Refinancing your mortgage may seem ideal and particularly pressing when you are contacted by a “HARP specialist” anxious to point out that the rates are better than ever and the deadline to apply fast approaching. If you are considering such a move, let us first check to see if refinancing makes sense AND if you even qualify for or should use the HARP program.
Let’s begin by reviewing when and why we would take the time, make the effort, and incur the cost of a refinance. Refinancing is often done with the intention to lower interest paid, lower the monthly payments, or to change the terms of the mortgage. You may not realize that refinancing also restarts your amortization and could cost you in hidden ways by having you pay more interest over the mortgage period. A refinance is really a new mortgage where the new mortgage pays off your old mortgage and you work with the new product. The refinance may be ideal for the lender, but not always appropriate for you.
Traditionally refinanced mortgages are either for the balance of the previous mortgage OR for a higher balance by taking cash out. These are referred to as a “simple” or a “cash out” refi. Every time you do a refinance, your finances have to be in tip-top shape and you must select the right lender. Too often clients, for convenience, will use their current bank to refinance their mortgage, which may not offer the best terms or the easiest process. Regardless, you will be asked to verify your income. Moreover, you must have at least 20% equity (home-to-loan value, or LTV) if you don’t want to pay the mortgage insurance. The process for ALL refinancing will require that you gather documents and find the right lender, then submit an application, which the lender must respond to within 3 days with a good faith estimate (citing all costs). Once you accept, it may feel like ‘hurry up … and wait’ since the lender now has 2-3 months to respond. They will often come back to you for more information or clarification, so it turns into a back-and-forth experience. Eventually, you’ll lock-in a rate for another 30 days while verifying the final paperwork.
In the 2008-9 crisis, properties were valued lower (in most areas) and in some cases homes were worth less in the market than the mortgage debt (i.e., “underwater”). Since this was only a paper lose, it was only a problem for families with high-rate mortgages, an immediate need to sell, and with strained budgets. Sadly, these home owners were often denied a refinance to take advantage of much lower interest rates, reduce monthly mortgage costs or provide a more stable fixed-interest mortgage. It was to address this stressful financial situation that several programs were created. One, discussed below, is the HARP program.
“HARP” is the Home Affordable Refinance Program, a federal-government program established after the last housing crisis to assist homeowners with refinance (at today’s lower mortgage rates) even if their current mortgage is underwater. The goal of the program is to allow borrowers to refinance into a more affordable or sometimes a more stable mortgage product.
The HARP program ends December 31, 2016 and, as happens often before a deadline, we find an increased flurry of lenders trying to convince every home owner that they are the ideal candidate for this government program. HARP mortgages are not for everyone.
The first version of HARP had too many limits and in 2012 the HARP 2.0 program was created eliminating some of those limits. Notably, the underwater limits were removed, appraisals no longer needed, the refinance process streamlined, some fees for being ‘underwater’ eliminated, and allowance made for less stringent verification of income (to include not just W2 statements but also 12 months of saved mortgage payments).
The biggest difference between the traditional and HARP mortgages is that you don’t have to have an LTV ratio lower than 125%—the HARP program eliminated this limit. You could obtain a lower rate mortgage even if your home is still worth much less than your own mortgage.
As I’ve stated, HARP is often used to reduce mortgage interest and reduce monthly payments, but others use HARP to convert adjustable rate mortgages (also referred to as ARM-loan) into a more predictable, fixed-loan program (usually 30 years) or if it fits within your budget, a 15- year mortgage that helps you build equity faster.
HARP was never intended for individuals who are near bankruptcy or who have not paid or can’t pay their mortgages. Rather, it is intended for those who have managed to stay current on their mortgage payments, and yet, are not able to change to lower rates since they no longer qualify for a traditional refinance either because of lower income or decreased equity.
In my experience, HARP is a difficult option to pursue because the home owner not only needs to be current on their mortgage, the mortgage needs to be under Fannie Mae or Freddy Max and therefore must be “conforming.” Conforming loans have maximum limits of $415K to $625.5K depending on the location of the single family dwelling. Most Bay Area homes have mortgages that easily exceed these values. They are also only valid if the mortgage was acquired by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae before June 1, 2009 (an arbitrary date stemming from the crisis).
Because the regulations are rather document heavy and include many exceptions, some lenders have adopted their own versions, so you may need to change your lender to obtain the best HARP loan. Even though the process was to be streamlined, implementation fell far below expectations. The lender’s representative often lack enough knowledge, causing a great deal of frustration to an already stressed individual/family. For example, clients thought they had to use the same lender and that it only applied to their primary home—this is not the case. You can use any lender and HARP can be used on any mortgage that is backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The goal is to support those underwater because of the 2008-9 crisis.
Regardless of whether you are considering refinancing through HARP, other government programs or a private lender, you must always examine the total costs AND the purpose for the refinance. If you’ve recently completed a refinance then you need to have a really compelling reason before considering yet another refinance. If you need to increase cash flow then look for low closing costs but expect you’ll pay more interest in the long term. BUT if your purpose for the refinance is to cash out equity or to change some other aspect of your mortgage, then the upfront closing costs may be acceptable. At times, clients appear interested in refinance every few years largely because of lender contacts or advertising. Refinancing every few years can be a costly mistake. It is important to remember that each time you refinance you are starting with a brand new mortgage which will restart the amortization. Restarting amortization is good for the lender, but, not always good for you.
There are a couple of lessons here. First, to truly take advantage of opportunities like HARP you need to be on top of your finances. You also need to understand the product/plan that is offered. Ask yourself is this good for my financial situation? If unsure, drops us a line and we’ll check out the product and provide you with a product neutral opinion that is appropriate for your financial plan.
Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS