Homeowners Stuck (Cont'd)

By Noelle Knox, USA TODAY
Tucker helped them buy their first home near Denver two years ago with an ARM that covered 100 percent of the $195,000 purchase price. The young couple, with two children, made their payments on time until December, when Pervez traded in his car for a new one. That month, they were late on their mortgage. The timing couldn't have been worse. They needed to refinance their mortgage before

By Noelle Knox, USA TODAY

Tucker helped them buy their first home near Denver two years ago with an ARM that covered 100 percent of the $195,000 purchase price. The young couple, with two children, made their payments on time until December, when Pervez traded in his car for a new one. That month, they were late on their mortgage. The timing couldn't have been worse. They needed to refinance their mortgage before the rate started rising this month. But their home's value hasn't gone up, and their credit score has gone down.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," says Furakh, 24, who was bathing and feeding her two daughters after work. "I'm trying to work on my credit, but sometimes you can't be that good. I've got two jobs. I've got two kids. Sometimes, I am just late."

The industry was caught off guard by the surge in delinquencies last year. ARMs made to people with shaky credit in 2005 and 2006 are defaulting at two to three times the rate of loans from 2003 and 2004, according to First American LoanPerformance. Because the interest rates on these loans are usually fixed for the first two or three years, and then start rising, "The worst is still to come," says Brenda White, a managing director at Deloitte & Touche.

So far, the deepening crisis seems confined to lenders who made riskier loans and hasn't spread to the broader financial markets, which hold up to $1.5 trillion in subprime loans. Still, as many as 7 percent of those loans will go into foreclosure, resulting in losses as high as $70 billion, Flanagan estimates. The Center for Responsible Lending projects that 2.2 million homeowners with subprime loans will lose their homes.

Sharing the blame

Thousands of homeowners are already feeling the pain. In January, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, a non-profit financial counseling group, received 4,500 calls to its toll-free hotline (888-995-HOPE or 888-995-4673), 150% more than last summer. The callers are in financial difficulty and often trying to stave off foreclosure. Equally alarming was that 16 percent of the callers from October to December didn't know what kind of mortgage they had, according to the foundation.

Experts say there's plenty of blame to go around. During the real estate boom, lenders began offering an array of loans to borrowers with poor credit histories. They let many borrowers finance 100 percent of the purchase price, often asking for little or no proof of income or assets. Last year, 43 percent of loans required little or no documentation of the borrower's finances, according to First American LoanPerformance. These "stated-income" loans have earned the nickname "liar loans."

"When these loans were introduced, they made sense, given the relatively strict requirements borrowers had to meet before qualifying," according to an April 2006 report by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute. "However, competitive pressures have caused many lenders to loosen these requirements to a point that makes many risk managers squirm."

The lenders typically use a network of independent brokers who sell loans from a variety of lenders for a commission. The brokers, some of them new to the industry, some of them unlicensed, were responsible for explaining the complex terms of the loan to the borrower. This led to allegations of predatory lending -- pushing high-cost loans that are plainly unsuitable for a person's financial resources and prospects.

Take Betty Jean James, 70, a retired glass inspector living on Social Security. Two years ago, she refinanced the Chicago home where she's lived for 25 years. The rate on the loan started rising after the second payment. The payments started at $1,032 but have since climbed to $1,761. "I fell behind two months ago," said James, who is facing foreclosure. "It just got too high." Though James signed the loan document, which clearly states that the interest rate is adjustable, she recalls that the mortgage broker "explained to me he could refinance the house, and he did. He didn't explain the interest rate could go up."

Some borrowers, meantime, contracted real estate fever and took out loans they didn't fully understand or stretched their budgets too thin. Some lied about their income on their loan applications, sometimes with a wink or a little help from their broker on a stated-income loan.

Casey Serin is a classic case. Serin, a Sacramento website designer who was profiled in USA TODAY in October, has admitted that he lied on his loan applications to buy eight houses in four states as investments. He hoped to flip them for a quick profit, but he made too many newbie mistakes. He sold three of the homes, the lenders foreclosed on two, and he's still trying to sell the remaining three.

When the real estate market was on fire, such excesses and abuses were often overlooked. If a borrower ran into trouble and fell behind on a payment, it was easy to refinance or sell the property.

Everything changed after the market peaked in August 2005. "For sale" signs swung in front yards for months, and home prices started falling. Borrowers who fell behind on their loans sometimes owed more than their homes were worth. Or they couldn't sell their property before the lender foreclosed and drove neighborhood prices down further.

In 23 metro areas where home prices fell 4 percent or more at the end of last year, at least half the subprime ARMs will reset to higher rates this year or next, according to an analysis by First American LoanPerformance for USA TODAY. (See chart.)

In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, home prices fell 4 percent at the end of last year, and 56% of homeowners with subprime ARMs will see their rates reset by the end of next year. "I've got a handful of clients right now I want to help, but I can't," says Pava Leyrer, president of Heritage National Mortgage in Grandville, Mich. "They are better off selling their homes." But that's hard in Michigan, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

'One of the real tragedies'

First-time home buyers are also vulnerable. On average, first-time buyers made only a 2% down payment last year, the National Association of Realtors says.

"One of the real tragedies of this is that the folks who became first-time buyers because of this expansion of credit, many times they were first-time buyers not just themselves, but for generations of their families," says Jim Wheaton, deputy director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a non-profit counseling and lending service. "But if they lose that home to foreclosure, given the impact on their credit, the appreciation of home prices, and the fact that their incomes generally are not rising that quickly, they are losing their only opportunity at homeownership."

Yet the lack of affordable housing is one of the reasons subprime ARMs became so popular. With a starting "teaser" rate, these loans let people with little money for a down payment still buy a home. Last year, 7 percent of buyers used a subprime ARM, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

It's too soon to know how many buyers won't qualify under the tighter criteria and how the trend will hamper this year's expected housing recovery. "It's a tough situation," says Dick Syron, CEO of Freddie Mac.

Under Freddie's new rules: If a subprime borrower wanted to buy the U.S. median-price home at $210,600 with a two-year ARM, the buyer would have to qualify not only at the starting monthly payment of $1,619, at 8.5 percent, but also at the maximum payment of $2,412 a month, at 13.5 percent.

"There's a very delicate and difficult balance between getting as many people into houses as you can," Syron says, "and at the same time putting people into houses they can't keep unless home prices are appreciating or interest rates are very low." Hanging in that balance: nearly 400,000 homeowners with subprime ARMs who, like Booker in Chicago, have already missed at least one loan payment and have a lot fewer options now.

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