The government has stepped into the breach, facilitating loans with down payments as low as 3.5 percent and offering other incentives to stabilize the market. Real estate agents in some hard-hit areas say every single one of their clients is using the F.H.A.
“They’re counting their pennies, scraping up that 3.5 percent,” Bonni Malone of Prudential Americana in Las Vegas said. “Mostly they’re buying foreclosed homes from banks, although I had one client who bought from a guy that was dying. It’s turning around the market.”
While the government’s actions have helped avert full-scale economic disaster, there is growing concern that it might have doled out its favors with too generous a hand.
Many of the loans the F.H.A. insured in 2007 and last year are now turning delinquent, agency officials acknowledge. The loans made in those two years are performing “far worse” than newer loans, dragging down the whole portfolio, Mr. Stevens of the F.H.A. said in an interview.
The number of F.H.A. mortgage holders in default is 410,916, up 76 percent from a year ago, when 232,864 were in default, according to agency data.
Despite the agency’s attempt to outrun its fate by insuring ever-larger amounts of new loans to such borrowers as Ms. Shimon — the current rate is over a billion dollars a day — 7.77 percent of the portfolio is in default, up from 5.6 percent a year ago.
Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview that the defaults were, in essence, worth it.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the bad loans occurred,” he said. “It was an effort to keep prices from falling too fast. That’s a policy.”
The troubled loans are nevertheless weighing on the agency’s capital reserve fund, which has fallen to below its Congressionally mandated minimum of 2 percent, from over 6 percent two years ago.
The optimism expressed by Mr. Stevens, the F.H.A. commissioner, places him at odds not only with some outside experts but with Kenneth Donohue, the inspector general of the Housing and Urban Development Department, who is also F.H.A.’s watchdog. Mr. Donohue said the drop in reserves was “a flashing red light” that the agency was not taking seriously enough.
“It might be we’ll get ourselves out of this and that everything will be fine, but I don’t paint that rosy a picture,” Mr. Donohue said. “They’re banking on the fact that the economy will continue to improve, that the housing market will begin to sustain itself.”
He noted that if private lenders had raised their down payment requirements in the last two years, it raised the question, “what does the F.H.A. think it is doing by asking only 3.5 percent?”
Any more than that and Ms. Shimon, 45, would still be a renter. As it was, she cashed in her retirement savings account to come up with the necessary funds. She did not have enough to spare for closing costs, so her mortgage broker arranged a deal where the charges were wrapped into the loan at the cost of a higher interest rate. She cried when the deal was done.
The house was empty and trashed. Slowly, she is trying to bring it back to life. She spent the first few weeks picking up garbage in the backyard.
Is Ms. Shimon a good bet? Even she has no easy answer. Her mortgage payment, $1,100, is half of what she takes home every month. It is not easy to make ends meet. Teachers can get laid off like everyone else.
“The government,” she said, “is doing what it needed to do — taking a risk on people.”
Chaz Fullenkamp, an automotive technician in Columbus, Ohio, got an F.H.A. loan even though he was living on the financial edge. “If I got unemployed, I’d be wiped out in a month or two,” he says. Thanks to the F.H.A., however, he is better off than he used to be.
Mr. Fullenkamp used F.H.A. insurance to buy a house this spring for $179,000. The eager seller paid the closing costs and also gave Mr. Fullenkamp $2,500 in cash. He immediately applied for the $8,000 tax rebate. Even taking his down payment into account, he came out ahead.
“I knew in my heart I could not really afford the house, but they gave it to me anyway,” said Mr. Fullenkamp, 22. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m surprised I pulled that off.’ ”
As the number of loans has soared, random quality control checks have decreased sharply, F.H.A. staff members say. Mr. Donohue, the inspector general, cited numerous examples of organized fraud in testimony to Congress earlier this year.
“They need to stop taking bad loans in the door,” he said in an interview. “They’re taking on all this volume, they have to have very active underwriting standards.”