Economists debate whether or not the country is actually currently in a recession. Some say that there are positive signs that we have reached the bottom and the economy is turning around. Others, however, suggest that the country still has a long way to go and it may be years yet before we truly reach financial recovery. Regardless of who is right though, one thing is clear: many people are facing significant financial hardships and need help now.
For many, the place they need the most help is keeping their homes out of foreclosure. The sub-prime mortgage disaster has left many people unable to make their monthly payments and facing the prospect of losing their homes.
In an effort to prevent the national economy from worsening and help alleviate some of the suffering felt by homeowners, the Obama Administration introduced the "Making Homes Affordable" plan last March. So far, however, the plan has failed to have the effect the Administration claimed it would, reaching far fewer homeowners than the millions promised.
Federal Programs to Refinance and Restructure Mortgages
Making Homes Affordable created two programs meant to help homeowners keep their homes out of foreclosure by either refinancing or restructuring their home loan debt.
The first program, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), is meant to help those homeowners who want to refinance their mortgages, but are unable to secure traditional refinancing because their home has lost value in the depressed market. HARP is only open to homeowners who have their loans owned or guaranteed by the government-run Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Additionally, refinancing through HARP will not lower or otherwise impact the principal owed on the loan.
Other eligibility requirements of the refinancing program include:
•· Homeowners must be current on their mortgage payments
•· Homeowners cannot have been more than 30 days late on a payment within the last 12 months
•· The amount owed on the first mortgage cannot be more than 125% of the current market value of the home
•· The homeowner must be able to demonstrate a reasonable ability to pay the refinanced amount
The second program, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), applies to homeowners who are delinquent in the mortgage payments and either in foreclosure or facing the immediate threat of foreclosure. Once a homeowner's application is in review for the program, any foreclosure proceedings against him or her must be stayed until an eligibility decision is made.
To be eligible for HAMP, homeowners must demonstrate a financial hardship that makes it impossible for them to meet their mortgage obligations. This financial hardship may include things like unemployment and medical expenses. Some of the other qualifications homeowners must meet include:
•· The unpaid principal balance on a single home cannot be more than $729,000
•· The monthly mortgage payment must be more than 31% of the homeowner's monthly pre-tax income
•· The first mortgage on the home must have originated on or after January 1, 2009
•· The home must be the primary residence
If the homeowner has more than one mortgage lien on the property, only the first mortgage is eligible for modification under the program.
Criticisms of the Federal Programs
Even as the federal government continues to laud the successes of its Making Homes Affordable programs, those who have sought acceptance into either program are telling a different story. Some of the chief criticisms of the federal mortgage programs include:
•· The programs are not helping as many people as the Administration claimed they would. According to reports, only 6% of the 4 million eligible homeowners are participating in the refinancing or restructuring programs. As of September, 88% of the 1 million ARM mortgages had not been modified or refinanced. Only 575,000 homeowners have been offered a trial program and of those, only 360,000 currently are underway.
•· The programs only are mandatory for federal lenders and not private ones. Right now, private lenders like Bank of America and Citigroup are not required to participate in either program. Given that private lenders hold 85% of the 14 million mortgages in the country, their participation is necessary to offer any real relief.
•· Voluntary involvement by private lenders is limited. Even though the federal government is pushing private lenders to become more involved - and giving them bail-out money as an incentive - the participation rates by private banks and other lenders are still low. Recent reports put JP Morgan Chase at the top of the list, having enrolled 20% of its eligible customers in the federal program. Wells Fargo and Bank of America round-out the bottom of the list with 6% and 4% respective enrollment.
•· The process itself is difficult for homeowners. When homeowners are deemed eligible to participate in the program, they are buried under paperwork and may be forced to wait months before they obtain final approval. Many private lenders do not have the resources or personnel to handle the onslaught of requests, leading to lost documents, duplicate requests and long waits. The process is confusing at best, making it not worth the hassle for some frustrated homeowners.
•· The programs do not offer relief to those who need it most. Arguably the biggest problem with the program is that it fails to help those in the worst financial straits. Homeowners behind in their payments are not eligible for the refinancing option. Those who qualify for the restructuring option must be able to make three payments on-time during the trial period in order to secure final approval for the restructured mortgage. If they fail to do so, they are dropped from the trial program and their home is subject to foreclosure. It stands to reason that an option should be made available for those in the worst financial conditions who cannot meet the eligibility requirements for either program.
People who have found themselves behind on their mortgages and facing foreclosure have other options besides seeking participation in one of the federally-sponsored Making Homes Affordable programs. Lenders have created their own refinancing and restructuring programs for many homeowners. If a bank program is not an option, homeowners may be able to keep their home out of foreclosure by negotiating a private settlement with the lender or filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection.
Even though the unemployment and foreclosure numbers in Louisiana are considered moderate when compared to other states, this does not mean people in the state are not suffering from the economic downturn. For more information on your legal options to reduce debt, contact an experienced attorney.