreds of thousands of homeowners into picking up the phone to play the home-preservation game of "Let's Make a Deal," beginning this fall.
The federal government's Hope for Homeowners plan started Oct. 1, and a "proactive home retention program" for some Countrywide customers will begin by December. Both initiatives promise to help qualified homeowners avoid foreclosure by giving them lower monthly house payments.
Under the mortgage relief programs, some people will get reduced interest rates, either temporarily or permanently. Others will have a portion of their home debt wiped away. Some will get a combination of reduced rate and loan forgiveness. Still others will wind up disappointed.
But at least these initiatives will spur troubled borrowers into calling their mortgage servicers or credit counselors. In about half of foreclosures, the borrower doesn't talk to the lender.
The Hope for Homeowners plan is supposed to help up to 400,000 homeowners who can't afford their mortgage payments and who can't refinance to get a lower rate because they owe more than their houses are worth. Without help, these people will end up in foreclosure. Hope for Homeowners encourages lenders to forgive some of the debt of these troubled homeowners so they can refinance into mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA.
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Debt forgiveness last option
The last thing that lenders want to do is forgive debt. Last month, executives from the four biggest mortgage servicers testified before the House Financial Services Committee, and all of them made it clear that they would exhaust all loan-workout options before considering debt forgiveness, which in banker lingo is called "principal reduction."
An executive for Bank of America told the committee that his bank would consider debt forgiveness for people who already are in the process of foreclosure. A Wells Fargo executive, Mary Coffin, said, "We have found that the same affordability can be reached through a 2 (percent) to 3 percent interest rate reduction and term extension, as can be reached through a 25 (percent) to 30 percent principal reduction."
In other words, Wells would rather reduce the interest rate for five years, and extend a 30-year loan into a 40-year loan, rather than forgive some of the debt.
How forgiveness would work
If a lender can be persuaded to participate in Hope for Homeowners, here's how it would work: The lender would forgive all the debt over 90 percent of the home's currently appraised value, and allow the homeowner to refinance with an FHA-insured mortgage.
For example, let's say someone owes $125,000 on a house that has lost value and is now worth $100,000. The owner can't afford the higher payments because of a rate adjustment. The lender would forgive $35,000 of the debt, allowing the owner to refinance with another lender for $90,000. That loan would be insured by the FHA, and would have an upfront FHA insurance premium of about $2,700. In most cases, that $2,700 would come out of the hide of the old lender, on top of the $35,000 in debt forgiveness. Faced with these figures, some lenders might figure that it might be cheaper to foreclose.