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Obama HARP Expansion Builds on New Refi Momentum

By Steve Cook, Real Estate Economy Watch   |   Jan. 25, 2012 at 9:48 AM   |   Comments

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama announced he will push for legislation that will significantly expand the newly revised HARP program that allows underwater homeowners who are to refinance at today's historically low rates.

Obama's expansion would allow all borrowers, not just those whose loans are held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance. Fannie and Freddie hold about 60 percent of the nation's mortgages. The New York Times quotes a "senior government official" who estimated that the program could benefit two million to three million homeowners who have loans that are not guaranteed by the government, and that the program's cost would not exceed $10 billion. When announced last September, the revised Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP 2.0) was projected to help one million homeowners.

The President's announcement comes after the HARP 2.0 program has been in effect only seven weeks. Initial reports suggested that key lenders—including certain megabanks—have been slow to implement changes to service borrowers applying for the program and they are also facing capacity constraints due to the ongoing mini-refinancing boom. Final rules were not announced until Novembers and reportedly many consumers and servicers were confused about whether they qualified and how to apply.

Concerns have been growing that the program would fall short of its million loan goal. The program is due to expire at the end of this year. Federal Reserve chairman Bernanke has suggested that the program be changed to mandate lenders to write down principal as well as interest . Others are recommending additional changes to reduce refinancing fees and "put-back" risk on the loans. Meanwhile, California Democrats in Congress are calling on President Obama to replace Federal Housing Finance Agency acting director Edward DeMarco, who has opposed writing down the principal of mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie.

However, recent reports suggest that interest is picking up. One source reports that 70 percent of the new loan applications at a major bank are HARP 2.0 loans. The HARP 1.0 program allowed borrowers to refinance up to 125% of the current value of the home but the HARP 2.0 will do away with that 125 percent limit.

"I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape," said President Obama last night. The program would be paid for by a new fee on banks, but details have yet to be announced and until they are, the outlook in Congress is difficult to forecast.

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