Federal agency wants homeowners to refinance before time runs out


WASHINGTON — In the past five years, more than 3 million borrowers who had little or no equity in their homes refinanced into cheaper mortgages using a federal program that’s been widely hailed as a success.

Yet there remain 676,000 loans eligible for the Home Affordable Refinance Program (or HARP), according to federal estimates, and neither the regulators nor the lenders can figure out how to get these homeowners to bite before the program expires at the end of 2015.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is trying. It’s reinvigorating its push to reach the homeowners who can benefit, starting with a kick-off event Tuesday in Chicago, where regulators and housing advocates gathered in a town hall-type setting to pitch HARP to area residents.

Mel Watt, who took over as head of FHFA in January, said that homeowners who refinance through HARP save an average of $191 a month. But people are not stepping forward to cash in on the savings, Watt told the Chicago audience.

“We have written to them. We have called them, and they’re saying this is too good to be true,” said Watt. The housing meltdown has made homeowners wary of scams, he said. They don’t believe the deals offered through HARP, which caters only to borrowers who are current on their mortgages, yet the government is itching to reach these hesitant borrowers, Watt added.

“You are the most reliable borrowers we have because even in the worst of the crisis you have continued to pay your mortgage on a regular basis and we want to reward you if you would just come and say: ‘Yes. I would like to take advantage of HARP,’ ” Watt said.

But experts who track the issue say getting more people to refinance through the program may be a hard sell. They say the low-hanging fruit has been picked and the rest who are eligible are either suspicious of the program or simply not interested.

Lenders have sunk lots of money into marketing HARP to eligible borrowers, said David Stevens, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “They’re pulling out all the stops to get the phones to ring, but the response is still low.”

Some consumers can’t be bothered, apparently believing refinancing seems too much of a hassle. Others may have been paying their mortgages for a long time and they have a small loan balance. They may figure that the payment savings or spreading out a loan over a new 15- or 30-year term doesn’t make sense, Stevens said.

Then there’s what Stevens describes as the communication gap. “Either the borrowers don’t trust the information they’re getting from their lender or they don’t trust the process,” he said.

HARP got off to a slow start when it was launched in early 2009. But it took off three years later after some major tweaking and streamlining by FHFA, which runs the program.

As it now stands, borrowers who took out loans before June 1, 2009, and have less than 20 percent equity in their homes are eligible — if the loans are backed by mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To qualify, borrowers also must be current on their loans, meaning they’ve been on time with their mortgage payments for the previous six months and have not been late on more than one payment in the past year.

The program came in response to the housing crisis, when home values plunged, diminishing property values and wiping out the equity that millions of people had in their homes, making it tough for them to refinance or sell if they ran into financial trouble.

Originally, the program targeted borrowers whose loan balances were slightly higher than their property values so that they could take advantage of low interest rates. But the initiative was later expanded to include “underwater” borrowers, who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

Underwater borrowers are especially vulnerable to foreclosure, and the hope was that lowering their payments would lessen their chances of falling behind on their mortgages. FHFA says that borrowers who refinanced through HARP had a lower delinquency rate than those who were eligible for the program but did not use it to refinance.

While the deadline to apply for HARP has been extended several times, there’s no word on whether it will be again.