I Pay My Mortgage: What's in the Housing Bailout For Me?

Even if the housing rescue doesn't lower your mortgage payments, it may still benefit you.

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As Uncle Sam issued check after to check to keep Wall Street bankers afloat, American taxpayers--who were picking up the tab--grew increasingly resentful of paying for others' mistakes. But when President Barack Obama announced a $75 billion plan to lower monthly mortgage payments for up to four million distressed homeowners in mid-February, frustration turned to rage. Just ask Rick Santelli, whose now-infamous rant against government subsidization of "the losers' mortgages" turned the obscure CNBC analyst into a household name, while underscoring the nation's growing distaste for bailouts. But the Obama administration has pitched its housing fix as one that would help all homeowners--not just troubled ones. So after fresh details of the plan were released Wednesday, it's time to ask: I'm a responsible homeowner; what's in it for me? 

1. How big is the foreclosure problem? Foreclosure filings were reported on more than 2.3 million American properties last year, according to RealtyTrac. That's one for every 54 housing units and an 81 percent jump from 2007. In a recent address, President Obama said nearly six million American homes are either in--or at risk of--foreclosure. And on Thursday, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that more than 11 percent of mortgages outstanding were either past due or in foreclosure during the fourth quarter of 2008.That's a record high.

2. Who qualifies for Obama's housing plan? The $75 billion goes toward reducing mortgage payments for as many as four million "at-risk" homeowners. The program is only available for owner-occupied, principal residences with mortgages that originated before Jan. 1, 2009. To qualify, the borrower's monthly mortgage payments must exceed 31 percent of their gross monthly income. In addition, they must also have undergone some type of financial hardship—such as a loss of income—that puts them at risk of default. While you don't need to be delinquent on your mortgage to qualify, borrowers who are comfortably making their mortgage payments won't be eligible.

3. I don't qualify. How does this help me? Many Americans who purchased homes they could reasonably afford and made their payments on time are understandably upset at seeing neighbors who made reckless decisions bailed out on their dime. But the Obama administration argues that keeping people in their homes is in the best interest of all homeowners, since foreclosures--which can blight communities and nurture crime--can drive down property values for everyone. "One study in Chicago found that a foreclosed home reduces the price of nearby homes by as much as 9 percent," the president recently said. Although he considers the 9 percent figure too high, Richard Moody, the chief economist at Mission Residential, says Obama's argument is sound. "If you were to go sell your house, the first thing the realtor is going to do when they try to figure out a listing price is to look at [comparable homes in your neighborhood]," Moody says. "And if you've got all these depressed property values, that is going to definitely harm the sales value of your home." As such, if Obama's housing plan succeeds in reducing foreclosures for troubled borrowers--and that's a huge if--it may help to bolster the values of other homes as well.

4. What incentive do I have to keep paying my mortgage? A home foreclosure is an ugly stain on a credit report, and it can remain there for as long as seven years. "It's right up there with a bankruptcy," says Gail Cunningham, the spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. With banks tightening their lending standards in the face of higher delinquencies, it's a particularly bad time to ruin your credit. If you have a home foreclosure on your credit report, you're likely to have a difficult time getting any type of new credit these days--from a credit card to a new mortgage.

5. I'm not in trouble now, but how can I protect myself from the threat of foreclosure? Factors that can lead to foreclosure include unemployment, exploding-rate mortgages, and reckless discretionary spending. Although homeowners may have less control over their employment situation, by addressing these other factors, they can put themselves in a better position to avoid foreclosure should they suffer job loss. Julia Rodgers, a mortgage advisor with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, says homeowners should make sure they have sufficient savings set aside to pay their mortgage in the event of the unexpected. "Fallback savings is critical," Rodgers says. "At least have three months of your mortgage payments saved." In setting aside such savings, families should institute a household budget and review their online bank statements regularly to ensure they aren't spending wastefully. "A lot of my clients have $300 to $400 in bank fees alone," Rodgers says. "In this climate, we have to be extremely aware of where our money is going."