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 Savings

Here’s the Magic Amount You Need to Retire Happy

Numbers from American paper currency
George Adamson—Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library

A financial planner estimates how much money you need to save — and shares 5 keys to a successful retirement.

Most people would say money can buy you happiness in retirement, but financial planner Wes Moss wanted the details: Just how much money does it take to retire happily? And is there a point of diminishing happiness returns on the size of a nest egg?

Moss surveyed 1,350 retirees about net worth and income, assets and home equity. But he wasn’t hunting for the number of dollars it takes to live — rather, he wanted to understand how money correlates to retirees’ levels of happiness. To that end, he posed a series of detailed questions about their lives: where they shop, what kinds of cars they drive, how many vacations they take annually, their family lives and the activities they pursue. Then he associated their levels of reported happiness with their financial condition.

Here’s what he found: Most people can be happy in retirement with savings of about $500,000. A higher number can buy more happiness, but only to a point.

“There is a plateau-ing effect above that number, and the higher you get the rate of increase gets smaller,” Moss says. “I call it diminishing marginal happiness.”

Moss, managing partner and chief investment strategist at Capital Investment Advisors in Atlanta, explores the correlation of wealth and retirement happiness in his new book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The 5 Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees. Moss is a registered investment adviser who previously worked for a big Wall Street firm.

His five secrets include a careful determination of what you actually want to spend money on in retirement and how you’ll save to meet your goals; paying off your mortgage early; developing diverse sources of income in retirement; and learning how to invest for income.

Here’s an edited transcript of five questions I asked Moss about his findings in a recent interview.

Q. Who are the happy retirees, and what makes them happy?

It’s not how much you save but how much you save in relation to what you need. When I worked on Wall Street, what we always were trying to breed is an expectation with clients that they need to spend more and more — you need an infinite amount because you will need to spend just as much or more in retirement. That’s what the mutual fund industry and Wall Street preach.

But we found that for most people, the amount of happiness correlates to median savings around $500,000. There are some increases above that number, but it’s a slower rate of incremental gains. So think of $500,000 as a financial bare minimum.

Q. Are the happy retirees making adjustments to their spending in order to be comfortable?

The survey data doesn’t tell me that, but my real-life experiences with clients suggest that people take a realistic look at how much income they’ll have — perhaps they have two or three thousand in Social Security income, and they can take another $3,000 monthly from their investments. They look at that and decide that they can live a good life on $6,000 a month.

Q. What makes retirees unhappy — and how can people avoid winding up there?

Many of the unhappy retirees are still paying mortgages, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Another thing I see a lot is people who don’t take care of big expenses before they retire – they wait to redo the kitchen until they retire because they think they’ll have time to deal with it then. But it’s much better to do these things while you’re working and still have cash flow.

Another mistake is people who don’t have enough core pursuits in retirement. They were too myopic and entrenched in making money and working before, and now they’re not as busy as they need to be. They are blindsided by free time.

Q. I’ve heard both sides of the mortgage-in-retirement argument — some argue it’s better to invest that money rather than use it to pay off a mortgage. Sounds like you’re a firm believer in getting rid of them.

If you have resources in a taxable account, I’d rather see a client use that to pay off the mortgage in one fell swoop — or, just accelerate your monthly payments by $200 to $400, which can shave a full decade off of a mortgage. I know people will argue that they can get a higher return putting that money in stocks, but I’ve seen a lot of periods in my career where all the market did was crash and then recover. Most Americans don’t get that average 9% stock market return over time, so a safer bet is to save that guaranteed 4% or 5% that a mortgage costs. Also, with older clients, what I see is an enormous level of contentment among people who have figured out how to get rid of their mortgages.

Q. Your book lays out a model for retiring early — or earlier than you think you could. That runs counter to much of the talk we hear today about longevity and the need for everyone to work longer. Why do you think people can retire earlier than planned — and how do you define the word “early”?

I define it as being in a position retire at 60 or 62. And there is a group of people where it’s obvious they have the financial means to retire — but the concept is foreign and they don’t have a handle on their finances. I’ve had many client meetings with couples where one spouse thinks they can retire, and the other doesn’t — but when you add up all their different accounts, you see that they have $750,000, along with pensions and Social Security. These are people who definitely could retire if they choose.

MONEY mortgages

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

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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.

MONEY Debt

Have You Conquered Debt? Tell Us Your Story

Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.

Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.

Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.

MONEY Citigroup

Here’s Why Citigroup Is Shelling Out $7 Billion

It wasn't just investors who were hurt when banks turned lousy mortgages into toxic bonds

You could be forgiven for not caring — or perhaps not even noticing — that Citigroup agreed yesterday to pony up $7 billion to settle a Justice department inquiry into its mortgage business. More than five years after the financial crisis, the legal process of holding banks accountable can feel about as urgent as a rerun of Law & Order.

But it’s worth spending a few minutes remembering what actually happened — and who got hurt.

The government’s case against Citigroup is about harms to investors who bought pieces of mortgage “pools” that Citi created. But since investors who buy mortgage securities aren’t exactly Joe and Jane Mainstreet, the whole thing can seem almost victimless. The financial press also tends to overlook the human costs and focus on the money: What does the $7 billion hit mean for Citigroup’s share price? (So far, investors seem happy to at least know the bill.) Who gets the money? (Mostly the government, but $2.5 billion will go to consumer relief, like mortgage modifications.) And who is paying? (Shareholders, basically. No individuals from the banks are paying up—at least in this settlement.)

So it’s easy to forget that actual homeowners were hurt, too. Citigroup was one link in a chain that turned home loans into investment products. At one end, there were the original mortgage lenders (including such fine operation as Countrywide). Citigroup would buy mortgages from the originators and then pool the loans together to create securities that other investors could buy. One of the bank’s jobs was to make sure that the mortgages in the pool were up to snuff.

Citigroup hired outside companies to check on this. The companies would look at a sample of the loans and see if any of them didn’t fit guidelines, or if valuations of the homes the mortgages backed looked squishy. The news Citigroup got back wasn’t pretty. One Citigroup trader looked at the reports produced and wrote in an email (one for the ages) that “we should start praying… I would not be surprised if half of these loans went down.” Nevertheless, Citigroup went ahead and created securities out of the loans. These securities went south, touching off the Great Recession.

But things didn’t work out terribly well for the individual borrowers, either. Citigroup and institutions like it helped stoke mortgage originators’ appetite to lend to just about anybody and everybody, in many cases based on unrealistic valuations. The damage from this includes borrowers who ended up overstretched and put on the road to foreclosure, and more broadly any home buyer who bought into a increasingly inflated market.

Let’s not forget that part.

MONEY mortgages

30-year Mortgage Rates Edge Down For Second Straight Week

Mortgage rates declined slightly over the past week.

Average rates notched down slightly to 4.14% with an average of 0.5 points, down from last week’s 4.17%, according to Freddie Mac. A year ago, rates on 30-year mortgages were 4.46%.

The rate on an average 15-year mortgage was 3.22% with 0.5 points, down from 3.50% a year ago. For adjustable rate mortgages, a five-year ARM this week averaged 2.98% with 0.3 points and a one-year ARM averaged 2.40% with 0.4 points.

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Source: Freddie Mac survey.

 

MONEY buying a home

Single and Thinking of Buying a Home? Here’s Some Advice

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Shutterstock

Fewer singles are buying, thanks to crimped finances and tougher lending standards. Before you take the plunge, consider whether you'll be able to handle the costs on your own.

The transition from renter to homeowner proved more complicated than expected for 26-year-old Kimberly Watson. As a single buyer with imperfect credit and without a long job history, she faced several hurdles throughout the lending process before eventually finding and closing on a condo in Hollywood, Fla.

Buying a home is hardly simple for anyone, but navigating the process can be particularly challenging for single buyers, who have only their own income to rely on to pay the bills. Tightened lending standards help explain why the percentage of single buyers declined slightly between 2010 and 2013: 16% of homebuyers were single females and 9% were single males in 2013, according to the National Association of Realtors, compared to 20% and 12% respectively in 2010. A weak job market and debt burdens also explain why singles have stayed away from the housing market, says NAR economist Ken Fears.

Banks are not allowed to discriminate based on marital status, but tighter lending standards can potentially pose a challenge to single buyers because they only have their own income to qualify for a loan.

Some of the tips below can make the process more manageable:

Ask, can you really afford to buy?
Scrutinize your finances carefully and evaluate whether buying a home is even feasible. You won’t have help from a partner to pay the bills, and you don’t want to be “house poor.” Review your credit record, clean up any mistakes, and pay down debt.

Money 101: Get Your Finances In Order Before Buying a Home

Be sure to consider all the recurring expenses associated with homeownership beyond the purchase price and mortgage closing costs. From association fees and property taxes to utilities and lawn care, the bills add up. Take into account maintenance and insurance when setting a budget.

“You’ve got a nice house, but now you’re eaten alive in expenses,” says Doug Lebda, CEO of LendingTree. “Factor in the total cost of homeownership.”

Think long term, says Emma Johnson, creator of WealthySingleMommy.com. You want to be able to afford and keep your home — so it’s wise to have a bigger savings account than you would if you were buying as a couple.

Watson found that to be true after moving in to her condo. She discovered a bad case of mold in her bathroom, and had to spend $10,000 on a gut remodel.

“I thought I would move in, and everything would be as is, and it would be fine,” she says. “Definitely have some extra money on hand.” Our advice: Total the estimated monthly household costs and set aside the difference between that amount and your current rent, or payment. If you’re struggling to make budget, you probably need to wait longer before buying.

Money 101: Should I Rent or Buy a Home?

Save on mortgage costs with special programs
Singles getting a mortgage with only one income should look at FHA loans, which offer lower interest rates and require lower credit scores to qualify. First-time buyers, which includes those who haven’t owned a home for three years, can make a down payment as low as 3.5% of the purchase price. FHA loans require more underwriting and more documentation, Lebda says, so lenders may not offer the program at first; be sure to ask.

If you do go the FHA route, the Homeowners Armed with Knowledge (HAWK) program will cut you a break on mortgage insurance costs if you go through housing counseling.

Not a first-time buyer? You may still be able to save even with conventional loans. TD Bank’s Right Step program, for example, offers a 3% down-payment option without private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is usually required for loans with less than 20% down, says Malcolm Hollensteiner, the bank’s director of retail lending products & services. The program also requires a housing education class.

On any loan, compare costs carefully, and not just rates. A lower rate may mean a higher lender’s fee, said Dean Vlamis, vice president of mortgage lending at Guaranteed Rate.

Money 101: How Much Will Closing Costs Be?

Don’t house hunt alone
Buying a home is an exciting milestone. It’s also a major investment, so don’t let emotions cloud your decisions.

Keep one or two trustworthy people involved in the process as a sounding board. “It’s important to have some sort of voice of reason,” says Jessica Edwards, a Coldwell Banker agent based in North Carolina.

Plan for the future
As you search for homes, consider what happens if you find a partner, or have to relocate for a job. Edwards says she’s seen many singles have to move sooner than they expected because their life circumstances changed. Think about that possibility as you’re searching: “There are a lot more single buyers that are looking at it as a primary residence that they can later turn into an investment,” she said.

Homeownership is a big investment and a lifestyle change — so it’s crucial to make sure you’re financially prepared and have done your homework. It’s better to wait than to find yourself over-stretched after committing to the major purchase. “We’re so inundated with the message that we need to own a house,” says Johnson. “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not right for everyone at every point in their life.”

MONEY mortgages

Behind on Your Mortgage? You May Be Eligible For Some Help

A new settlement with one of the nation's largest lenders may provide you with some much needed help on your mortgage.

The $540 million SunTrust Mortgage agreed to pay last week in relief to distressed homeowners is the latest in a series of settlements authorities have reached with major banks over their role in the financial crisis since 2012. Is it too late to claim any of that money? Here’s what you need to know.

Who is eligible for a loan modification?

If you’re underwater, or struggling to make your payments, two lenders have relief funds remaining under their settlement agreements. Ocwen Financial agreed in December to spend $2 billion to slash mortgage balances for underwater homeowners. If you have an Ocwen loan, or one from subsidiaries Homeward Residential Holdings and Litton Loan Servicing, call Ocwen at 800-337-6695 or email ConsumerRelief@Ocwen.com.

SunTrust Mortgage will provide $500 million in relief to underwater homeowners. Call SunTrust (800-634-7928) or email through the SunTrustMortgage.com support page.

What if I’ve already lost my home?

Ocwen and SunTrust are paying $125 million and $40 million, respectively, to customers who already have lost their homes to foreclosure.

Eligible Ocwen customers lost their home between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2012; SunTrust borrowers lost their homes between Jan. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2013. A settlement administrator will contact you, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If you have changed your contact information since your foreclosure, the CFPB advises you to update your information with your state attorney general.

I’m not a SunTrust or Ocwen customer. Can I get any help?

The five major banks that were part of the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement already have given away their settlement money. But you still may qualify for other assistance. Contact a credit counseling agency approved by the Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), says Melinda Opperman of Springboard Credit Management. (Find one near you at HUD’s official website.) Approved agencies, like Springboard, can put you in touch with relief programs in your area—their counseling is free.

Additional information

CFPB’s Ocwen fact sheet and common questions.

CFPB’s press release on the SunTrust settlement.

MONEY Housing Market

How to Stop the Next Housing Bubble

Housing development under construction on farmland, aerial view.
Housing development under construction on farmland, aerial view. Ryan McVay—Getty Images

The financial system is still too risky. Step one toward fixing that: Rethink mortgages.

More than five years after the Lehman Brothers collapse, America still has a bubble problem.

The economy is improving, but the country is still poorer and less busy than it should be this long after the official end of the Great Recession. Here’s where actual GDP lines up against where it might be if the economy had returned to its normal path:

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SOURCE: St. Louis Fed, Congressional Budget Office

Despite this gap, the Fed last week announced it was continuing to slow down its massive program of bond buying known as “quantitative easing,” which was designed to ease lending and goose the economy. The central bank is keeping short-term interest rates near zero, but many economists and economic pundits still think the Fed should be even more aggressive, rather than slightly less so. The Fed holds back mostly out of fear of inflation (which remains low) but another worry has emerged: Investors are getting cocky. Stocks are way up, bond investors are buying riskier stuff in a “reach for yield,” and yet a gauge of market mood called the “fear” index is registering an unusual lack of anxiety.

The Fed has expressed concern, at least in a keeping-it-on-our-radar way. “There is some evidence of reach-for-yield behavior,” said Janet Yellen on Wednesday in a press conference.

That doesn’t mean we’re in bubble territory. Even if a market drop is coming, there’s a difference between that and a systemic crisis like 2008′s; Yellen said she isn’t seeing a rise in dangerous financial leverage. But that we’re even having this conversation is a sign that there is a lot of unfinished business left over from the crisis. There’s still too much risk built into the financial system.

This story is the first in a series I’ll be writing for Money.com about ways to prevent future bubbles—or at least to limit the damage when they pop. There are numerous pieces to this puzzle. Banking regulations, consumer protections, Fed policies, and broad-based economic growth are all important for a healthy financial system.

But the most obvious place to start is literally close to home: Mortgages. The 2000s saw an enormous build up in household debt, largely driven by home loans.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve

A lot of attention has been paid to how crazy a lot of those mortgages were. There were “NINJA” loans (no income, no job or assets), no- or low-downpayment mortgages, and exploding ARMs that started with low teaser payments. Such loans are impossible or at least very hard to get now. But a pair of fascinating new books make the case that there’s still a basic flaw in how mortgages work, one that Washington had a golden opportunity to fix but failed to. Put simply, home loans are far too difficult to renegotiate when things go badly wrong.

Over the years I’ve read a tall stack of books about the financial crisis. Other People’s Houses, by Vermont Law School professor Jennifer Taub, provides the clearest, beginning-to-end explanation I’ve seen of what went wrong. And Taub’s beginning is a surprise: A 1993 Supreme Court decision about how bankruptcy law applies to mortgages.

A mortgage on your primary residence is different from other kinds of loans–and not in a good way. When a borrower is buried in bills, the bankruptcy process can help discharge many kinds of debt. In the early 1990s, Harriet and Leonard Nobelman found themselves underwater on a condo in Dallas—they owed more than $65,000, but the current market value had fallen to $23,500. As part of a bankruptcy plan, they proposed that the balance of their mortgage be reduced to that $23,500. The bank fought this in court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that the principal value of a mortgage can’t be modified by a judge in the bankruptcy process.

Fast forward to 2008 and the housing crisis, and this technical-sounding decision suddenly mattered a lot. Candidate Barack Obama endorsed changing the bankruptcy law, but ultimately nothing ever came of it. And the administration resisted other proposals—coming from political conservatives as well as liberals—to encourage or push lenders toward principal reductions. (A program to subsidize some principal mods began in 2010.)

“Hang on,” you may be saying, “forcing people into bankruptcy doesn’t sound like much a solution. I know lots of people who went underwater on their home, and they never would have declared bankruptcy.”

That’s true. But Taub tells me that that this law matters even for those who never go to court. “It would have shifted the bargaining power,” she says. “Knowing that would be an option would have brought the lender to the table more quickly and more willingly.”

Of course, many underwater homeowners ultimately did get out from under their debts—by letting the bank take the house, or agreeing to a short sale and moving out. But could a more orderly, less painful principal reduction process have made the housing crisis less damaging?

Economists Atif Mian of Princeton and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago say yes. Their book House of Debt argues that the Washington’s failure to help more homeowners renegotiate their debt needlessly prolonged the economic slowdown.

When households are weighed down by debt they can’t pay, they spend less, and the effect can spread throughout the entire economy. This seems intuitive, but most economists have preferred to focus on fixing broken banks. Mian and Sufi have found compelling evidence that homeowners’ woes were the real main event. For example, in U.S. counties with the sharpest declines in net worth during the crash, spending fell almost 20%.

Much of this is water under the bridge now. But not all of it. Taub points out that foreclosures are up over last year in some states. In any case, she argues that resetting the rules for how mortgages work could help to prevent the next bubble. “Hopefully, lenders, if they are disciplined by having to take losses, won’t engage in these no-money-down and no-doc mortgages and so on,” she says.

Letting off the hook people who borrowed too much is touchy stuff. (See Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant.) But if borrowers should be more cautious, so too should lenders. Although putting more risk on lenders might raise the cost of mortgages somewhat, Taub argues “that’s reasonable insurance to pay to avoid massive foreclosures and abandoned houses and the whole downward spiral.” You didn’t need to have an option ARM on an oversized house to feel the pain of the foreclosure crisis.

Mian and Sufi have another proposal for future mortgages that bypasses these hot-button fairness questions. A new kind of loan, called the “shared responsibility mortgage” could link mortgage payments to an index of local housing prices. If local prices fall, a borrower’s monthly nut would drop too. In return, the bank would get 5% of any capital gains on sale. The idea is both to ease the economic damage housing declines cause, and to give lenders an extra incentive to be careful about lending into frothy markets. (The tax code would likely have to be changed to make such loans popular.)

As Mian and Sufi point out, mortgages looked like a pretty safe investment from the point of view of lenders. That was a big part of the problem. Even if housing prices fell, lenders assumed homeowners would be obligated to make their full payments. But the economy as whole would have been safer if more of the risk was shared.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why I’ll Send My Infant Son to College Before I Buy a House

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Luke Tepper Taylor Tepper

With housing so expensive, I figure my young family will be renting for foreseeable future. The latest on being a new dad, a Millennial, and (pretty) broke.

Mrs. Tepper and I are 28 years old, and our son is four months. Over the past year, Luke has acquired an $800 stroller, a $250 crib, and a $50 humidifier. (Before you make fun, understand that he constantly bore a stuffy morning nose, and what kind of monster wouldn’t spend a measly $50 to help his only son sleep soundly?!)

We’ve begun funding Luke’s New York 529 college savings account in order to spot his entire higher education bill (provided he goes to a state school), and we, of course, will pay his medical expenses for the next 26 years.

But there is one thing that we will not buy him—a house. In all likelihood (which means unless we win the lottery, or someone gives us a hundred thousand dollars), we will put our son through college before we buy our family a home.

Which, when you think about it, is strange. Last year we earned almost $110,000 and that will (hopefully) increase rapidly as we enter our career primes. We hardly travel (much to our chagrin) and have a reasonable $300 monthly car payment. Mrs. Tepper really only shops for (baby) clothes on sale, online, or both, and my main indulgence is a bimonthly $45 bottle of Templeton rye whiskey.

Why then will we be renters, at least until we’re in our fifties?

Reason #1: It’s (Really) Hard to Save

We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with cheap wood cabinets and a kind of white plaster countertop that stains as easily as a peach bruises. In the afternoon it often takes five minutes for the water to go from warm to hot. We don’t have a washing machine—neither does our building, which was built during the Hoover administration—and I do our dishes by hand because we don’t have a dishwasher.

Next year our rent will be $2,020 (and that doesn’t include gas, electricity, cable, Internet, or whiskey).

Eventually we’ll decamp for the ‘burbs for the sake of space and sanity, but with that move comes higher mass transit costs (an $1,800 yearly increase) and more house to heat and furnish and maintain.

The Dave Ramsey in me says I should find more ways to cut spending: no more occasional brunches or flights to Florida. (Luke can meet his grandparents on Skype!) But those hypothetical savings are peanuts in the grand scheme of things, and the me that wants to stay married shuts Dave Ramsey up.

Read: Half of Millennials Will Ask Mom and Dad to Help Them Buy a Home

Reason #2: Student Loans

In order to gain our cushy, 50-hour-a-week jobs, both Mrs. Tepper and I attended (public) graduate school. That came on top of studying at New York University for four years and (seemingly) $550,000,000.

So we have loans. Lots of them. (I alone owe almost $60,000.) Obviously we are not the only ones tied up in the web of student loan bills. People like me now owe almost $1.1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, or about twice as much as in 2008, when my wife and I graduated college.

I’m now paying $350 a month—and that’s mostly interest.

Reason #3: Houses Are Expensive

In New York City, the median home price is $369,000, and that comes with a median down payment of $74,000, per a recent Redfin report. In Nassau County, which is out on Long Island, you need to put $88,000 down.

Needless to say, we don’t have that kind of money, nor will we anytime soon.

And that–expensive rent, student loans, and homes—doesn’t even take into account the $1,500 a month gorilla in the room (child care) or, you know, Christmas presents.

Look, there are worse things than not buying a house (like not having a job or being a Dallas Cowboys fan.) We have a happy, healthy family, with sunny days ahead, and maybe we’ll find a way to save a buck or two over the years.

But not that long ago, it took only one middle class job in the family to afford a home. Now, according to the Redfin report and my life, two doesn’t cut it. When the prospect of owning the roof over your family’s head is so far gone, is it really that crazy to buy a $50 humidifier for your son?

MORE: Why Does My One Baby Need Two of Everything?

MORE: How Can Child Care Cost as Much as Rent?

 

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