MONEY Debt

Americans Are Taking on More Debt—Again

Is it time to worry?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then Americans are starting to look a little batty: The average American’s consumer debt is climbing back to the highest levels since we exited the Great Recession. At the same time, however, mortgage payments are declining thanks to the current low home prices. So should Americans we be worried about the uptrend in consumer debt?

Debt on the rise

According to the Federal Reserve, Americans’ appetite for loans is increasing again. The amount of revolving credit outstanding, which primarily reflects credit card debt, totaled $882.1 billion in November, up from $853.3 a year prior. The amount of student loan debt outstanding has climbed from $1.21 trillion to $1.3 trillion; auto debt outstanding has grown from $866.4 billion to $943.8 billion; and mortgage debt outstanding increased $35 billion between the second and third quarter to $8.13 trillion. As of the third quarter, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York pegs Americans’ total debt at $11.71 trillion.

Those numbers may look great to banks like Wells Fargo WELLS FARGO & COMPANY WFC -0.99% , which rely on rising loan volume to pad earnings, but they should be worrisome to American consumers, because they suggest millions of people are spending more money paying down debt and less money saving for a rainy day or retirement.

Straining balance sheets

In the past year, the amount of revolving debt taken on by consumers has grown by 3.3% — nearly double the rate of growth in the average American’s income. As a result, the percentage of the average American’s disposable income that goes toward paying monthly consumer debt payments — such as credit cards, student loans, and auto loans (but not mortgages) — has increased for seven consecutive quarters to 5.3%.

Although the percentage of disposable income that goes toward consumer debt payments still remains below its prior peaks, the current trend could be worrisome, especially if it ends up mirroring the trend that followed the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s.

Is this a big deal?

Although Americans are paying a greater share of their disposable income to finance consumer debt than they were a year ago, there’s little evidence to suggest that consumers are anywhere near a tipping point that could cause budgets to buckle, spending to sag, and the U.S. economy to slide. In fact, the bigger picture of household debt is much less worrisome than those consumer debt figures.

The financial obligations ratio — a broad measure that, unlike the debt-service-to-obligations ratio, includes rent payments, home owner’s insurance, and property tax payments — is at its lowest levels since the early 1980s. And the total debt-service ratio, which includes consumer debt andmortgages, stands close to 35-year lows at 9.9%. Thus these more comprehensive measures paint a much prettier picture of the average American’s financial situation than the consumer debt payment ratio alone.

Everything is OK — for now

With lower mortgage payments offsetting higher payments on credit cards, student loans, and auto loans, household debt isn’t likely to sink our economy — at least not yet. However, that could change if home prices inch their way higher and mortgage interest rates start to climb. If that happens, then higher monthly mortgage payments could be cause for concern that the average American’s debt has indeed become a problem again.

MONEY mortgages

The Case for Refinancing Your Mortgage—Now

houses with the number 7.3 in them
Adam Voorhes If you're one of the 7.3 million homeowners who could benefit from a refinance, now might be your best chance for a while.

After falling through the first weeks of the new year, mortgage rates are starting to tick up.

At its meeting last week, the Fed did as expected and said it would hold interest rates steady in the near term. While the announcement did little to calm skittish markets, the news could spell opportunity for another group: homeowners who might benefit from a mortgage refinance.

As of the end of last week, the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage stood at 3.8%, down from 4.39% a year ago and close to the 19-month low set in mid-January. After falling through the first weeks of the new year, rates are starting to tick up. If you are one of the more than 7 million borrowers identified by mortgage analytics firm Black Knight Financial Services—folks paying over 4.5% and with good credit and at least 20% equity—now could be time to refinance.

It’s worth considering if you think you can shave off a half-point or more. Here’s how to get started:

Go local. Start by calling your existing lender, which already has all of your information and may be willing to cut you a deal on fees (expect to pay up to 2% of the principal). But don’t stop there: Compare that offer to same-day quotes from at least two other lenders, including a credit union, says Bankrate’s Greg McBride.

Think big picture. Even if you’ll be in the house long enough to break even on refinancing fees, don’t forget about the total cost of the loan. For instance, say you’re 10 years into a $200,000, 30-year mortgage at 5.7%. Refinancing into another 30-year loan at 3.8% will save you $390 per month, but you’ll essentially break even on the total cost—and you’ve added a another decade of payments. (Try an online refinancing calculator to see how much you might save.)

Shorten up. For the best deal over the long term, trim the length of your loan. The rates for a 15-year fixed dropped to 3.1% in mid-January, so refinancing that same 30-year mortgage into a 15-year fixed loan will have little effect on your monthly payments, but will save you a whopping $69,000 by the end of the term. If you can’t stretch that far, run the numbers for a 20- or 25-year fixed at the new rate. Alternately, refinance for 30 years and use your monthly savings to prepay your mortgage, suggests HSH’s Keith Gumbinger: “That could accomplish what you want, and if things get a little pinched you don’t have to send in the prepayment.”

Read more about mortgages:
How do I get the best rate on a mortgage?
What mortgage is right for me?

MONEY buying a home

‘Boomerang’ Buyers Set to Surge Back Into Housing Market

Normandy Shores open house for sale, Miami Beach, Florida, 2014
Jeff Greenberg—Alamy The Miami area is one that could see an influx of 'boomerang' buyers—those who lost a home to foreclosure but are ready to get back in the market.

More than 7 million homeowners who suffered a foreclosure or short sale during the housing crisis are poised to become buyers again.

Over the next eight years, nearly 7.3 million Americans who lost their homes in the housing crash will become creditworthy enough to buy again, according to a new analysis.

RealtyTrac, a real estate information company and online marketplace for foreclosed properties, estimates that these “boomerang buyers”—those who suffered a foreclosure or short sale between 2007 and 2014—are rapidly approaching, or already past, the seven-year window “conservatively” needed to repair their credit.

This year, the firm expects, more than 550,000 of these buyers could be in a position to get back into the market. The number of newly creditworthy individuals will then top 1 million between 2016 and 2019 and gradually decline to about 455,000 in 2022.

Screenshot 2015-01-27 10.30.07

RealtyTrac notes that the return of these former homeowners could have a strong effect on housing markets with a particular appeal to the boomerang demographic: areas with “a high percentage of housing units lost to foreclosure but where current home prices are still affordable for median income earners” and a healthy population of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, “the two generations most likely to be boomerang buyers.”

Based on those criteria, the analysis targets metro areas surrounding Phoenix (with an estimated 348,329 potential boomerang buyers), Miami (322,141), and Detroit (304,501) as the most likely to see an uptick in return buyers.

Chris Pollinger, senior vice president of sales at First Team Real Estate, told RealtyTrac that previously foreclosed Americans shouldn’t rule out another try at homeownership. “The housing crisis certainly hit home the fact that homeownership is not for everyone, but those burned during the crisis should not immediately throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to their second chance,” Pollinger said.

Here are the top 10 areas that could see a boom in boomerang buyers:

RealtyTrac

 

TIME Money

How Millennials’ Sense of Entitlement Could Benefit You

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

They want perks, and banks want them

The days when you could earn rewards from your bank might seem as distant as the era when you’d get a toaster for opening an account. Still, more people today — especially young adults and wealthy Americans — expect their bank to reward them.

A new Bank of America survey looks at the attitudes different groups of bank customers have towards rewards and find that young people, in particular, want rewards in some cases just for doing stuff they should be doing in the first place, like paying their mortgage on time.

Believe it or not, they might get what they want. That has the potential to benefit other bank customers, as well. “Financial institutions should pay attention to this growing demand,” says Aron Levine, head of BofA’s Preferred Banking and Merrill Edge.

Millennials are a demanding bunch. They, more than other age brackets, agree with the statement, “It’s important to me that my bank reward me for responsibly maintaining my accounts with them instead of only rewarding me for obtaining a new product or service.”

“Rewards are often as much of the value proposition as product and pricing,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

Young adults are the most confident that their money is working for them and most likely to believe that they’re financially savvy than any other age group. But they also suspect to a greater degree that banks are looking out for themselves rather than their customers.

Milllennials also are the age group least likely to say they’ve become more cost-conscious since the recession, although they’re the group most likely to say they try to save money by participating in rewards programs.

“Rewarding loyalty, both routine transactions and the volume of activity, are becoming more the norm than the exception across all customer segments,” McBride says. “This isn’t unique to financial services, but follows with what consumers have come to expect in travel and retail,” he points out.

Bank of America’s data bears out this observation.

The survey finds that millennials are far likelier than other groups to demand “rewards for everyday activities I already do,” and they’re already participants in many loyalty programs in spite of their young age. They’re more likely than any other demographic group to say they’re enrolled in banking and credit card rewards programs, and the least likely to say they don’t participate in rewards programs at all.

They’re the most likely of any age group to say they want to be rewarded for using their bank’s website, paying their mortgage on time, using a debit or credit card, contributing to a retirement account, investing or creating a financial plan. They also are the most likely to want rewards for giving their bank new business, either in the form of referring a new customer or switching a balance from another institution, opening a new account themselves or taking out a loan.

“Consumers are not looking at their financial activity in siloes. Instead, they are looking at the full spectrum of their financial activity . . . and they want their banking partners to reward them accordingly,” Levine says.

Banks do have incentive to respond to these preferences, because millennials are the most likely to have accounts with five or more banking institutions. Plus, they’re a huge demographic and still have their peak spending years ahead of them. As a result, businesses of all kinds are scrambling to butter them up now — which means customers of all ages could benefit if banks give millennials what they want.

MONEY best of 2014

5 Trends That Changed the Face of Real Estate in 2014

Lightbulb in doorway
MONEY (photo illustration)

Cheaper solar power (finally), what millennials really want in a home, and a better shot at a mortgage (for some).

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, tech, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these five real estate trends.

Best Trend for Energy Efficiency

Thanks to better manufacturing methods, the cost of residential solar panels has fallen about 7% per year since 2000, says the Department of Energy. And that’s not the only thing making solar look like a brighter choice.

Better financing options: Low-interest, no-­money-down solar loans are now offered by lenders such as Admiral Bank, credit unions, and through major solar-panel sellers like SolarCity. (Energysage.com/solar lists the options.) David Feldman, senior financial analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ran the numbers to compare loans to leasing, long the most popular way of going solar. He says a typical system, which might lease for $168 a month over 20 years, would cost $136 or less per month with a loan.

Chi Birmingham

Improved resale value: A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that homes with owned, not leased, solar panels could sell for almost $25,000 more than comparable non-solar homes.

Best Price Cut to Root For

Home prices rise, home prices fall, but the commission you pay to sell has barely budged from 5% or so. (That’s split between listing and buyer’s agents.) A few years ago it looked like new competitors might change the status quo, but the housing crash seemed to slow progress down. Now price-cutting may be picking up again: In October the brokerage Redfin cut its already low 1.5% fee to list a home to just 1% in the D.C. area. Let’s hope this move is a sign of more competition to come.

Best New Reason You May Finally Qualify for a Mortgage

That all-important three-digit score that determines how much you’ll pay to borrow money got an overhaul in 2014, which should mean a higher score for some consumers. Fair Isaac, which computes the most commonly used credit score, the FICO score, announced it would no longer ding borrowers who had a bill sent to collections if the balance was later paid or settled. Previously, even those paid accounts had remained a blemish for up to seven years.

The new formula will also give less weight to unpaid medical bills that end up in collections, in part because that can happen by accident when a patient believes the insurer covered the cost. More than one in five Americans will be contacted by a collection agency for medical bills this year, according to NerdWallet. If you have a single medical bill in collections, and no other blemishes, you can expect to see a 25-point jump in your score.

Best Tip for Advertising Your Home Sale

“One of the things younger buyers say is important to them is that the house has great cell coverage,” says Richard Davidson, CEO of Century 21 Real Estate.

Most Shocking True Confession

“I recently tried to refinance my mortgage, and I was unsuccessful in doing so … I’m not making that up,” said Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, on how banks may be making it too hard to get a mortgage.

MONEY home loans

Why You Might Have a Better Shot at Buying a Home Than You Realize

House keys on top of mortgage loan agreement
moodboard—Getty Images

If your financial situation isn't perfect, here's how to work within the four pillars of mortgage lending to get approved for a home loan.

Did you have a bad credit event in recent years? Do you have less than two years in the same career field? Is your monthly income less than three times your proposed payment? Fear not, when your financial picture doesn’t fit neatly into the box, you may still qualify with some lenders. Here’s how.

When you apply for a mortgage, lenders use four pillars to measure your finances and put together a loan suited to your purpose. Your credit, debt, income and assets play integral equal roles in lenders’ eyes. Let’s break down the nuts and bolts of what lenders want to see on loan applications, and how working within these four pillars may help you find a mortgage to suit you, even if your situation isn’t “perfect.”

Credit

The credit score is the best-known financial barometer to predict a borrower’s future likelihood of default. Of course, you’re not planning to get a mortgage to subsequently go delinquent, but lenders nevertheless use it to measure your payment predictability. Lenders want a credit score of at least 620 or better. Beyond the credit score is the credit report, which reveals details about your past and current financial habits. Mortgage companies consider delinquent payment patterns a red flag — including old collections of all kinds, past-due balances even on accounts that are no longer active. Expect an inquisition on such accounts.

So what if you have a previous bankruptcy, foreclosure, short sale or loan modification? What if more than one of these events exist in your credit history? Again, fear not, but do be prepared to answer all questions regarding such events. If you have supporting documentation, provide it to your mortgage broker upfront. Generally, even today you can still get a mortgage just a few years out of one or more of these credit events. Most commonly, there’s a three-year wait time for government financing (i.e., FHA) and seven years on conventional financing (with the exception of a short sale — the waiting time is now four years). The most recent date is considered if one or more such credit events exist in your credit history.

Active trade lines (meaning open credit) are another lending hot button. You’ll need to have at least two forms of open and available credit that you use regularly – that doesn’t necessarily mean carrying a balance, but it does mean you need to show credit activity. Unfortunately, gone are the days of using alternative forms of credit, like a cell phone bill or a cable bill, in lieu of credit report trade line.

Checking your credit in advance of applying for a mortgage can give you time to work through any issues, or to take time to work on your credit score if it needs to be higher. You can check your credit reports for free once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies, and you can see two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

Debt

A lender wants to see every single minimum payment obligation you have – whether or not it’s on your credit report — independent of your general household expenses.

The typical forms of debt a lender must account for when determining how much mortgage you can afford are: any form of car payment, minimum payments on credit cards, student loans, personal loans installment loans, alimony or child support, garnishments and IRS debt.

This seems simple enough, but sometimes the way a debt is listed on your credit report can cause a problem. Let’s take a common example: Student loans. You may have multiple student loans through one creditor, and they are all listed out on your credit report that way, but you make one monthly payment to that creditor for the multiple loans. The fix: You’ll need to provide your mortgage broker a payment letter from the creditor identifying what loans are included with the student loan creditor and the amount of your monthly payment.

Another common issue is co-signed loans – specifically, loans someone else took out that you co-signed. In order for the other party’s debt to not hurt your mortgage application, you’ll need to provide documentation that the other person is making the payment directly to the creditor and has been since either the inception of the loan or the most recent 12 months. This is usually accomplished with bank statements or canceled checks. Reducing your debt load is immensely beneficial when trying to qualify for a loan.

Income

Lenders must be able to show that your income supports your proposed mortgage payment plus your other debt payments. If your debt, including the proposed mortgage payment, exceeds 45% of your income, you may need to look for less house, borrow less money, or pay off some of your debts to improve your numbers. (You can use this calculator to give you an idea of how much house you can afford.)

When it comes your income history, lenders like to see a minimum two-year period of working in the same or a similar field. Don’t have it? That’s OK. Make sure you explain this to the lender in writing, and be sure include any occupational gaps. If you’re an hourly wage earner, expect your banker to average your year-to-date income. If you’re salaried, it will be much more transparent in terms of qualifying because typically a salary is a more stable form of income.

Assets

The down payment amount you have can dictate the loan program and ultimately how much mortgage you can handle. Assets include both funds for a down payment as well as savings in the bank post-closing of escrow. Mortgage brokers, banks and lenders expect to see two to six months of savings post-closing, and at least 3.5% of the purchase price for down payment. If you have access to funds that aren’t yours, gift money, for example, is a viable alternative, just be sure provide the full paper trail in any exchanging of funds.

*Mortgage tip: When buying a single family home, your full down payment funds can be gifted.

If you’ve been told that you can’t get approved for a mortgage, get a second opinion — perhaps even a third or fourth. Make sure to disclose all the pertinent known facts about your financial situation. A quality professional will ask you to provide details on the who, how, what, when, where and why — which can help make your quirky financial picture much more cohesive and thus more likely to get you approved for a mortgage.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When a Reverse Mortgage Does—and Doesn’t—Make Sense

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My wife and I have no heirs. Our home is worth about $700,000 and nearly paid off. We’re thinking of taking a reverse mortgage at retirement. How does this work, how much could we get, and is it even a good idea? —Larry, Chesapeake Beach, Md.

A: A reverse mortgage is exactly what it sounds like: You are borrowing against the equity in your home, but instead of paying the bank every month, the bank pays you.

Like any home equity loan, a reverse mortgage allows you draw equity out of your house while continuing to live there. Its big advantage over other home equity borrowing is that you don’t have to pay back a dime while you live in the house, but once you sell or are no longer able to occupy the home as your primary residence, the total loan balance, plus interest and fees, must be paid in full.

You can receive the loan as a lump sum, a monthly amount, or a line of credit (essentially, a checkbook you use to spend the funds as needed), or some combination of these. If you still owe money on your mortgage, the new loan can be used to pay off the remaining balance.

The amount you can borrow depends on a variety of factors, including current interest rates, an appraisal of your home, your age (you must be at least 62 to qualify for a reverse mortgage), and your credit rating. The maximum amount allowed by the federal government is $625,000 for 2014. Reverse mortgage interest rates are fairly low, currently around 2% for a variable rate and around 5% for a fixed rate.

As good as that all sounds, there are serious pitfalls to reverse mortgages, says Sandy Jolley, a reverse mortgage suitability and abuse consultant in Los Angeles. The big one is that you’re spending down what’s likely your largest asset. Even though you don’t have heirs to leave the house to, you might need it later to help pay for assisted living or extended home health care. And you cannot take out another home equity loan once you have a reverse mortgage.

Also, reverse mortgage fees can clock in at a whopping 4%—not just of what you borrow but of your maximum loan amount. So in your case, you could be charged $25,000 (4% of $625,000) even if you opened up a reverse mortgage line of credit as an emergency reserve and never drew out any funds. “The fees are rolled into the loan and charged monthly compounded interest until the home is sold or taken by the lender to repay the debt,” Jolley says.

Another major concern with a reverse mortgage is that the lender can call the loan—meaning you have to pay the balance immediately, even if you have to sell your home to do so—should you ever let your homeowners insurance policy expire, get into arrears on your property taxes, fall behind on home maintenance, or move into an assisted living facility for a full year.

Because of these high costs and risks, Jolley suggests using a reverse mortgage only as a last resort. Consult a trusted family member or a financial planner who’s not in the business of selling reverse mortgages about whether you really will need that money in order to live comfortably in retirement. The combination of Social Security and your retirement savings (and the lack of a mortgage payment; congrats on that!) may provide the income you need to live the way you want to live. Save your equity until you really need it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that at the end of the loan the bank owns the property. The owner retains title to the home.

Read more about reverse mortgages:
When Tapping Your Home Pays
Should You Get a Reverse Mortgage?
The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

MONEY real estate

103-Year-Old Texas Woman Fights to Keep Her House

Man in suit holding foreclosure signs
Pamela Moore—Getty Images

An elderly woman is battling a bank that's trying to foreclosure on her.

A 103-year-old Texas woman is fighting to keep her home after she let her insurance lapse, a CBS affiliate in the Dallas/Fort Worth area reports. Myrtle Lewis told CBS she accidentally let her insurance expire and renewed it after noticing the mistake, but the gap in coverage apparently violated the loan agreement for her reverse mortgage. Now, OneWest Bank, which holds the loan, is attempting to foreclose on Lewis.

It’s unclear if it was mortgage or homeowner’s insurance, and when contacted by Credit.com, a public relations representative for OneWest said the bank declined to comment on Lewis’s case. One thing is clear: Lewis is worried about losing her home. In the interview with CBS, she said it “would break my heart.”

Lewis took out a reverse mortgage on the home in 2003, when she was 92. Reverse mortgages are a type of loan for homeowners ages 62 and older, allowing senior citizens to use the equity they’ve built in their properties without making monthly payments. Repayment is deferred until the borrower dies, moves or sells the home, but the homeowner is still responsible for paying taxes, insurance and any other fees associated with maintaining their home. A 2012 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said 10% of reverse mortgage borrowers face foreclosure because they fail to pay taxes or insurance.

Missing insurance payments may not seem like a huge deal, especially if you correct the mistake, but it is. It’s not unheard of for homeowners to face foreclosure because of something seemingly small, like unpaid homeowners’ association fees, but there are serious consequences for not upholding your end of a loan agreement. Foreclosure will also negatively affect your credit for years.

A focal point of the CFPB’s 2012 reverse mortgage report is that these loans need to be better explained to and understood by borrowers, and it found that many lenders were deceptively marketing reverse mortgages to senior citizens. Lewis’s case may be in the process of unfolding, but no matter what happens, her story is a good reminder to consumers that there’s often not room for error with large loans. It’s crucial to understand your responsibilities before putting your financial future and well-being on the line.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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