Financial FAQs

New-home construction is already a casualty of the government shutdown, and even sequestration agreement that has cut government hiring and spending more than $1.6 trillion to date. But its effect will be mitigated if interest rates remain low, and lenders continue to ease qualification criteria, such as lowering their super-high credit score requirement.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing-market index fell to 55 in October from 57 in September. A prior September estimate pegged the level at 58, which matched the highest reading since 2005. Results above 50 signal that builders, generally, are optimistic about sales trends.

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“Interest rates remain near historic lows and we don’t expect the level of rates to have a major impact on sales and starts going forward,” said David Crowe, NAHB’s chief economist. “Once this government impasse is resolved, we expect builder and consumer optimism will bounce back.”

Despite the recent decline, pent-up demand is supporting builder sentiment, which has increased 34 percent over the past year, outpacing home-construction growth.

"A spike in mortgage interest rates along with the paralysis in Washington that led to the government shutdown and uncertainty regarding the nation’s debt limit have caused builders and consumers to take pause," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "However, interest rates remain near historic lows and we don’t expect the level of rates to have a major impact on sales and starts going forward. Once this government impasse is resolved, we expect builder and consumer optimism will bounce back."

Interest have declined slightly from their recent highs, so that the 30-year conforming fixed rate today is approximately 4.25 percent with 0 origination points in California.

There is some good news. The average credit score among borrowers who received a mortgage in September was 732, down from a peak of 750 a year prior, according to new data released today by Ellie Mae, which provides mortgage lenders with loan origination systems.  And this is a sign both that lenders loosening their heretofore strict qualification standards, and that more eligible homebuyers will be allowed in the market.

“The share of purchase loans continued to grow in September 2013, climbing 1 percent to 58 percent of all loans even in the face of higher interest rates and seasonality,” said Jonathan Corr, president and chief operating officer of Ellie Mae. “This was the eighth consecutive month that the purchase loan percentage has increased or stayed steady. In January 2013, purchases represented only 27 percent of closed loans.

“The credit standards also continued to ease in September with average FICO scores for closed loans dropping to 732 compared to 734 in August. September’s averages were 15 points below where they were at the beginning of the year (January 2013) and the lowest level since we began our tracking in August 2011,” noted Corr. “When you drill down farther, the change is even more apparent. For example, 31 percent of the closed loans in September 2013 had FICO scores under 700 compared to 17.4 percent of closed loans in September 2012.“

That’s also the lowest average credit score since the company started tracking this data in August 2011.

This is important because even a 680 FICO score is a sign of good credit record, though credit balances may be high. But the overall debt-to-income ratio is more important in determining borrowers’ ability-to-pay in this case.

Lenders pulled back on giving mortgages to borrowers with less-than-perfect credit in 2008 as the number of borrowers who foreclosed on their homes spiked. That’s left millions of would-be home buyers shut out of the housing market. The findings suggest that some borrowers who were unable to gain financing as recently as a year ago could get mortgage approval now.

To be sure, the bar to getting a mortgage remains high. Applicants who were denied a mortgage in September had an average FICO score of 696, according to Ellie Mae—a score that’s relatively stellar by most counts. FICO scores range from 300 to 850. Before the recession it was common for borrowers with credit scores in the 600 range and below to get mortgages.

Harlan Green © 2013

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