Getting a Mortgage in 2010: 10 Things to Know

Although requirements may tighten and costs could rise, borrowers can land an attractive rate next year

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Slide Show: 10 Things to Know About Getting a Mortgage in 2010

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5. FHA increase? With so many borrowers unable to meet today's stricter lending requirements, FHA-backed loans have become increasingly popular. Today, the FHA guarantees nearly 3 of every 10 new home mortgages. That's a stunning increase from 2006, when the agency backed roughly 3 percent of new home loans. Meanwhile, the agency's finances have deteriorated considerably. The seasonally adjusted delinquency rate for FHA loans increased from about 13 percent in the third quarter of last year to 14.36 percent in this year's third quarter. At the same time, the agency's capital reserve ratio dipped below the level that Congress mandates. In the face of mounting political pressure, the Obama administration has announced new steps that may make it more difficult for some borrowers to obtain mortgages backed by the agency. The steps include raising the minimum FICO score, increasing up-front cash requirements, and possibly charging higher insurance premiums. "We want to ensure that we are able to continue to support the housing market in the short term and provide access to homeownership over the long-term, while minimizing the risk to the American taxpayer," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told a congressional committee in written testimony.

6. Asset purchase program: Mortgage rates in 2010 are expected to climb from 2009's extremely low levels. After the Federal Reserve announced plans to purchase debt and mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last year, rates on 30-year fixed conforming mortgages fell to historic lows, plunging to 4.97 percent in late November from 6.19 a year earlier. But the Fed's asset purchase program is scheduled to expire at the end of the first quarter of 2010, and a lack of private demand for mortgage-backed securities could lead to higher rates. Keep in mind that the Fed has already extended this program once. And if it appears that the market needs additional government support to keep rates low, the Fed could always decide to remain in the market. Keith Gumbinger of HSH.com expects rates to increase from current levels to between 5 and 5.25 percent by the end of March 2010.

7. Jumbo mortgages: Rates on more expensive home loans—or jumbo mortgages—have dropped to extremely attractive levels, hitting 5.88 percent in the week that ended November 27. "That ranks with all-time bests," Gumbinger says. But while he expects rates on jumbo mortgages to remain historically attractive throughout 2010, many borrowers won't be able to obtain them. That's because most banks have to keep jumbo mortgages on their books and therefore apply much stricter lending standards to them. (Smaller conforming loans can be sold off to Fannie and Freddie.) "Your down payment requirements [for jumbo mortgages] are anywhere between 40 percent down to 20 percent down, depending upon what is happening in your marketplace," Gumbinger says. "You may have to show superhuman strength in terms of credit, [and] you may have to show extraordinary income size."

8. Fed rate hike: In attempting to jump-start the economy, the Fed has slashed its benchmark federal funds rate to as low as zero percent. And even as some express concerns about future inflation, the central bank in early November said that economic conditions were "likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period." As such, economists don't expect the Fed to raise rates anytime soon. "The statement does not lead us to change our view that the Fed will keep rates unchanged until the September 2010 meeting, when we expect the first rate hike," Dean Maki of Barclays Capital Research said in a report. But while an increased federal funds rate could push rates on certain products—such as adjustable rate mortgages or home equity lines of credit—higher, it has little direct influence on fixed mortgage rates.

9. Recovery: A recovery in the U.S. economy may also lead to increased mortgage costs. That's because economic improvement could create more demand for credit, which pushes rates higher. At the same time, a recovery could embolden investors to move money out of ultrasafe assets like 10-year treasuries and into more risky investments. And since 30-year fixed mortgage rates tend to track the yield on the 10-year treasury note, such a development would put upward pressure on mortgage rates. Gumbinger says that economic improvement and other factors could push rates on 30-year fixed mortgages as high as 5.75 percent by midsummer. "After that, you are going to be at the whims of the economy," he says.