If your income slumped along with the economy, you've got plenty of company these days. So much so that the government has a program meant to help you out by cutting your mortgage payments to 31 percent of your gross income. But it turns out that qualifying for this benefit will probably take some fancy footwork, a sympathetic partner and a little luck. Here are some pointers for navigating the terrain.
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Get to know the program
The program in question is the Obama administration's $75 billion Making Home Affordable program.
It applies to mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant mortgage holders that the government took control of a year ago. Under the government's auspices, Fannie and Freddie are now cutting interest rates on mortgages they own to as little as 2 percent, with the aim of lowing payments to no more than 31 percent of a homeowner's gross income.
How do you know if Fannie or Freddie own your mortgage? The simplest way is to visit each of the lender's Web sites and type in the information requested about you and your residence. Remember: The giant home financing organizations buy loans that were originated by commercial banks and own a significant portion the nation's entire home loan assets. That means you may have taken out your mortgage through Bank of America, Wells Fargo or another private lender, and they may still be servicing your account, while ownership has actually been transferred to Fannie or Freddie (if not, you're out of luck).
If you do have a Fannie or Freddie loan, then figure out what portion of your gross monthly income your housing payment consumes. In this case, your "housing payment" means not only your mortgage costs but your PITI (principal, interest, taxes and insurance). Since you first took out your mortgage, it may have zoomed way up as a percentage of your household income, either because you and your spouse's income has fallen or because the adjustable rate of interest on the loan has ratcheted up. In either case, you should consider applying.
Navigating the process
Even when Fannie and Freddie own loans, they don't handle homeowner paperwork themselves. Instead, they rely on banks to service their loans and to decide who qualifies for the Making Home Affordable program. The banks have been both stingy about granting approvals and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applications.
The key to receiving a modification seems to be convincing the bank that you're in its modification "sweet spot." That means you're in dire enough financial straits to need help but not so deeply in trouble as to be hopeless. After all, the point of the program is to modify loans in a way that borrowers will be able to keep up.
What might disqualify you? Savings, for one thing. We spoke with nearly a dozen homeowners who applied for modifications. Several were turned down because of their hefty savings accounts.
On the other hand, if you have no savings and no job or income, you'll likely be turned down for a modification too. The program requires that applicants show proof of current income and that the income is likely to continue for at least nine months. Since in most cases unemployment benefits are part of a six-month program, they're unlikely to qualify you.
Other variables that can influence the odds of getting approved include your other debts (credit cards and car loans) and fixed costs. Once again, banks are looking for modifications that borrowers can live with. If you're seeking to have your housing payment cut to 31 percent of your income but are spending another 60 percent on private school tuition and health club memberships, the bank is unlikely to be convinced that you're a viable candidate.
Showing just enough distress
It isn't pretty, but to go to the top of the list in your bank's loan modification department, it might help to miss a mortgage payment or two. "It feels terrible to say it, but go delinquent," says Ron Morgan, chief executive of Sterling Home Retention Services. Morgan's firm specializes in home-loan workouts, and many banks are outsourcing their problem loans to firms like his.
If you need help with the application process, it's probably available. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a network of debt counselors, many available to work with you free of charge.
Tools on the Internet may also help you improve your chances at getting a modification. The owner of Homeowner's Toolbox is a former California mortgage broker who says he has consulted with the banks he used to source loans for and has a sense of each bank's modification "sweet spot." Homeowner's Toolbox is free to users and claims to estimate the probability that a homeowner will be approved for a modification.
The last thing you want to do is make your financial problems worse. That means avoiding any for-profit outfit that "promises" to get you a modification or that insists on a large payment upfront.
© 2012 Forbes.com