Tuesday, March 9, 2010

HARP and HAMP modify and refinance mortgages

One of the quotes seeming to run forever is, "Never give a sucker an even break." Coming from the movie of the same name, starring and written by W.C. Fields, it's supposed to be a comic line but, first used as an ad-lib by Fields in 1923, it accurately represents the ruthless streak in US business. So, over the last eighteen months or so, banks and finance companies have been playing to packed houses, always trying to portray themselves as caring and sympathetic but, more often than not, coming over as the heartless mortgage-holders in potboiling melodramas who throw the heroine out on the streets when there's six foot of snow on the ground. The evidence for this? Walk through any suburb or exurb and count the empty properties and their weather-beaten "For sale" signs as the foreclosures cut into the neighborhoods. Property values everywhere have been dropping like stones. We were all suckers, it seems, and no bank is ever going to give us an even break.

One of the "systems" supposed to help us navigate through all this negative equity is the joint package of Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) and Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). These run through http://makinghomeaffordable.gov/ and they help some people either refinance their existing loans or modify the terms to make them more affordable. If you run through the questionnaires, you can find out whether you are eligible. It would be fair to say this pair of programs has been controversial. With the politics so polarized, you hear whichever song you want to hear. From one side comes the attack that the plans are another example of "big government". If folks cannot keep their payments up-to-date, that's their problem. They should not look to the state for handouts. Taxes should not be used to bail out freeloaders. From the other side come the attacks that the programs are drawn up in a way that cuts down the number of eligible people to a minimum. Instead of helping the millions who are underwater with their loans, this is a Band-Aid trying to staunch a major hemorrhage.

In a way, it does not matter which side is right. What matters is whether anyone has been able to get real help. Well, the Bank of America has not been slow in coming forward with numbers. Since HAMP began, it claims to have modified the loans of 700,000 people. So how does this work? The first step is to negotiate and agree a trial modification. If this trial is a success, the bank agrees to make the modification permanent. Obviously, the trials have to run over a period of time to prove the borrowers can afford to pay. That explains why the Bank of America has only made 12,200 modifications permanent. It quickly says it has a further 13,700 loans waiting for the borrowers to sign the permanent agreement. Only 26,000 permanent modifications agreed may not sound many but do not forget the headline that 700,000 were admitted to the trial process. To encourage us, the Bank also says it will negotiate on a second mortgage (2MP). Putting the politics to one side, if you have problems with your home loan and your home is at risk, you should check out whether you are eligible under HARP or HAMP. No-one cares about which side is right about these programs so long as they help you solve your mortgage problems.


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