Can I Refinance?

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LendingTree quoted me in Can I Refinance? Refinance Requirements for Your Mortgage. It opens,

While there are many reasons to refinance a mortgage, one of the biggest factors at play is whether or not you’ll be able to get a better interest rate. When interest rates drop, homeowners are incentivized to refinance into a new mortgage with a lower rate and better terms because it can potentially save them a boatload of money over the course of their loan.

Not only can refinancing save money on interest payments, but it can lead to lower monthly payments, or be a way to get rid of a pesky primary mortgage insurance requirement once you’ve earned enough equity in your home. Homeowners can also tinker with their repayment timeline when they refinance, choosing to lengthen their loan term or even shorten it to pay off their home faster.

The first question before you refinance your mortgage is simple: Does it make financial sense? Refinancing a mortgage comes with the same closing costs and fees as a regular mortgage, so you must stand to earn more by refinancing than you’ll pay to do it.

If you’ve had the same mortgage rate since the aughts or earlier, chances are you could have much to gain by refinancing in today’s lower rate environment.

The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage hit a low point of 3.31% on Nov. 21, 2012 and hasn’t budged all too much since then. Rates currently stand at 4.32% as of Feb. 8, 2018. By comparison, rates were routinely in the double digits in the 80s and early 90s.

Will rates continue on the upward trend? Unfortunately, nobody knows. But rate behavior will very likely play a key role in your decision.

Once you’ve decided refinancing makes financial sense, the next question should be this: What does it take to qualify? That’s what we’ll cover in this guide.

If you hope to refinance before rates climb any further, it’s smart to get your ducks in a row and find out the refinance requirements for your mortgage right away. Keep reading to learn the minimum requirements to refinance your mortgage, how your credit score may come into play and what steps to take next.

Can you refinance your home?

Lenders consider three main criteria when approving consumers for a home refinance – income, equity, and credit.

  • Debt and income.
  • Equity. Equity is important because lenders want to confirm possibly getting their money back out of your home if you default on your mortgage.
  • Credit. Any lending situation will involve a credit check. “They look at your credit score to see if you have the willingness to pay your mortgage back – to see if you’re creditworthy,” said David Reiss, Professor of Real Estate Law at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Do you have a low credit score or a high credit score? Do you pay your bills on time?” he asked. “These are all things your lender needs to know.”

While the above factors play a role in whether you’ll qualify to refinance your home, lenders do get fairly specific when it comes to how they gauge your income to determine affordability. Since the amount of income you need to qualify for a new mortgage depends on the amount you wish to borrow, lenders typically use something called “debt-to-income ratio” to measure your ability to repay, says Reiss.

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)

During the underwriting process for a conventional loan, lenders will look at all the factors that make them comfortable extending you a loan. This includes your income and your debt levels, says Reiss. “Debt-to-income ratio is an easy way for lenders to determine if you have too many debt payments that might interfere with your home mortgage payment in the future.”

To come up with a debt-to-income ratio, lenders look at your debts and compare them with your income.

But, how is your debt-to-income ratio determined? Your debt-to-income ratio is all of your monthly debt payments divided by your gross monthly income.

In the real world, someone’s debt-to-income ratio would work something like this:

Imagine one of your neighbors has a gross monthly income of $4,000, but they pay out $3,000 per month toward rent payments, car loans, child support, and student loans. Their debt income ratio would be 75% because $3,000 divided by $4,000 is .75.

Reiss says this factor is important because lenders shy away from consumers with debt-to-income ratios that are considered “too high.” Generally speaking, lenders prefer to loan money to borrowers with a debt-to-income ratio of less than 43% but 36% is ideal.

In the example above where your neighbor has a monthly gross income of $4,000, this means he or she may have to get all debt payments down to approximately $1,700 to qualify for a mortgage. ($1,700 divided by $4,000 = .425 or 42.5%).

There are exceptions to the 43% DTI rule, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Some lenders may offer you a mortgage if your debt-to-income ratio is higher than 43%. Situations, where such mortgages are offered, include when a borrower has a high credit score, a stellar record of repayment or both. Still, the 43% rule is a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to traditional mortgages.

Other financial thresholds

If you plan to refinance your home with an FHA mortgage, your housing costs typically need to be less than 29% of your income while your total debts should be no more than 41%.

However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees FHA loans, also notes that potential borrowers with lower credit scores and higher debt-to-income ratios may need to have their loans manually underwritten to ensure “adequate consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay while preserving access to credit for otherwise underserved borrowers.”

Mortgage broker Mark Lewin of Caliber Home Loans in Indiana even says that in his experience, individuals with good credit and “other compensating factors” have secured FHA loans with a total debt-to-income ratio of 55%.

Of course, those who already have an FHA loan may also be able to refinance to a lower rate with no credit check or income verification through a process called FHA Streamline Refinancing. Your debt-to-income ratio won’t even be considered.

A VA loan is another type of home loan that has its own set of debt-to-income requirements. Generally speaking, veterans who meet eligibility requirements for the program need to have a debt-to-income ratio at or below 41% to qualify. However, you may be able to refinance your home with an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan from the VA if you already have a VA loan. These loans don’t have any underwriting or appraisal requirements.

Equity requirements

Equity requirements to refinance your mortgage are typically at the sole discretion of your lender. Where some home mortgage companies may require 20% equity to refinance, others have much lighter requirements.

To find out what your home is worth and how much equity you have, you typically need to pay for a home appraisal, says Reiss. “Appraisals are typically required because you have to be able to prove the value of your home in order to refinance, just like you would with a traditional mortgage.”

There are a few exceptions, however. Mortgage refinancing options that may not require an appraisal include:

  • Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loans from the VA
  • FHA Streamline Refinance
  • HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) Mortgages

Explaining loan-to-value ratio, or LTV

Loan-to-value ratio is a figure determined by assessing how much you owe on your home in relation to its value. If you owe $80,000 on a home worth $100,000, for example, your LTV would be 80% and you would have 20% equity in your home.

This ratio is important because it can determine whether your lender will approve you for a refinance. It can also determine the interest rates you’ll pay and other terms of your loan. If you have less than 20% equity in your home, for example, you may face higher interest rates and fees when you go to refinance.

Having less than 20% equity when you refinance may also cause you to have to pay PMI or private mortgage insurance. This mortgage insurance usually costs between 0.15 to 1.95% of your loan amount each year. If you have less than 20% equity in your home already, you’re already likely to be paying for this coverage all along. However, it’s still worth noting that, if you refinance with less than 20% equity, this coverage will once again get tacked onto your mortgage amount.

Is 80% LTV mandatory?

Your LTV and equity aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to your loan refi application. In fact, Reiss says that lenders he has experience with don’t absolutely require borrowers to have 20% equity or a loan-to-value ratio of 80% — so long as they score high on other measures.

“If you meet the lender’s requirements in terms of income and credit, your loan-to-value ratio doesn’t matter as much — especially if you have excellent credit and a solid payment history,” he said. However, lenders do prefer lending to consumers who have at least 20% equity in their homes.

Reiss says he always refers to 20% equity as the “gold standard” because it’s a goal everyone should shoot for. Not only does having 20% equity in your home when you refinance help you avoid paying for the added expense of PMI, but it can help provide more stability in your life, says Reiss: “Divorce, disease, and death in the family can and do happen, but having equity in your home makes it easier to overcome anything life throws your way.”

For example, having more equity in your home makes it easier to refinance into the best rates possible. Having a lot of equity is also ideal when you have to sell your home suddenly because it means you’re more likely to turn a profit and less likely to take a loss. Last but not least, if you have plenty of equity in your home, you can access that cash for emergency expenses via a home equity loan or HELOC.

“Home equity is a big source of wealth for American families,” he said. “The more equity you have, the more resources you have.”

Fortunately, many households are enjoying greater home equity today, as home values have continued to increase since the housing crisis.

Your credit score

The third factor that can impact your ability to refinance your home is your credit score. When a lender decides whether to give you a mortgage or not, they typically offer the best rates to people with very good credit, or with FICO scores of 740 or higher, according to Reiss.

“The lower your credit score, the higher your interest rate may be,” he said. “If your credit score is bad enough, you may not be able to refinance or get a new mortgage at all.”

The FICO scoring model’s main website,, seems to echo Reiss’ comments. As it notes, a “very good” score is any FICO score in the 740-799 range. If you earn a 740+ FICO, you’re above the national average and have a greater likelihood of getting credit approval and being offered lower interest rates.

Don’t stress about getting a perfect 850 FICO score either. In reality, rates stop improving much once you pass 740.

Friday’s Government Reports

  • The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has reported an uptick in mortgage rates from June to July 2015.  This is according to the Monthly Interest Rate Survey (MIRS), which measures several indices of new mortgage contracts to arrive at a national average.  July’s average was 4.02% up 17 basis points from June’s 3.8%.
  • The FHFA has also released its second quarter Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) refinance results. According to the report refinances remained unchanged between the first and second quarters of 2015, 31,561 borrowers refinanced with HARP funds, which represented 5% of all U.S. refinances.  HARP was established in 2009 in order to assist homeowners unable to refinance because of a decline in their home value.  As of March the FHFA estimated that there were over 500,000 borrowers eligible for the HARP program.
  • Also according to the FHFA house prices rose 1.2% from the first to the second quarter (Q2) of 2015 and are up more that 5% over Q2 201.  This is according FHFA’s House Price Index (HPI) which has been up for the last 16 consecutive quarters.

Friday’s Government Reports

  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently released a report entitled A Closer Look a Reverse Mortgage Advertisements and Consumer Risks which discusses its findings regarding the failure of reverse mortgage ads to mention the considerable risks involved in reverse mortgage loans (while extolling their virtues).  The CFPB also released a consumer advisory to warn seniors about the potential pitfalls of reverse mortgages.
  • A new rule requiring a Three Day Review Period for Mortgage applications submitted after August 1st, 2015 will only apply if certain (3) changes are made before closing: 1. Changes in Annual Percentage Rate (APR); 2) Prepayment terms; 3) Basic loan product changes (i.e. from fixed at adjustable rate). The CFPB has released a factsheet detailing how the new rule functions.
  • The Federal Housing Finance Agency unveiled an interactive online map to help “in the money borrowers” identify the opportunity (those eligible for The Home Affordable Refinance Program aka HARP).

Housing Finance at A Glance

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center really does give a a nice overview of the American housing finance system in its monthly chartbook, Housing Finance at A Glance. I list below a few of the charts that I found particularly informative, but I recommend that you take a look at the whole chartbook if you want to get a good sense of what it has to offer:

  • First Lien Origination Volume and Share (reflecting market share of Bank portfolio; PLS securitization; FHA/VA securitization; an GSE securitization)
  • Mortgage Origination Product Type (by Fixed-rate 30-year mortgage; Fixed-rate 15-year mortgage; Adjustable-rate mortgage; Other)
  • Securitization Volume and Composition (by Agency and Non-Agency Share of Residential MBS Issuance)
  • National Housing Affordability Over Time
  • Mortgage Insurance Activity (by VA, FHA, Total private primary MI)

As with the blind men and the elephant, It is hard for individuals to get their  hands around the entirety of the housing finance system. This chartbook makes you feel like you got a glimpse of it though, at least a fleeting one.

Watt’s up with Fannie and Freddie

There has been a lot of press coverage of FHFA Director Watt’s first public speech since taking on his job. Watt emphasized that

we must ensure that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operate in a safe and sound manner.  It means that we’ll work to preserve and conserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s assets.  And it means that we’ll work to ensure a liquid and efficient national housing finance market.  Our job at FHFA is to balance these obligations . . ..

He also set forth three goals for his FHFA:

Strategic Goal 1: MAINTAIN, in a safe and sound manner, foreclosure prevention activities and credit availability for new and refinanced mortgages to foster liquid, efficient, competitive and resilient national housing finance markets. 

Strategic Goal 2: REDUCE taxpayer risk through increasing the role of private capital in the mortgage market.

Strategic Goal 3: BUILD a new single-family securitization infrastructure for use by the Enterprises and adaptable for use by other participants in the secondary market in the future.

These goals are all totally reasonable for the FHFA to pursue. But it is also clear that Director Watt is taking the FHFA in a direction that is quite different than the one pursued by his predecessor, Acting Director DeMarco.  DeMarco had taken the position that the best way to protect taxpayers was to be pretty tough on everyone else. “Everyone else” included defaulting and underwater homeowners as well as originating lenders who had sold Fannie and Freddie tons of mortgages that did not comply with the reps and warranties that the parties had agreed to about the quality of those mortgages. DeMarco’s strategy was much criticized but also quite coherent.

Watt has made it clear that he is going to be more flexible with homeowners. He highlighted a pilot program in Detroit that will include “deeper loan modifications.”  He has also made it clear that he is going to be more flexible with lenders, relaxing rep and warranty standards for mortgages that Fannie and Freddie purchase from lenders. These may be very good policies to pursue, but it would be helpful if he set forth a clearer vision of how safety and soundness is best balanced with liquidity and efficiency. Federal housing finance policy typically goes off the rails when its goals get all mixed up. Director Watt should ensure that FHFA’s safety and soundness goals are clearly set forth and that other goals for Fannie and Freddie are designed to work in harmony with them.

Post-Bubble Foreclosure-Prevention and -Mitigation Options in Your Town?

Bob Hockett has posted Post-Bubble Foreclosure-Prevention and -Mitigation Options in Seattle. I recommend it to those interested in issues beyond Seattle’s borders because it actually covers foreclosure-prevention and mitigation options across the country, although it looks at them with a Seattle focus.

He argues that

There is a potentially bewildering array of means available to at least some underwater homeowners, and these programs are also noteworthy for failing to solve the fundamental problems affecting these mortgages. There are three vitiating weakness share by nearly all of these means . . ..

The first weakness among currently available options is that they do not concentrate upon mortgage principal-reduction, meaning that they do nothing about the underwater status of underwater mortgage loans – which is the principal predictor of default and foreclosure – at all. Instead they rely upon temporary forbearance, term-extension, or interest rate reduction. . . .

The second weakness of the currently available options is that they are voluntary from the creditor’s point of view. That is problematic not because creditors lack in appreciation of their own enlightened self-interest or in desire to do the right thing, but because where there are structural or contractual barriers to principal reduction, as we shall see there are here in abundance, even creditor-benefiting such changes cannot occur on an adequate scale. Creditors are very often unable to do what benefits themselves and homeowners alike, meaning that voluntary programs can be useless.

Finally, the third weakness that the options discussed here suffer is that they do not extend to underwater PLS loans, which, as seen above, constitute the great bulk of troubled mortgage loans; they are in general available only to GSE and bank portfolio loans . . .. (11)

I found the review of “publicly encouraged debt relief” programs useful. (14) They include

  1. HAMP (the federal Home Affordable Modification Program)
  2. HARP (the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program)
  3. Miscellaneous Specialized HAMP Analogues
  4. FHA Short Refinance Program
  5. HAFA(federal Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternative)
  6. “Hardest Hit” Fund & Program (Treasury)
  7. HOPE NOW Alliance
  8. The Attorney Generals’ Settlement

Hockett also proposes some innovative approaches that he suggests that Seattle should consider including the use of eminent domain as well as a land bank. Worth the read.