Most loan modification programs are designed to simply lower a borrower’s mortgage interest rate, thus reduce their monthly payment.  However with home values so low, a loan mod that reduces the interest rate still means that most homeowners are paying on negative equity.  They owe more than the home is worth, so even if the payment is more affordable, it could be years before any part of their monthly payment is actually paying down principal on the current value of the home.

For many homeowners, this just doesn’t make financial sense and they are allowing their homes to go to foreclosure, a practice dubbed “strategic default”.  Experts predict that the number of strategic defaults will likely increase as home prices remain stagnant and homeowners become increasingly angry with banks. Everyone including the government, industry analysts, and the public would probably agree that an increase in strategic defaults and the subsequent foreclosures will only slow the housing market recovery.

So the FHA has introduced a new Short Refinance Program aimed at borrowers who are upside down.  The goal is to reduce the actual principal amount owed to a level more in line with current home values and thus encourage homeowners to stay in their homes and continue to make payments.

Sounds like a great idea at face value, but qualifying for the program does come with a list of conditions for the homeowner, including: 

  • Be current on their mortgage payments
  • Have a credit score of at least 500
  • Have negative equity
  • Not have a current FHA mortgage
  • Occupy the property
  • And…..have a bank willing to write off 10% of the loan principal

OK, I was thinking, “This might work….” until I read the last condition.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard of many banks stepping up to the plate and offering principal reductions, (Wachovia being the only exception that comes to mind).  So I’m not sure how successful this will be.  And doing the math, will a 10% reduction really be enough to encourage people to stay and pay?  In some parts of the country where the housing boom had the most impact, such as locations in CA and FL, values have dropped by as much as 50% since 2006.  So if a $500,000 mortgage is reduced to a $450,000 mortgage but the property is only worth $250,000 or even $300,000, will that be sufficient incentive to keep a borrower from walking?

I applaud the concept but am very skeptical about outcomes.  Principal reduction is, I believe, the mechanism that has the best chance of slowing strategic defaults.  The banks certainly take a big financial hit when a home goes to foreclosure…..why can’t they take the hit up front and keep people in their homes?