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Real Estate Industry Wary ahead of New Mortgage Rules

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By Deon Roberts

(MCT)—Real estate officials are bracing for new federal mortgage rules intended to press lenders to ensure that prospective borrowers are able to repay home loans.

Starting Jan. 10, lenders will be required to scrutinize eight types of financial information about a borrower, including income and debts.

The so-called ability-to-repay and qualified-mortgage requirements stem from the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The rules, which were issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are designed to prevent the kind of risky loans that contributed to the financial crisis.

The rules are perhaps the largest issue on the real estate industry’s mind in the new year. Some real estate officials say one of their biggest worries is that the rules will make it harder for low-income and first-time homebuyers to get a mortgage, as well as those in rural areas.

“This definitely affects the lower-income borrower, by far,” says Janet Gaglione, president of the Charlotte (N.C.) Regional Mortgage Lenders Association. “We’re going to have very strict guidelines. This law is trying to make every lender accountable for every unknown factor that could happen during the term of the loan.”

The new rules come as the U.S. housing market starts to recover. Nationwide, builders began work on 780,600 new residential housing units in 2012, up from the housing downturn’s low of 554,000 in 2009 — but below the 1.8 million in 2006, before the crash.

“Housing is really in the mud right now, and home construction is really in the mud right now,” says Mark Vitner, economist for Wells Fargo.

Vitner says his greatest concern about the rules is the impact they will have on first-time homebuyers. Home purchases by first-time buyers are experiencing a weaker recovery compared with the upper-end of the housing market, which has posted stronger gains as the stock market has rebounded, he says.

The new mortgage rules could become another drag on the housing market, Vitner says.

“That could be a real speed bump on the road to recovery,” he says.

Under the ability-to-repay requirements, lenders have to make “a reasonable, good-faith determination” that a borrower is able to repay a mortgage before a lender provides a loan, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For borrowers, that will mean turning over documentation to show lenders proof of their earnings, a reversal from the housing boom days when some lenders let borrowers simply state their incomes without providing records.

Lenders will also be required to assess a borrower’s other financial obligations, such as alimony and child support. A borrower’s debt-to-income ratio and credit history must also be considered.

For many borrowers, the changes won’t feel all that different, as lenders have changed their practices since the financial crisis.

“Everything’s going to have to be documented,” says Phil Mahoney, president and CEO of Charlotte-based American Security Mortgage, a midsize lender. “For the general consumer out there, that’s no different than it’s been the last five or six years.”

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