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Mortgages & Refinancing

3 New Programs Aimed at Improving the Housing Market

Can a trio of new policies ease foreclosures and get the market back on track?

Foreclosed homes continue to plague communities, the housing market and the economy. Banks completed 3.2 million foreclosures between 2008 and 2011, and half again as many lurk in a "shadow inventory" that includes homes with seriously delinquent mortgages, those that are in the foreclosure process and those that have been taken over by banks but not yet listed for sale, according to CoreLogic, a mortgage data firm. The homes are often vacant and sell for about one-third less than other properties, on average.

SEE OUR SPECIAL REPORT: Buying and Selling a Home in 2012

Foreclosures have been a drag on the market for years, and relief can't come soon enough. But the latest proposed fixes won't get rolling before year-end.

The Home Affordable Modi­fication Program (HAMP) helps troubled borrowers by reducing their monthly mortgage payment to 31% of their gross monthly income, usually by reducing their interest rate, extending the loan term, deferring repayment of principal or forgiving some of it. The U.S. Treasury has extended the program through the end of 2013, tripling the incentives for lenders that choose to reduce loan principal. Borrowers will begin qualifying under the expanded criteria by this summer. Bank analysts estimate that the beefed-up program will help an additional half-million homeowners. (For more, visit www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.)

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A mass-refinancing plan would allow borrowers who owe more than their house is worth but who are current on their loan payments to refinance at today's low interest rates. The plan would save such borrowers an average of $3,000 annually. The catch: Congressional approval of a fee paid by the largest lenders to fund the program is unlikely.

A pilot buy-to-rent program launching this year in hard-hit markets will let investors buy foreclosures from Fannie Mae, then rent them out. Look for the program in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and parts of Florida. Investors must qualify to participate (for information, go to www.fhfa.gov). The aim is to make a quick dent in the supply of foreclosures for sale. Success depends on whether bargain-hungry investors pay the prices Fannie expects for its properties.

None of the programs is a quick fix. In fact, the pace of foreclosures will continue to pick up in the wake of a $25 billion settlement reached in February between the federal government, attorneys general in 49 states and the nation’s largest mortgage servicers. Although much of that money is slated for principal reductions, refinancing and other consumer assistance, banks are now free to step up foreclosures that were delayed pending the settlement.

Foreclosure fixes will become moot as the economy gains traction and housing demand picks up, says economist Celia Chen at Moody's Economy.com. By 2013, the number of distressed sales will still be high, but their share of total home sales will decline, allowing home prices to rise. The speed of recovery depends on how big a market share distressed properties represent.