FHA mortgages are poised to get more expensive

The FHA plans to impose limits on the amount of money that home sellers can contribute at closing and to raise mortgage insurance premiums.

By Kenneth R. HarneyLA Times March 11, 2012

Reporting from Washington—

If you’re considering buying a house with an FHA mortgage and expect the seller to help out with your closing costs, here’s a heads-up: The Federal Housing Administration plans to impose significant restrictions on the amount of money that sellers can contribute at closing in the near future.

On top of that, the FHA also will be raising its mortgage insurance premiums during the coming weeks, increasing charges for new purchasers across the board.You might ask, why hit us with additional financial burdens right now, just as housing is showing modest signs of recovery in many areas and the spring buying season is getting underway?

One big reason: Over the last six years, the FHA has been the turnaround champ of residential real estate, offering down payments as low as 3.5% despite the recession and housing bust and growing its market share to 25%-plus from 3%. The program is financing 40% or more of all new-home purchases in some metropolitan areas and is a crucial resource for first-time buyers and moderate-income families, especially minorities. With a maximum loan amount of $729,750 in high-cost areas, it is also a force in some of the country’s most expensive markets — California, Washington, D.C., New York and parts of New England.

But during the same span of rapid growth, the FHA’s insurance fund capital reserves have steadily deteriorated — far below congressionally mandated levels. Delinquencies have been increasing. According to the latest quarterly survey by the Mortgage Bankers Assn., FHA delinquencies rose to 12.4%, compared with a 4.1% average for prime (Fannie MaeFreddie Mac) conventional fixed-rate mortgages and 6.6% for VA loans.

As a result, the FHA is under the gun — with Congress and within the Obama administration — to get its own house in order, cut insurance claims and rebuild its reserves. The upcoming squeezes on seller contributions and bumps in premiums are steps in this direction.

The seller-contribution cutbacks could be painful, particularly in areas of the country where closing costs and home prices are relatively high.

Here’s what’s involved: Traditionally the FHA has been uniquely generous in allowing home sellers — including builders marketing new construction — to sweeten the pot for purchasers by chipping in money to defray closing costs. The FHA now allows sellers to pay up to 6% of the price of the house toward their buyers’ closing expenses. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, by comparison, cap contributions at 3%. The VA’s ceiling is 4%.

Under newly proposed rules, the FHA cap would drop to the greater of 3% of the home price or $6,000. In sales involving houses priced at $100,000 or less, this wouldn’t change anything ($6,000 equals 6% of $100,000). But on all sales above this threshold, the squeeze would get progressively tighter.

On a $200,000 home, a buyer could today ask the seller to pay for $12,000 of a long list of settlement charges including all prepaid loan expenses, discount points on the loan, interest rate buy-downs and upfront FHA insurance premiums, among others. Under the proposed cutback, the maximum amount would be slashed in half.

On many home transactions, the reductions would force sellers to lower their prices to enable cash-short buyers to get through the closing. In other cases, sales might simply be too far of a stretch for some purchasers.

The proposed cuts are open to public comment through the end of this month but are highly likely to be adopted in much the same form soon afterward. The FHA also is restricting the types of “closing costs” that sellers can pay. Six months’ or a year’s worth of interest payments or homeowner association dues in advance no longer will be permitted — a serious blow to many builders who use these as financial carrots.

Beyond these changes, FHA also plans significant increases in insurance premiums — upfront premiums will rise to 1.75% from 1%, effective April 1, and annual premiums will increase by 0.1% on all loans under $625,000 and 0.35% on mortgage amounts above that, effective June 1.

William McCue, president of McCue Mortgage Co. in New Britain, Conn., which does a sizable percentage of its business with the FHA, said the cumulative effect of all these increases “will not just crowd first-time buyers out of the FHA market, it will prevent them from owning a home that, absent these new costs, would be affordable.”

Bottom line: Nail down your FHA money and seller-contribution negotiations as soon as you can because later looks a lot more expensive.

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