MONEY

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke Can’t Refinance His Home

Even former central bankers can't get a loan

If you’ve failed to get a loan in this market, don’t feel too bad. Not even central bankers can catch a break–as Ben Bernanke, who chaired the Federal Reserve from 2006 through February of 2014, recently revealed that he has been unable to refinance his home.

“Just between the two of us, ” Bernanke told the moderator at a recent conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage and I was unsuccessful in doing so,” Bloomberg reports.

The audience laughed.

“I’m not making this up,” Bernanke insisted.

Bernanke also complained that stringent credit standards have made the process for first-time homebuyers excessively difficult, especially as economic conditions have improved. “The housing area is one area where regulation has not yet got it right,” Bernanke said. “I think the tightness of mortgage credit, lending is still probably excessive.”

As of press time, there is no word on whether current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been denied for an auto loan.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Money

PayPal Co-Founder Takes Aim at Credit Card Industry With New Startup

Yelp Chairman Max Levchin Creates New Mobile Payments Startup Affirm
Max Levchin speaks during a Bloomberg West television interview in San Francisco on Thursday, March 28, 2013. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

“You have to have a credit card. You have to use it. You are going to get screwed and you know it."

The most miserable year of Max Levchin’s life began in 2002, shortly after he sold off his ownership stake in PayPal to eBay for an estimated $34 million. “At the time, I had a fascination with the color yellow,” Levchin told TIME. He would arrive to work in a yellow car, wearing a yellow jumpsuit and hole up in his executive suite, blending in with the all-yellow office paraphernalia. His former direct reports, who numbered in the hundreds, shuffled past the door, “staring at me every morning,” he recalls, “as I would sort of mope around going, ‘My baby’s now been sold to a giant company’ while wearing a yellow clown suit.”

He was 27 years old, flush with cash and adrift in an ocean of downtime. If that sounds like your idea of heaven, then you’re no Levchin. “I literally — I think I started hearing voices,” he says. His girlfriend left him. He wrote 10,000 lines of code, a “minuscule amount,” he insists. His friend persuaded him to take a scenic drive along the Oregon coast. “We saw a lot of very beautiful places,” he says, “and I don’t remember any of it other than the fact that Oregon is a really messed up state, economically.”

Nothing could lift his spirits, short of launching another company, which he did in 2004. It was called Slide, and it was a fun ride down the chute toward another sale in 2010 to Google for $182 million, Levchin says.

Today, he knows better than to slip back into the interminable boredom of easy living. He’s in the thick of a third venture, Affirm, and to sop up the last waning moments of his spare time, he also oversees an investment fund called HVF, short for “Hard, Valuable and Fun.” “Fun” has a very peculiar definition in this case — referring to any massive, globe-spanning problem that Levchin might get to noodle over in his scrappy new office in downtown San Francisco.

Affirm’s 32 employees have set up shop on a quiet street lined by venerable brick buildings, some of which withstood the great fire and earthquake of 1906 and have the commemorative plaques to prove it. Here, Levchin is thriving in his element. His girlfriend came back. They got married and had two kids. He still favors the style of clothing that might diplomatically be called “start-up chic,” a puffy sleeveless winter vest, unzipped and revealing a weathered t-shirt that practically whispers, “I’ve got bigger things to worry about than shopping.”

In fact, though, he does worry about shopping. Obsessively. Levchin has been visiting retailers across the country, asking about the state of consumer lending. He sums it up grimly: “You have to have a credit card. You have to use it. You are going to get screwed and you know it.”

Millennials are ditching the plastic in droves. More than 6 in 10 of them say they have never signed up for a credit card, a group that has doubled in size since the financial collapse of 2007. Evidently they’d rather scrimp on their purchases than get snagged on finely printed fees or mired in debt. “Which is wrong,” Levchin says. “If you are living hand to mouth every month you’re not going to improve your standard of living and you’re not going to scale up.”

Enter Affirm, a startup that that offers consumers the option to split payments over time, which a growing number of online retailers have added to their checkout pages. Users can get instantly approved for a loan by tapping their personal phone numbers into Affirm’s welcome page. From that phone number Affirm launches into the murky world of online data. “It anchors you to a whole host of information that is entirely public, or pretty close to public,” says Levchin. It can scan for social information across social media or dip into proprietary marketing databases or combine that with credit histories. In total, the Affirm team has identified more than 70,000 personal qualities that it thinks could predict a user’s likelihood of paying back a loan. If old fashioned credit scores provide a fixed, black and white portrait of the borrower, Affirm claims to capture that borrower in full, moving technicolor.

The company is so confident in its claims that it puts its own money on the line, extending loans to people who are normally considered a risky gamble. Active duty soldiers, for instance, return home with scant credit histories. A raft of regulations require lenders to extend credit to the soldiers, even if the decision goes against their better judgement. As a result, lenders have historically eyed returning soldiers with suspicion.

“I couldn’t care less about the narrative of why that might be true,” Levchin says, “except that I know it’s actually not. From all the loans that we’ve issued I think we’ve had literally 100% repayment rate from active duty servicemen.” Of course, military service is just one of at least 70,000 variables that can tip Affirm in the user’s favor. The formula is complex by design, so that no user can game the system by, say, posting “brain surgeon” as a new job on LinkedIn and then requesting a fat line of credit.

Whether Affirm will truly upend the rules of lending or foolishly rushed in where lenders fear to tread will depend on its ability to collect interest on loans without resorting to hidden fees. After all, credit card companies do that for a reason: It’s lucrative. Affirm, on the other hand, actually alerts users to approaching payment deadlines and clearly states fee rates before they arrive.

In short, Affirm has to lend at the right rates to the right people. Fortunately for the company, it has $45 million of venture capital to test run its unified theory of lending. It also has no shortage of potential competitors circling in on the hotly contested field of smartphone payments, from Apple Pay, to Google, to Levchin’s old “baby,” PayPal, all competing for the same “under-serviced” customers, as he put it.

But perhaps Affirm’s greatest asset is Levchin himself, who was practically bred for this kind of work. His mother was a radiologist at a Soviet-era research institute, where she was tasked with extracting reliable measurements from Geiger counters. The old Soviet era instruments spewed out a tremendous amount of error data. Her manager dropped a computer on her desk and asked her to program her way to a more reliable reading. Stumped, she turned to her 11-year-old son and asked, ”Do you know anything about this stuff?” The question kicked off Levchin’s life-long love affair with programming, and it made him acutely aware of what data a machine can capture, and what essential points might elude its sensors. He points out that a heartbeat counter may measure 64 beats per minute, but it almost certainly misses a number of half-beats along the way. Affirm, in a sense, listens for those missed beats.

“The fact that we can look at data, pull it, and underwrite a loan for you in real-time is very valuable, because we can literally decide, ‘Hey, in the last 48 hours you got a new job, that changes things a little bit. Now you’re able to afford more,'” Levchin says.

Maybe that’s a hasty gamble, or maybe it’s sound financing. In either case, it’s Levchin’s idea of fun.

MONEY alternative assets

How to Play Banker to Your Peers

IOU note
Getty Images

Lending Club's IPO filing puts peer-to-peer lending in the spotlight. If you're thinking about opening your wallet, here's what you need to know.

UPDATED—2:01 P.M.

Your bank makes money off borrowers. Now you have the opportunity to do the same. One of today’s hottest investments, peer-to-peer lending, involves making loans to strangers over the Internet and counting on them to pay you back with interest. The concept may be a bit wacky, but the returns reported by sites specializing in this transaction—from 7% to 14%—are nothing to scoff at.

Investors aren’t laughing either. Lending Club, one of the leading peer-to-peer lending companies, filed to go public on Wednesday. The New York Times reports the company is seeking $500 million as a preliminary fundraising target and may choose to increase that figure.

Such lofty ambitions should be no surprise, considering that the two biggest P2P sites are growing like gangbusters. With Wall Street firms and pension funds pouring in money as well, Lending Club issued more than $2 billion of loans in 2013, and nearly tripled its business over the prior year. In July, Prosper originated $153.8 million in loans, representing a year-over-year increase of over 400%. The company recently passed $1 billion in total lending. “A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea that these sites would revolutionize banking,” says Curtis Arnold, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Person to Person Lending. “They haven’t yet, but I’m not laughing anymore.”

Here’s what to know before opening your wallet.

How P2P Works

To start investing, you simply transfer money to an account on one of the sites, then pick loans to fund. When Prosper launched in 2006, borrowers were urged to write in personal stories. Nowadays the process is more formal: Lenders mainly use matching tools to select loans—either one by one or in a bundle—based on criteria like credit rating or desired return. (Most borrowers are looking to refi credit-card debt anyway.) Loans are in three- and five-year terms. And the sites both use a default investment of $25, though you can opt to fund more of any given loan. Pricing is based on risk, so loans to borrowers with the worst credit offer the best interest rates.

Once a loan is fully funded, you’ll get monthly payments in your account—principal plus interest, less a 1% fee. Keep in mind that interest is taxable at your income tax rate, though you can opt to direct the money to an IRA to defer taxes.

A few hurdles: First, not every state permits individuals to lend. Lending Club is open to lenders in 26 states; Prosper is in 30 states plus D.C. Even if you are able to participate, you might have trouble finding loans because of the recent influx of institutional investors. “Depending on how much you’re looking to invest and how specific you are about the characteristics, it can take up to a few weeks to deploy money in my experience,” says Marc Prosser, publisher of LearnBonds.com and a Lending Club investor.

What Risks You Face

For the average-risk loan on Lending Club, returns in late 2013 averaged 8% to 9%, with a default rate of 2% to 4% since 2009. By contrast, junk bonds, which have had similar default rates, are yielding 5.7%. But P2P default rates apply only to the past few years, when the economy has been on an upswing; should it falter, the percentage of defaults could rise dramatically. In 2009, for example, Prosper’s default rate hit almost 30% (though its rate is now similar to Lending Club’s). Moreover, adds Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth, “a peer loan is unsecured. If it defaults, your money is gone.”

How to Do It Right

Spread your bets. Lending Club and Prosper both urge investors to diversify as much as possible.

Stick to higher quality. Should the economy turn, the lowest-grade loans will likely see the largest spike in defaults, so it’s better to stay in the middle to upper range—lower A to C on the sites’ rating scales. (The highest A loans often don’t pay much more than safer options.)

Stay small. Until P2P lending is more time-tested, says Roth, it’s best to limit your investment to less than 5% of your total portfolio. “Don’t bank the future of your family on this,” he adds.

TIME

6 Surprising Reasons You Can’t Get That Credit Card

Even if you have good credit

Even if you think you have good credit, even if you get a “preapproved” credit card offer in the mail, you can still be shot down when you apply for a credit card. What gives?

Credit experts say there are a few obvious reasons — like blowing off bills regularly or having a recent bankruptcy — that can get you denied. There are also some more surprising reasons why you might have trouble getting a credit card.

You don’t have enough credit. Some people pat themselves on the back for having only a single credit card, or none at all. No credit cards or other obligations like mortgages or car loans, may mean you’re just frugal and really good with your money. But it makes you a cipher to credit card companies. “Lenders prefer being able to review a track record of how a person has managed credit in the past,” the National Foundation for Credit Counseling says. Without that, there’s a good chance they might not gamble on the unknown.

You’re going too fast. “It’s a red flag if a person is attempting to obtain too much credit at one time,” the NFCC says. Yes, this might seem counter to the idea that you need to build up your credit to get more credit. The key, though, is to build that credit history slowly. If an issuer sees that you just got a few new credit cards, they might wonder if you’re going to be able to handle one more.

You fell for that “preapproval” pitch. All that junk mail you get that says you’re preapproved doesn’t mean a thing, says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com. “Those offers are prescreened, but when consumers respond, an actual, full screening will take place,” she says. That more extensive look at your finances could catch a red flag the system’s earlier, less in-depth review missed.

You follow the 30% rule. The conventional wisdom is that you should keep your credit utilization ratio — that is, how much credit you have outstanding as a percentage of your credit limit — to 30% or lower. In reality, even a reasonable-sounding 30% might be too high for some skittish lenders. “The lower the utilization ratio the better,” says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. The amount of debt you have makes up 30% of your FICO credit score, so too much outstanding debt compared to your limit (that’s both per card and in the aggregate, FYI) can turn off a lender.

You’re double-dipping. “If you are trying to take advantage of the same bonus offer you already nabbed, your application may be denied,” Detweiler says. On a related note, if you already have multiple cards from the same issuer, you may not be approved for another one, Arnold says, especially if you’re trying to hit up the same bank for a balance transfer deal.

Somebody else messed up. Mistakes happen, and one on your credit report can keep you from getting a card, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO and founder of Evolution Finance. Go to annualcreditreport.com to see your credit report for free. Don’t fall for similar-sounding sites; they might be trying to sell you an expensive credit-monitoring subscription. Go through the report and, if you find a mistake, Papadimitriou says sites like CardHub.com (which his company owns) offer guides for how to dispute credit report errors.

MONEY Banking

Get Paid Before Payday Without Any Fees, New App Promises

ActiveHours app screenshot

A payday loan alternative called Activehours promises employees that they can get paid immediately for the hours they've worked, without having to wait for a paycheck—and with no fees.

Payday lenders are often compared to loansharking operations. Critics say such lenders prey on people so desperately in need of quick cash that they unwittingly sign up for loans that wind up costing them absurdly high interest rates. According to Pew Charitable Trusts research from 2012, the typical payday loan borrower takes out eight short-term loans annually, with an average loan amount of $375 each, and over the course of a year pays $520 in interest.

These short-term loans are marketed as a means to hold one over until payday, but what happens too often is that the borrower is unable to pay back the loan in full when a paycheck arrives. The borrower then rolls over the original payday loan into a new one, complete with new fees, and each subsequent loan is even more difficult to pay off.

You can see how quickly and easily the debt can snowball. And you can see why payday loans are demonized—and mocked, as John Oliver just did hilariously on “Last Week Tonight”:

You can also see why many people would be interested in an alternative that isn’t as much of a rip-off. Payday loan alternatives have popped up occasionally, with better terms than the typical check-cashing operation. Now, Activehours, a startup in Palo Alto that just received $4.1 million in seed funding, is taking quite a different approach: Instead of offering a short-term loan, the app allows hourly employees to get paid right away for the hours they’ve already worked, regardless of the usual paycheck cycle.

What’s more (and this is what really seems like the crazy part), Activehours charges no fees whatsoever. In lieu of fees, Activehours asks users to give a 100% voluntary tip of some sort as thanks for the service.

There may be more than one reason you’re now thinking, “Huh?” On its FAQ page, Activehours explains that the service is available to anyone who gets paid hourly via direct deposit at a bank and keeps track of hours with an online timesheet. Once you’re signed up, you can elect to get paid for some or all of the hours you’ve worked (minus taxes and deductions) as soon as you’ve worked them. In other words, if you want to get paid for the hours you worked on, say, Monday, there’s no need to wait for your paycheck on Friday. As soon as your Monday workday is over, you can log in to Activehours, request payment, and you’ll get paid electronically by the next morning. When official payday rolls around, Activehours withdraws the amount they’re fronted from the user’s account.

As for voluntary tips instead of service or loan fees, Activehours claims the policy is based on something of a philosophical stance: “We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience.” Activehours swears that the no-fee model is no gimmick. “Some people look at the model and think we’re crazy,” Activehours founder Ram Palaniappan told Wired, “but we tested it and found the model is sufficient to building a sustainable business.”

“People aren’t used to the model, so they think it’s too good to be true,” Palaniappan also said. “They’re judging us with a standard that’s completely terrible. What we’re doing is not too good to be true. It’s what we’ve been living with that’s too bad to be allowed.”

Yet Activehours’ curiously warm and neighborly, no-fee business model is actually one of reasons consumer advocates caution against using the service. “At first glance, this looks like a low-cost alternative to other emergency fixes such as payday loans,” Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said via email in response to our inquiry about Activehours. “However, a person who is so grateful, so relieved to have the $100 runs the risk of becoming a big tipper, not realizing that their way of saying thanks just cost them a very high APR on an annualized basis. A $10 tip on a $100 loan for two weeks is 260% APR – ouch!”

Consumer watchdog groups also don’t endorse Activehours because it’s a bad idea for anyone to grow accustomed to relying on such a service, rather than traditional savings—and an emergency stash of cash to boot. Access your money early with the service, and you’re apt to be out of money when bills come due, Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, warned. “If there isn’t enough paycheck at the end of the week this week, then that may be a sign of longer-term financial imbalance,” he explained.

“Everyone thinks they’ll use the service ‘just this once,’ yet it becomes such an easy fix that they end up addicted to the easy money,” said Cunningham. “A much better answer is to probe to find the underlying financial problem and put a permanent solution in place. I would say that if a person has had to use non-traditional service more than three times in a 12-month period, it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and meet with a financial counselor to resolve the cash-flow issue.”

The other aspect of Activehours that could be a deal breaker for some is the requirement of a bank account and direct deposit: Many of the workers who are most likely to find payday loans appealing are those without bank accounts.

Still, for those who are eligible and find themselves in a jam, Activehours could be a more sensible move once in a blue moon, at least when compared to feeling forced to turn to a high-fee payday loan outfit over and over.

MORE: I am unable to pay my debts. What can I do?

MORE: How can I make it easier to save?

MONEY Credit

WATCH: Credit Score Calculations Just Changed In Your Favor

FICO is decreasing the impact of medical debt on credit scores, which should make it easier for consumers to get loans.

MONEY mortgages

WATCH: How You Can Benefit from Easier Mortgages

Mortgage loans are easier to get now. Here's how you can take advantage of it.

MONEY mortgages

Getting a Mortgage Is Growing Easier

A new report shows credit is more available for homebuyers- even for the self-employed, a group that has previously had trouble securing loans.

Being approved for a mortgage has gotten a little easier for consumers with good credit, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve. The bad news is that standards are still tighter than pre-recession levels, and banks won’t be further loosening them for a while.

The July report, which surveys senior loan officers about their banks’ lending practices, shows almost one-fourth—23.9%—of all banks eased their credit standards in the last three months for borrowers with solid credit and incomes. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the largest such action by lenders since the financial crisis.

Keith Gumbinger, vice president at mortgage research firm HSH, says that while loans can still be difficult for some consumers to get, banks are approving borrowers with slightly lower credit scores. Previously, Gumbinger says, banks required a FICO score of about 640 to approve a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration, called an FHA loan. Now applicants with scores as low as 600 are getting the green light.

In July Wells Fargo lowered the minimum credit score needed for a jumbo loan to 700, down from 720, according to Reuters. Jumbo mortgages are generally necessary for consumers who need to borrow more than $417,000. Most banks have stricter requirements for jumbos than they do for smaller loans.

What’s behind the easing? In short, banks are becoming less paranoid. Technically, the government will underwrite FHA loans given to those with credit scores as low as 580. However, banks are reluctant to lend to borrowers with such low scores because a certain number of defaults will cause the feds to pull their backing. As a result, many lenders require FICO scores above those minimums, or other additional requirements—collectively known as “overlays”—to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What’s more, in recent months housing prices have been going up. “If you’re a lender and you make a loan to someone when home prices are rising, and [the loan] fails, well then congratulations,” Gumbinger jokes.

One group benefitting from the changes is the self-employed, who tend to have fluctuating incomes. Since the housing crash, this group has found it extremely difficult to get credit because their unconventional or inconsistent income streams failed to meet the Qualified Mortgage standard that protects banks in case a loan goes south. As a result, lenders willing to give out non-QM loans had been demanding down payments as high as 35%, even from borrowers with a relatively high FICO score. Gumbinger says lenders are now more willing to look for other positive qualities, like a large number of assets or equities, or a higher credit score, instead of asking for huge sums of money up front.

The loosening is good for prospective homebuyers who previously may have just missed most banks’ credit cut-off. What’s not good is there’s not much room to go from here in terms of lowering credit standards further. Banks theoretically have wide latitude to change requirements, and as housing prices go up they may loosen them further, but the primary determinant of who can get a loan are the credit limits set by government mortgage backers who securitize most of the mortgage industry.

Those limits are set by politicians, not bankers, and asking the voting public to allow less dependable mortgages is not exactly an easy sell, especially since bad loans helped cause the financial crisis.

“You’re the head of the [Federal Housing Finance Agency], you lost billions and recovered billions, do you go stand before the American people and say in order to save the housing market we need riskier loans?” asks Gumbinger. “You may not want to put the American taxpayer at risk.”

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Get the Best Rate on a Mortgage

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Improve your Credit Score

MONEY Debt

9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors

iPhone submerged in water
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

More than a third of Americans have debts reported to collection agencies. If you're one of them, here are the repayment and negotiating strategies you need to know.

Today’s encouraging economic news notwithstanding, plenty of Americans are still struggling with their own personal economies. According to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute, more than 35% of Americans have debt that has been reported to collection agencies. What’s more, the share of consumers in collections hasn’t changed, even as overall credit-card debt has decreased in recent years.

If you’re one of the many people being dunned for delinquent credit-card, hospital, or other bills, it’s easy to feel intimidated by collection agencies and confused about the repayment process. But rather than panicking and avoiding your collector’s many calls—and there will be many—here are 9 ways to gain the upper hand in negotiations and, most important, keep from paying a penny more than you have to.

1. Don’t Get Emotional

When a debt collector calls, he’s trying to assess your ability to pay and may attempt to get you to say or agree to things you shouldn’t. You’d be best served by keeping the initial call short and businesslike. Collection agencies are required by law to send you a written notice of how much you owe five days after initially contacting you. Wait to engage with them until after you receive this letter.

2. Make Sure the Debt Is Really Yours

If the debt sounds unfamiliar, check your credit reports. Request a report from each of the three credit bureaus for free from annualcreditreport.com and scan for any incorrect data. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in 20 consumers could have errors in their reports, and 24% of the mistakes people reported were about a debt collection that wasn’t actually theirs. (Learn more about how to fix costly credit report errors.)

3. Ask for Proof

Once you get written notice, contact the debt collector. If you are disputing the debt because of an error or identity theft, send a letter to the collector by certified mail within 30 days of receiving your notice stating that you will not pay and why. Also notify each of the three credit bureaus by mail, explaining the error and including documentation so that the problem can be removed from your report. If you are unsure about whether you owe money or how much you owe, ask the collector by certified mail for verification of the debt. That should silence the calls for a while; collectors must suspend activity until they’ve sent you verification of the debt.

4. Resist the Scare Tactics

Some debt collectors may try a range of tricks to get you to pay up, but it’s important to know your rights. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collectors cannot use abusive or obscene language, harass you with repeated calls, call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., call you at work if you’ve asked them to stop, talk to a third party about your debt, claim to be an attorney or law enforcement, threaten to sue unless they intend to take legal action, or threaten to garnish wages or seize property unless they actually intend to. If the agency commits a violation, file a complaint with the FTC and your state Attorney General, and consider talking to an attorney about bringing your own private action against the collector for breaking the law.

5. Be Wary of Fees

Typically, the contract you agreed to when you took out the loan or signed up for the line of credit states how much interest a collector can charge on your debt. Most states have laws in place capping the amount of interest agencies can tack on. Check the balance the original creditor listed as “charged off” on your credit report. If there is a big increase in the amount the collector wants, consult your original contract. Your verification letter may also give you more info about how fees are calculated. If you believe the debt has been inflated, reach out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which might be able to resolve your issue with the collector.

6. Negotiate

Collection agencies will push you to pay the full debt at once, but if that is not an option for you, tell them how much you can afford to pay and ask if they will settle for that amount. If they accept these terms, get confirmation of the deal in writing before you pay. This way, you avoid any miscommunication about the total to be paid and time frame for the payments.

7. Call In Backup

If you and the debt collector can’t reach an agreement and it appears likely they will take you to court, consider hiring an attorney. While the fees and costs of doing so may be prohibitive, the collection agency is more likely to drop the case in favor of easier targets, a.k.a debtors without attorney representation.

8. Know the Time Limits

Creditors may imply that court action can be taken against if you don’t pay up, and while that’s true, there is only a certain window of time—typically three to six years—in which a creditor can sue you over the debt. While you’ll still owe the money, and collectors may still call about it, creditors cannot take you to court over it once it’s past your state’s statute of limitations. Statutes vary widely by state and type of debt, so check your state’s specific rules if the collector is calling about older debts.

9. Don’t Get Tripped Up By Your Own Good Intentions

Collectors can’t legally “re-age” your debt by giving it a new delinquency date, but you can inadvertently extend the statute of limitations or restart the clock in some states by making a payment on old debt, agreeing to an extended repayment plan, or even acknowledging that the debts is yours.

More Help for Conquering Debt:

3 Simple Steps to Get Out of Debt

7 Ways to Improve Your Credit

Which Debts Should I Pay Off First?

 

 

MONEY mortgages

The Best Loan You’ve Never Heard Of—And How You Can Get One

140618_money_gen_14
charles taylor—iStock

Does a home loan with no down payment and decent rates sound too good to be true? It isn't.

No money down, better rates than an FHA loan, and the ability to finance closing costs. It may sound too good to be true, but in fact it’s a U.S. Department of Agriculture guaranteed rural development loan, and now is your best chance to get one.

Before we get into the details, a bit of background. The USDA provides extremely attractive loans to people in certain rural locations, as an enticement to settle down and develop new areas of the country. The Department of Agriculture uses population data from the US Census and other factors to determine which areas of the country count as “rural,” and then allows buyers in these areas (who meet a few other requirements) to get a USDA-backed loan from an approved lender.

If you’re a candidate for one of these loans, there’s no time like the present to apply. Here’s what you need to know.

What Makes USDA Loans Special?

Ag Department-backed financing is so attractive because it requires no money down but still has rates competitive with other government mortgage products. FHA loans, the most common type of government loan, require a 3.5% down payment at minimum, and saddle low-credit buyers with costly mortgage insurance premiums. USDA mortgages only require a small annual fee (a fraction of the FHA’s rates) and an upfront premium of 2% of the loan amount. However, that premium can be rolled into the mortgage, giving buyers the option of getting financed with a 0% down payment.

What’s The Catch?

The catch is the Department of Agriculture limits who can get one of these loans. If you make more than 115% of your area’s median income or already have “adequate housing,” you’re not eligible for USDA financing. You’re also required to purchase housing that is “modest in size, design, and cost” and meets various building codes.

Then there’s the matter of credit. Technically, the USDA doesn’t have a strict credit minimum, but most lenders are reluctant to sign off on anyone with a score south of 620. That’s more than 100 points higher than credit limits for FHA loans, which require a minimum FICO score of 500 for buyers willing to put down 10% up front. The good news is buyers can offset poor credit by showing mitigating factors like a healthy bank balance or a monthly rent bill higher than the home’s future mortgage payments. You can read the details of buyer and property requirements on the USDA’s website.

Most important, you must live in a specific area defined by the USDA as rural. The department provides a map showing which regions are eligible here.

Why Is Now The Best Time To Get One?

Remember how the USDA decides which areas are eligible for these loans based on census data? Well, the Department of Agriculture hasn’t actually updated its map since 2000, and a lot has happened in the last 14 years. Many areas that were previously considered rural, and therefore eligible for USDA financing, have become regular suburbs. According to a 2011 study by Housing Assistance Council, 97% of the country’s land mass, an area that includes 109 million people, is eligible for a USDA loan. That means about one in three people lived in regions that were USDA eligible when the report was published.

Unfortunately, the ride is almost over. The USDA plans to update the eligibility map with 2010 census figures this October. The Housing Assistance Council estimated that the new information will make 7.8 million people ineligible for USDA financing unless they move to areas within the new eligibility zone.

In reality, the change is going to effect significantly fewer people than that, thanks to congressional action that grandfathered in many areas. However, the USDA told Money.com they don’t yet have exact numbers on how many Americans will no longer live in rural areas after the update, so if you’re eligible now and looking for a loan, it’s better to be safe than sorry. At least some at the department anticipate a rush to get financing before the old rules expire. “We’re going to get inundated,” predicts Neal Hayes, Housing Programs Director for the New Jersey USDA state office.

How Do I Get One Before My Area Is Made Ineligible?

The current map expires on September 30th. That means a USDA-approved lender needs to have submitted a complete, fully underwritten application package to the department’s relevant state office by no later than close of business September 30, 2014, or the application will be considered under new, less favorable requirements.

What If I Already Have a USDA Loan? Can I Still Refinance If My Area Loses Eligibility?

Don’t worry. If you’ve already got a USDA mortgage, you’re done worrying about regional eligibility requirements. As long as you still meet other requirements, you should be able to refinance.

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