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FHA Loans- Affordability Solutions for First Time Homebuyers

Jun 7, 2008
"FHA" and "First Time Homebuyers" are real buzzwords as far as home buying is concerned, especially when those terms are used in combination. Many readers have heard the "FHA loans are great for first time homebuyers" street talk, but without detailed, supporting information as to why.

The intent of this article is to quantify the features of this loan, both good and bad, and discuss the circumstances under which it's a beneficial program to the homebuyer (either first, second, or third time homebuyer).

First, FHA stands for Federal Housing Authority, and though the phrase "FHA loan" implies otherwise, the Federal Housing Authority does not lend money. Rather, they insure the loan. The money still comes from the lender selected by the borrower, but the FHA now provides an insurance policy to protect the lender in the event of borrower default. With this insurance, the lender has less risk, and so guidelines are less restrictive than with conventional financing.

The reader should be aware that FHA is completely different from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (otherwise known as GSEs, or "Government Sponsored Entities"). There has been a lot of buzz recently about Fannie and Freddie, but these entities, and the associated loans, are completely different than the Federal Housing Authority.

Recent events in the credit markets have made the FHA loan a true affordability solution for buyers. In fact, it is this author's opinion that without the availability of this loan, there would be very few people buying houses these days.

In mid-December of last year, a report began circulating amongst all the direct lenders citing "counties of declining market value" throughout the country. This report placed counties in one of 3 categories: 1) par (little or no depreciation in home values), 2) soft (significant depreciation), or 3) distressed (extreme depreciation). Since that time, the report, and the consequence to lending guidelines, has been revised and updated.

Where things currently stand is that lenders mandate a 5% LTV reduction for soft market, and a 10% LTV reduction for distressed markets. LTV stands for "loan-to-value", and refers to the maximum amount of financing (as a ratio to the sales price) the lender will allow. So, for example, if a loan program in a "par" market allowed 90% financing, that same loan program in a distressed market would only allow 80% financing.

Since most counties in major metropolitan areas are on this list, hefty down payment requirements are placed on borrowers purchasing homes in these areas. On average, this means 10% down payment requirements in par markets, 15% down payment requirements in soft markets, and 20% down payment requirements in distressed markets.

But this is where FHA loans provide a saving grace, as these loan programs are not subject to this "LTV reduction". Rather, it is only the non-government loan programs (ie Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) subject to this constraint. Further, FHA loans allow up to 97.75% LTV (so 2.25% down payment). On a $450,000 home in a soft market, this means the borrower only has to put down $10,125 instead of $67,500 on a non-government loan.

The other major benefit of the FHA program is the reduced credit requirements. Whereas non-government loans require credit scores of 700+, the FHA loan accepts credit scores as low as 640.

Is there a catch to all this? Somewhat. The FHA loan carries a mandatory Mortgage Insurance Premium of 1.5% of the loan amount that must be paid at settlement; on a $400,000 loan, 1.5% would be $6,000. This will change to 1.25-2.25%, depending on the borrower's financial strength, when the new FHA guidelines are released July 14, 2008.

However, even with the 1.5% Mortgage Insurance Premium, the total "down payment" required from the buyer (2.25% + 1.5%= 3.75%) is less than with a non-government program (10% in a best case scenario). True, the additional 1.5% fee is not going towards equity, like a down payment, but the total out-pocket expense is still less.

Another "catch" to the FHA loan is that, assuming the borrower does the 97.75% financing (or at least anything above 78%), the borrower will have to pay Monthly Mortgage Insurance (MMI). MMI is similar to PMI (Private Mortgage Insurance on non-government loans). However, the MMI payment of 0.50% of the loan amount is slightly less than a PMI payment would be for the same loan amount.

But is MMI or PMI really a bad thing? Before January 2007 it was, since it was not tax deductible. But as of January 1, 2007, following the "Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006" which President Bush signed into law, mortgage insurance premiums are now tax deductible. Before this time, buyers wanting financing in excess of 80% got a second mortgage to avoid MMI or PMI (and 2nd mortgages, when used for a purchase, are tax deductible). But with the new tax law, the mortgage insurance premium carries the same tax benefit as a second mortgage. Thus MMI can be thought of as a "second mortgage".

And lastly, another "catch" to the FHA loans is they do take slightly longer to process. The reason is that there is more paperwork, steps, and procedures for the lender to go through then with non-government programs. In total, this means about 10 extra calendar days to the process, so 35-40 days instead of the usual 25-30. What I tell homebuyers making an offer on a home and planning to use FHA financing is to simply request a 40-45 day escrow instead of the usual 30. In this market, with sellers eager to sell, this is never a problem.

And those are the "catches" to the FHA loan, but minor if not insignificant in this author's opinion. Truly, the only real thorn in the "FHA rose" is the 1.5% Mortgage Insurance Premium. And for borrowers that have the assets to afford a 15%+ down payment, I tell them to use conventional financing, so they can avoid this Mortgage Insurance Premium (and also qualify for a better rate with the larger down payment).

Speaking of rate, the reader may be envisioning a monster rate for this government loan program. But the rates are in fact quite modest. As of mid-may, wholesale rates on an FHA loan with 97.75% financing (2.25% down) were about 6.00%, compared with 5.625% on a conventional loan with 80% financing.

Thus, with the 15-20% down payment requirements of conventional loans for houses in "areas of declining market value", FHA loans are a great resource for home buyers unable to afford these large down payments. And since the FHA loan limit has been raised as high as $729,750 in some areas, the applicability is even broader. Yes, there are a few "catches" to this loan program, but overall the pros outweigh the cons for the borrower with limited assets.
About the Author
Jared Martin is President and CEO of GOTeHomeLoans, Inc., an Upfront Mortgage Broker Firm serving CA, DC, MD, VA, and PA. Questions and comments can be emailed to Jared at jaredm@gotehomeloans.com.
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