Last year's sweeping financial-reform law revamped much of the banking system. But there's one industry it didn't touch: housing finance. For good reason. Unlike the convalescing banking sector, the housing market is still a wreck, with any false move likely to destabilize things even further and cause fresh damage.
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But the system can't continue the way it is either, so policymakers in Washington are gingerly starting to propose ways to fix the way we finance the purchase of homes and assure that there's never another housing bust like the one that began in 2006 -- and still isn't over.
The biggest and thorniest question is what role the government should play in the housing market. The government has had a hand in housing since the 1930s, when it began to subsidize home purchases for some buyers. But today the government dominates housing finance, with our system effectively nationalized. The government backs nearly every new mortgage, bearing much of the risk that lenders would ordinarily take on. That has kept mortgage money flowing during a severe credit crunch, preventing a much bigger disaster in housing, and a deeper recession. But it has also cost taxpayers billions of dollars, created a perverse system ripe for political abuse, and crowded out private financing that might be deployed more efficiently.
So with the economic recovery gaining strength, it's finally time to address the problem-to-be-named later. The Obama administration has come up with a set of options for winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the insolvent housing agencies that back many middle-class mortgages but suffered catastrophic losses in 2008 and were taken over by the government. Some Republicans would like to see Washington end its role in housing altogether, while many economists favor some kind of hybrid system that transfers much but not all of the government's role to the private sector. A few small changes could happen this year, with the biggest reforms probably not likely until at least 2013, after the next presidential election. Even then, changes will probably be phased in slowly, to minimize disruption -- and panic.
Still, we may be on the verge of a transformation in the way Americans pay for the biggest purchase they'll ever make, which determines how millions of families prioritize their household finances. Since many families spend years saving for a down payment and preparing for the plunge into homeownership, long-term planning is prudent. Here are some of the possible changes both buyers and sellers should anticipate:
Rising mortgage rates. During the housing boom that ended in 2006, mortgage rates were artificially low because lenders failed to price in enough of a cushion to account for the kind of steep price declines that have occurred. Even the most responsible lenders figured the worst-case scenario might be a 10 percent decline in prices, and they priced their loans accordingly. So far, home values have declined by about 30 percent from the 2006 peak, and they could still fall another 5 to 10 percent. That's one reason losses at Fannie, Freddie, and other mortgage lenders were so severe. While the average rate on 30-year mortgages just rose to 5.05 percent, the highest level in 10 months, rates are still extremely low. That's largely because the government is effectively subsidizing them through taxpayer bailouts, Federal Reserve policies, and guarantees against losses on most new mortgages.
If the government continues to back mortgages at current levels, rates might stay low -- but taxpayers will be on the hook for the cost of the next meltdown. A more likely outcome is a hybrid system in which private lenders bear more of the risk, while the government insures them against catastrophic losses and charges a fee to cover the cost -- similar to the way the FDIC insures banks. A recent study by Moody's Analytics calculates that such a system would raise mortgage rates by about 30 basis points, or 0.3 percentage points. If the whole system were privatized, Moody's estimates that could push rates up by about 120 basis points, or 1.2 percentage points, compared with a government-run system. On a $200,000 mortgage, a 30-basis-point bump would add about $39 to the monthly payment; a 120-point bump would add about $159. The spread would likely be greater for borrowers with weaker credit. And remember, those hikes would come in addition to other factors likely to drive long-term rates up over the next few years.
Higher down payments. Last year's Dodd-Frank financial-reform law did contain a few provisions that affect mortgages, including one that's likely to lead to formal down-payment requirements for many traditional loans. The government hasn't yet spelled out the details, but it probably will sometime this year. It seems likely that the required down payment on the majority of mortgages could be 20 percent, and perhaps as high as 30 percent. It will still be possible to get a loan with less money down, but because of new ways that lenders will have to handle such loans, interest rates will probably end up higher than they would have under the old rules.
Of course, many borrowers can't even get a loan these days unless they come up with a meaty down payment, so formal rules may not make that much of a difference, in reality. The biggest impact might be felt by hopeful buyers without a lot of cash who have been waiting for standards to ease, so they can get into a home with just 5 or 10 percent down. It might be a long time before standards ease that much, or banks make loans affordable for buyers financing most of the value of a house.
Less backing for expensive homes. The government changed the rules during the financial crisis to allow federal backing for mortgages as high as $729,750 in some high-cost areas, which means loans up to that amount count as "qualifying" loans suitable for the lowest rates. That ceiling is set to drop back to $625,500 on September 30. Expect it to happen, since Republicans who now control the House of Representatives want to reduce the government's role in housing finance, not perpetuate it. Bigger loans will still be available -- but with higher rates. And the ceiling on qualifying loans could shrink further, since that might be one way to shrink Fannie and Freddie.
Fewer fixed-rate mortgages. If the housing-finance system were to end up largely privatized, it would probably mean far fewer 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages -- which are the ones most popular with consumers. Banks don't like such mortgages because consumers can refinance if rates go lower, but banks can't hike rates if they go higher. "The 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage exists because of the government backstop," says Mike Konczal, a fellow with the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. "Getting rid of it would shift more of the risk onto households."
In countries where the government plays a lesser role in financing homes, such as Canada and many European nations, the majority of mortgages are adjustable, with rates that reset every few years. That requires more cushion in the family budget for rising costs -- and more responsible homeowners. But it might be worth it, since many of those nations avoided the kind of bust that has left millions of Americans with mortgages that exceed the value of their home. The odds of Congress killing the 30-year mortgage outright are probably low, but the rules under a hybrid system could restrict access to a smaller subset of top-tier borrowers. People who once might have qualified for the best mortgages might have to settle for less. Good credit will remain more important than ever.
Fewer homeowners. Loose lending and aggressive government policies pushed the homeownership rate to a peak of about 69 percent in 2005, a level that was probably unsustainable. It's now back to about 66 percent, and with foreclosures still mounting, the homeownership rate could very well dip below the historical average of 64 percent or so -- and stay below long-term norms. One bit of good news for home buyers is that a combination of steep price drops and low interest rates have suddenly made homes very affordable. But credit is obviously tight, and new rules could keep it that way.
There's one other possible change that could discourage homeownership: The reduction or elimination of the mortgage-interest tax deduction, which costs the government about $80 billion per year. That tax break has been in place for decades, as a way to promote homeownership. But with Washington running record annual deficits and facing mounting pressure to start paying down its debt, giveaways like the mortgage deduction might have to go. At least two deficit-reduction panels have recommended a lower homeowner subsidy, which would hit middle- and high-income homeowners the most. If it ever happens, the result could be smaller, less expensive homes for many -- plus more renters.
Less volatility. If policymakers do their job well, they'll ultimately produce a system less susceptible to hot money, speculators, bubbles, and shocks. For buyers, that means a return to the days when you bought a home to live in for a decade or two, not to occupy for a few years and then turn a profit on. "If I were a couple looking at a home, I'd be extra skeptical about investing," says Konczal. "I'd be prepared to sit in the home for 10, 20, even 25 years." It sounds restrictive, but many Americans might decide that a home for life is better than no home at all. And that they could live with a little stability.