Home ownership may be falling out of reach for more Americans as lenders toughen their standards for Federal Housing Administration-insured loans beyond what the agency itself requires.
Mortgage lenders including Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp., the two largest, have raised the minimum credit score on FHA-insured loans that they will buy to 640 from 620. About 6.3 million people fall within that range, according to FICO, which created the formula for the ratings.
The higher hurdles for FHA loans, used in about a fifth of U.S. home purchases, add to challenges for a housing market already struggling with record-low sales and surging foreclosures. While lax lending fueled the bust that led the U.S. into recession, the new requirements will stifle the real estate recovery needed to revive the economy, said Ron Phipps, president of the National Association of Realtors.
“We’ve gone from silly to stupid,” Phipps, principal partner of Phipps Realty Inc., said in a telephone interview from his home in Warwick, Rhode Island. “People who should be getting credit can’t get it. To have a healthy real estate market, you need activity. You need transactions.”
The FHA, which previously didn’t have minimums for FICO scores, began in October to require grades of at least 500, and more than 580 for loans with down payments of as little as 3.5 percent. Borrowers with scores between those levels must put 10 percent down. Several lenders moved minimums to about 620 at the start of 2009, the companies said then.
Mortgage companies are tightening FHA standards partly because of the higher costs they face in servicing delinquent loans, said Luke Hayden, president of the mortgage unit of Mount Laurel, New Jersey-based PHH Corp. By keeping defaults low, they can also boost the prices they ftch for bonds filled with the loans and thus offer lower rates, he said.
When FHA-backed loans go into default, the lender bears a greater share of the expenses than when the mortgage is backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Hayden said. That’s one reason why the banks impose their own, higher standards on the loans.
“When the big companies change their standards and rules, it has a huge effect on the market,” said Bob Walters, chief economist at the Detroit-based company.
FHA lending to the riskiest borrowers has declined in the past two years. Only 3.8 percent of FHA loans had scores below 620 or no score in the quarter ended Sept. 30, down from a peak of 50.4 percent in the period through Dec. 31, 2008, according to a Nov. 4 agency report to Congress. A score below 620 was typically considered subprime before the credit crisis, meaning the borrower had a bad or limited credit history.