There’s been a dramatic change in the assistance offered to struggling homeowners.
In February, 49% of borrowers with a loan backed by federally controlled housing-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac received modifications that only extended the length of their mortgage. That share was up 20 percentage points from a year earlier, according to a report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates the government sponsored enterprises. Over that same time period, the share of borrowers receiving a modification that combined an extended term with other actions, such as a rate reduction and principal forbearance, fell by 19 percentage points.
Similar trends are seen in quarterly data from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which publishes a snapshot of the U.S. mortgage market. According to the OCC, the chance that a modification included a term extension rose by 10% in 2014. Meanwhile, the likelihood dropped 15% for a rate reduction and 66% for a principal deferral.
The reason? The big rise in home prices since 2012.
“As the market improves, the number of borrowers who are in deep distress goes down, so the average modification tends to get lighter because they don’t need to provide as much relief,” said Jim Parrott, a former housing-policy adviser for the White House’s National Economic Council and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.
Also, as time has passed, the pool of borrowers who are eligible for the most rigorous modifications has narrowed.
Officials have tweaked mortgage-help programs since the bubble burst, including an important change in 2014 to enable borrowers with loan-to-value ratios under 80% to receive a GSE modification that will generally only extend the term of a mortgage. Thanks to rising home prices — they bottomed out in early 2012 and are now about 9% down from a bubble peak — owners have become increasingly likely to have equity.
“The practice of providing a modification to somebody with significant equity is fairly new,” said Julia Gordon, senior director for housing and consumer finance at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. “The assumption in the past, pre-crisis, was if you get into terrible trouble with your mortgage, your solution was to downsize.”