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RISMEDIA, November 16, 2009—(MCT)—The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) is giving the condo market something it hasn’t had for a while—a little breathing room.

The FHA, the federal agency that insures low-down-payment home loans for private lenders recently said it was relaxing its building underwriting guidelines as a way of helping the struggling sector ride out the downturn. The move could help boost sales in condos by making more FHA mortgages available to borrowers.

“The best way to bring back some level of security is to get new buyers into those vacant units. You can’t do that until new homeowners have access to financing,” said Meg Burns, director of the FHA’s single-family program development. The new rules—which are temporary—come after more than a year of more stringent standards from lenders, who, after suffering major losses on condos, began vetting and disqualifying condominium projects for purchase loans, regardless of whether home buyers qualified.

“This might be an entree for traditional and conventional lenders to return to the marketplace. Symbolically, it’s a pretty significant move,” said Peter Zalewski, a condo market analyst and broker with Condo Vultures in Bal Harbour, Fla.

The temporary rules are effective for most of the coming year and will help the marketplace transition into a new set of tougher guidelines that bring FHA into closer alignment with the project underwriting practices of Fannie Mae.

Earlier this year, Fannie implemented a slew of new regulations governing condo projects that some claim have strangled the market by stigmatizing condo loans in tough markets such as Florida.

Similar to Fannie regulations, the FHA is also now singling out those markets for special attention by approving projects itself, rather than lenders. Burns said lenders and investors were reluctant and even “scared” to lend money, prompting the agency to step in as a way of calming nerves. “We’re coming in and saying we’ll approve the projects and back them so you will feel confident and comfortable lending in this environment,” Burns said.

Securing the blessing of the FHA is important because it allows borrowers to get loans that require down payments of only 3.5% and qualify under less burdensome terms. Most conventional loans now require 20% down, keeping creditworthy borrowers on the sidelines. In some new projects, lenders have asked for down payments of as much as 40 to 50%.

Among the new, temporary rules is a measure extending a deadline allowing lenders to submit mortgage loans for spot approval in buildings that have not been approved for FHA lending. The administration had said the so-called spot loans would be eliminated by the end of the year but the new deadline is February 2010.

The new guidelines also:

-Increase from 30% to 50% the number of units in a project that can be financed with FHA loans. FHA, however, will make exceptions, even allowing up to 100%, when buildings meet an additional set of more stringent criteria.

-Require at least 50% of units in a complex to be owner-occupied or sold to owners who plan to live in the units. Bank-owned units may be disqualified from the percentage calculation.

-Reduce a presale requirement in new construction to 30%, compared to 70% for loans from conventional lenders.

“This temporary guidance represents incredible leniency in terms of financing standards and loan standards,” Burns said. It’s hard to say how many buildings may benefit from the new rules, but mortgage brokers and real estate observers applauded the reprieve. “This should really help some of the stalled projects if they can get their buildings approved,” said Grant Stern, a mortgage consultant in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., who specializes in Fannie Mae and FHA guidelines. “A lot of these buildings looking to sell out the rest of their inventory should be able to get FHA approval to close out the projects.”

But there will be more hurdles to overcome beginning Dec. 7. That’s when a bevy of additional regulations take effect, including a provision that withholds approval from buildings where more than 15% of unit owners are past due on association fees.

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.