One possible solution: start paying extra each month now to pay down the principal before the loans reset. But many homeowners took out the maximum they qualified for, and don’t have the means to pay more, or at least not enough to make a sizeable dent in the principal.
A decade ago, interest-only loans were rare. But as the boom heated up and desperate buyers sought any leverage they could, these loans became ubiquitous. They were especially popular in Florida, Nevada and above all California. In 2004, nearly half of all buyers in the state got one.
The Mollers bought in 2005, paying $460,000 for their three-bedroom, thousand-square-foot house. A quick refinance a few months later supplied cash to pay debts. Now the house is worth perhaps $310,000. After their interest-only period is up, they expect their monthly payments to increase 20 percent if not more. “Everyone out here always preached to me, ‘Buy real estate. It’s the best investment you’ll ever have,’ ” said Mr. Moller, who grew up in Iowa. “Then all this stuff started crumbling and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ”
While default may be a long way off, the prospect is already dampening the couple’s spending habits. They are postponing the new windows the house needs. They recently bought a 2005 Nissan Murano instead of a new car, and they have put off buying a flat-screen TV.
Mark Goldman, a San Diego mortgage broker, said many interest-only buyers thought they would be in control when the loans reset. “They expected to move or refinance,” he said. “But you can’t do either when you’re under water.”
Among the people Mr. Goldman put into interest-only loans was himself. He refinanced five years ago to shrink his payments so he and his wife, Julie, could put their two sons through college. When the interest-only period expired a few months ago, their payments went up by 40 percent.
The Goldmans have been in their house for 20 years, which means they still have some equity. Still, they are unhappy to find themselves in “a world different than we planned for,” said Mr. Goldman, a lecturer in real estate finance at San Diego State. “If you purchased your home with an interest-only loan between 2003 and 2006, you’re cooked.”
The federal government, through the finance company Fannie Mae, increased the scope of a program this summer that might help some interest-only borrowers by letting them refinance. But it will not help many in coastal California. Only loans owned by Fannie Mae are eligible, and during the boom Fannie had a limit of $417,000 — not enough to buy a home at the peak in a middle-class community.
Dean Janis, a Southern California lawyer who bought a $950,000 home in 2004, will see his interest-only loan reset in December. He calculates that will send his payments up a minimum of 27 percent, to $3,726. A rise in rates could eventually push it as high as $6,700. “I understand I took a risk,” Mr. Janis said. “But I did not anticipate that the real estate market would go down 30 percent.” He talked with Wells Fargo about his options, and the lender said he had none.
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Homeowners with interest-only loans have a much greater likelihood of default, the First American CoreLogic figures indicate. Nationally about 18 percent of prime interest-only loans are at least 60 days delinquent. In California, the level is even higher: 21 percent, a rate exceeded only in the other bubble states of Florida and Nevada. “The bailout is not trickling through to help many of us who have worked hard, under very difficult circumstances, to keep paying our bills,” Mr. Janis said. “I am stuck with nowhere to go — absent trashing my credit and defaulting.”