The biggest barrier for many would-be homeowners is the pile of cash that's needed before a bank will even discuss a mortgage. The Federal Housing Administration, in an effort to boost the housing market, recently lowered down-payment requirements to 3.5% of the purchase price, but by the time would-be buyers consider closing costs, they still need roughly 7%. Even in an FHA loan, families buying a typical $300,000 home need a $21,000 bank account — no small feat when median American household income is about $54,000.
Building up a $6,000 mortgage war chest is a lot easier, and puts homeownership within reach of far more low and moderate-income families. That's the goal of Homewise, an organization that arranges low-cost financing that covers 98% of the purchase price for buyers. But an easy-to-reach down payment requirement is only one benefit of Homewise, which serves New Mexico residents. Borrowers also get to skip high-cost mortgage insurance, high upfront FHA fees, or expensive second loans often required of less-than-20%-down purchases. And, if they use Homewise real estate agents, they pay a lot less in closing costs, too.
To qualify, buyers must complete a program designed to teach them the ins and outs of homeownership, including what it takes to ensure mortgage payments arrive on time. And their household income can't exceed about $82,000.
Combine low down payments, cheaper monthly costs, and educated borrowers and what do you get? Default rates that are stunningly low compared to traditional low-down-payment FHA loans. The Urban Institute recently released a study of Homewise, and found that the organization's 90-day delinquency ("serious delinquency") rate was 1.1% for loans serviced between 2009 and 2013. This rate is well below the 7.3% serious delinquency rate of FHA-backed loans at the end of 2013.
"This is a neat model that appears to work," said Brett Theodos, who wrote the report. He's a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "And they've captured something like 25% of the (low-cost loan) market share in that area."
Thanks in part to the low default rate, Homewise is profitable, making it potentially repeatable around the country, Theodos said.
So far, Homewise is still relatively small: it's financed about 3,000 home purchases, while working with 11,908 clients, said spokeswoman Rachel Silva.
Plenty of nonprofits have offered housing counseling before; separately, others have offered low-cost loans. Part of the Homewise charm is it works with buyers through the entire process — from helping them open special down-payment savings accounts, to signing closing papers. Most nonprofits' housing counselors prepare would-be homebuyers and then hand them off to traditional banks, where things might not go smoothly. And those nonprofits have to struggle for funding.
In the Homewise model, modest profits from closing loans are used to fund the counseling activity. Homewise loans are ultimately sold to Fannie Mae like traditional mortgages, allowing the firm to originate new loans.
"This allows them to capture the value. What would be exciting is if this model caught hold with other types of orgs doing this kind of work," Theodos said. "In an era where foreclosure mitigation counseling is going away, HUD counseling is being pared back, there needs to be some model that's sustainable for helping people get into homes."
How Homebuyers Save
It shouldn't be very surprising that Homewise clients pile up success stories. Just avoiding mortgage insurance saves average clients about $130 monthly, the Urban Institute says. And there's another serious benefit — Homewise real estate agents are paid by the hour, not a commission based on percentage of the sale price. That saves clients money and helps make sure buyers get into homes they can afford.
"Homewise's model suggests that with a carefully structured, vertically integrated system, homeownership can be encouraged in a way that better aligns risks and incentives for the counselor, the borrower, and the lender," the report says.
Homewise is not a nonprofit. It's a "Community Development Financial Institute," a set of small financial institutions authorized by the Treasury Department that have a stated goal of being profit-making, but not profit maximizing. They offer personal and business loans to consumers who might not otherwise be served by traditional banking.
One barrier to replication of the Homewise model — for-profit banks might balk at the idea, although Theodos is not too worried about that. Many banks aren't crazy about doing these low-cost loans, anyway. That risk would only arise if Homewise started reaching into higher-income client pools.
Instead, Theodos thinks the real challenge is finding institutions that have both the heart to do counseling and the head to do loan underwriting.
"We don't expect it will replace FHA loans, and don't think that's the goal or expectation," he said. "(But) the ability of the program to make revenues … and through those efforts to fund counseling and coaching, that's really interesting."
Can You Get a Low-Down Payment Mortgage?
What if you want a low down-payment loan? Unless you live near Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, where Homewise is now expanding operations, you can't work with Homewise. FHA loans are the closest alternative, with the aforementioned caveat of higher down payments, a big upfront insurance fee, and ongoing insurance premiums.
Military veterans have the option of getting a zero-down Veterans Administration loan, but they pay a "funding fee" of roughly 2% to 3%. Some credit unions offer similar zero-down, funding-fee programs, such as Navy Federal Credit Union.
Finally, many consumers can qualify for more traditional 5% down payment loans if they agree to pay private mortgage insurance. That can easily add a couple of hundred dollars per month to a mortgage payment, but PMI can be canceled once a homeowners' equity reaches 20% through a combination of loan payments and increased housing value.
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