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Low Rates, High Obstacles to Refinancing Mortgage

As interest rates have slid over the past couple of years, Gabriel Bousbib of Englewood, N.J., refinanced his 15-year mortgage not once, but twice-cutting his interest rate in two steps from about 4.6 percent to 3.375 percent.

He’s one of a number of homeowners who refinanced just a year or two ago, but decided it was worth considering again as mortgage rates hit record lows-now averaging around 4 percent for a 30-year loan.

refinancing your home“When you’re quoting rates in the high 3s, people are saying, ‘It’s worth it to me,'” says Steve Hoogerhyde, executive vice president at Clifton Savings Bank.

“My monthly savings are going down a few hundred dollars; it adds up over 15 years,” said Bousbib, a financial services executive. “And if rates keep going down, I would refinance again.”

Refinance applications have more than doubled over the past year, though they’re not as high as in previous refinancing booms because it’s harder to qualify in the current atmosphere of tighter credit standards, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. With the volume of home purchases still low, refinancing accounts for about 80 percent of recent activity.

Although the old guideline used to be that you should consider refinancing only when rates drop at least 2 percentage points, the new wisdom is that it can be worthwhile even with smaller drops.

“For most people, if you can shave three-quarters of a percentage point off your interest rate, it’s worth looking at,” says Greg McBride, an analyst with Bankrate.com, a personal finance website.

For homeowners who plan to stick with the same loan term and want to lower their monthly payments, the math is straightforward. Find out how much it will cost to refinance, figure out how much you’ll save each month and then how long it will take to break even. If you can save enough to offset the refinancing costs within a year or two-or even longer if you expect to stay in the house for a number of years-it’s worth considering.

Though low-interest rates are eye-poppingly low, the refinancing climate has changed from the easy-money days of five years ago. Generally, to get the best rates, homeowners need a 740 FICO credit score, well above the median score of 711. They also usually need at least 10 to 20 percent equity in the property. A recent expansion in the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program should allow refinancing this year by more so-called underwater borrowers – those who owe more than their homes are worth.

Lenders are also demanding much more documentation – including pay stubs, tax returns and bank statements – than they did five years ago, at the insistence of government regulators as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy mortgages from lenders.

“You have to have a taste for doing paperwork,” says Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates, a Pompton Plains, N.J., company that tracks mortgage data. “You’re going to be asked for lots of documents. No one loves the process to begin with, and in today’s environment, it’s even less palatable.”

These stricter requirements are simply a return to the kind of underwriting standards that prevailed before lending standards slackened a few years back, leading to the housing bust and foreclosure crisis, McBride says.

“We’re in this mess because money was too easy to get,” he says.

Refinancing costs roughly $3,000, according to several mortgage companies. That covers costs like an appraisal, title insurance, application fees, attorney’s fees and recording the mortgage. Some lenders also offer low- or no-cost options, which they can do by either adding the closing costs to the mortgage amount or charging a slightly higher interest rate.

Bousbib, for example, took a no-cost refinance with Equity Now, a New York-based lender that also lends in New Jersey. “It didn’t cost me a penny,” he says. Equity Now says it charges a slightly higher interest rate on no-cost loans.

Lowering the monthly payment is not the only reason people are refinancing. Many are shifting from a 30-year loan to shorter terms, said Matthew Gratalo of Real Estate Mortgage Network in River Edge, N.J. He has worked with clients in their 40s who hate the thought of carrying a mortgage into retirement.

“They’re looking ahead and saying, ‘I don’t want to pay a mortgage forever; can I get this done in 15 years? Can I be done with this and have it paid off?’ ” Gratalo says.

“Certainly shortening the term makes a lot of sense because you can cut years of mortgage payments,” says Carl Nielsen of Mortgage Master Inc.’s Wayne office.

Nielsen, for example, recently talked to a customer with a $375,000, 30-year mortgage at 4.5 percent. The customer is considering a 20-year mortgage at 3.75 percent. His monthly payments would go from $1,900 to about $2,223, but by shortening the life of the loan, he’ll save more than $150,000 in interest payments.

“That’s kind of a no-brainer,” says Nielsen.

Sources: Greg McBride, Bankrate.com ©2012 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), Distributed by RISMedia and MCT Information Services.

Cash is king in today’s housing market

In these financially uncertain times in the housing market, all-cash sales are attractive offers to homesellers, but come with a condition–they usually must settle for less. In a typical housing market, if your home receives multiple offers (from prospective cash-carrying and/or those pre-approved for a loan), you will accept the highest bid.  But in this current market, mortgages can be hard to come by, and sellers often will take less in order to have the deal go through. 

The outcome: lowering prices despite fewer listings and rising demand.  According to the Star Tribune’s article below, the increased amount of cash offers is offsetting other postive trends that, if there weren’t these cash offers, should lead to higher prices.

All-cash offers in today's real estate marketThis all-cash trend is especially prevalent in distressed sales, where investors are the main buyers, and who typically deal with cash as it is. Short sales and foreclosures accounted for 42% of active listings last month, on average in metro areas. Read more about what the Star Tribune has to say on this topic in their article below:

In today’s topsy-turvy housing market, cash rules

Financing uncertainties make those cash offers alluring, but sellers often must settle for less money to guarantee a deal.

When Chris and Diane Finney decided to buy a bank-owned condo in St. Paul, they knew there would be competition.

Their strategy? Offer less — but offer cash.

While others said they would pay more, they needed to finance the deal. The bank took less and took the cash.

“We were in the driver’s seat,” Chris Finney said.

In a normal housing market, multiple bids usually lead to higher home prices, and the highest bid wins. But when credit markets are tighter and appraisals are often lower, many sellers will take less to be sure that the deal will get done.

“If I get five offers on a property and the cash offer is darned close to being one of those top offers, I’d take the cash offer any day,” said Marshall Saunders, owner/broker at Re/Max Results.

In December, 33 percent of all U.S. home sales were cash deals — a record since the downturn started in 2006, according to Campbell Survey and Inside Mortgage Finance. As a result, home prices can’t gain much traction because many sellers won’t necessarily accept the highest offer.

For most home buyers, it’s confounding to be rejected because they are financing the deal. For the housing market, it means more downward pressure on prices despite tight supplies and rising demand.

“It’s a real sign of what’s going on,” said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. “All things being equal, cash wins.”

The volume of cash deals is offsetting other positive trends in the market that should be leading to higher prices. The number of houses on the market has fallen to an eight-year low, and sales are up double digits. At the same time, home prices continue to fall.

At least a third of all homes sales last year involved an investor, Cecala said, and they often pay cash…

Read more of this article from the Star Tribune: “In today’s topsy-turvy housing market, cash rules.”