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FHA Home Loan Program Poised to Take Off

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FHA-insured home mortgages — marginalized or squeezed out of the market during the subprime loan boom years — are poised to roar back. And if Congress passes a compromise version of FHA reform legislation, maximum loan limits for FHA could rise immediately to $417,000 — or even a lot higher.

Last month the House overwhelmingly approved a reform bill that would cut minimum downpayments to zero, and increase loan limits in high cost areas of California well beyond $500,000. Under the House-passed bill, FHA could insure mortgages as high as 125 percent of the median home price in a market area, or 175 percent of the conforming loan limit for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — currently $417,000. In addition, the HUD Secretary could raise limits by another $100,000 if local conditions required such a move.

In effect, southern California, where FHA loan applications have been almost nonexistent in recent years, could conceivably see a new wave of jumbo FHA mortgages in the $700,000 range and beyond.

Meanwhile, the Senate Banking committee last Wednesday reported out its version of an FHA reform bill, but with much tighter loan limits – $417,000 maximum – and a 1.5 percent minimum cash downpayment, down from the current 3 percent minimum. The full Senate is expected to approve the Banking committee’s bill soon, sending the FHA issue to a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences.

What’s likely to emerge in the final bill sent to the president in the coming weeks? At the very minimum, Congress is now almost certain to make FHA competitive again in high-cost markets. A $417,000 limit for California would still be well below the state’s median home price in the mid-$500,000s. But it would provide potentially tens of thousands of home buyers an attractive, consumer-friendly alternative to what they’ve got now.

The huge gap between the House and Senate loan ceilings will need to be bridged in the upcoming conference. There may also be pressure to raise Fannie’s and Freddie’s limits during Senate floor debate or through a separate bill — opening the door to at least a temporary ‘jumbo’ program for FHA, Fannie and Freddie.

There are some potential minefields facing conferees however: The House version of the bill contains a proposal from Financial Services committee chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to tap into FHA premium revenues to help finance a new National Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing activities. Separate legislation from chairman Frank would also tap into revenues of Fannie and Freddie. The Bush administration opposes siphoning off FHA resources for the Fund, and the Senate did not include the concept in its bill.

Another sticky issue: The Senate bill prohibits ‘downpayment assistance’ for FHA loans involving ‘anyone party to the transaction.’ That would presumably cut off dozens of nonprofit groups around the country that now provide such assistance. The House bill imposes some restrictions on downpayment assistance providers, but does not ban them.

The House bill authorizes FHA loan terms up to 40 years, but the Senate bill is silent on that issue. The Senate bill allows FHA to use ‘risk based pricing’ on all loans where borrowers make less than a 3 percent downpayment — a provision favored by the Bush Administration. The Senate bill has no language on the subject, but some Republicans are strongly opposed to allowing FHA to directly compete with private mortgage insurance firms for borrowers who present varying levels of default risk.

Written by Kenneth R. Harney www.RealtyTimescom. Copyright