Shutdown Leaves Would-Be Homeowners In Limbo

The partial shutdown of the federal government is starting to take a bite out of the housing market, and would-be homeowners are feeling the impact in stalled mortgage approvals and delayed closings.

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The longer the government shutdown continues, the more sectors in our economy are being affected. More and more, the housing market is feeling the pinch. Most economists think if the federal government reopens in the next few days, the damage won't be too bad. But already, some home sales are being delayed and even derailed, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Right now, hundreds of thousands of Americans are in the process of buying a house, and many need to sell their old house first. So if sales get delayed and they start to fall through, the whole system gets tangled up.

KERRY DONAHUE: Here's all the boxes all stacked in the corner full of our stuff.

ARNOLD: Kerry Donahue is walking me through her dining room in Malden, Massachusetts. It's a suburb outside of Boston. She and her husband and their 3-year-old son have found a new house to buy.

DONAHUE: It's everything we were looking for. It's on a cul-de-sac, it's next to conservation land in a town with good schools.

ARNOLD: But they're using a government loan program offered by the Veterans Administration, and the government shutdown came just as they were nearing the date for their closing. Officially, the VA Home Loan program is supposed to be up and running, however...

DONAHUE: I think it was the day after the shutdown, I was driving to work. And when I got to work, I parked and I called the VA just to make sure that all systems were still a go.

ARNOLD: But all systems were not go because the VA still needed pay stubs back from when her husband was in the Army, and the Army office that has those pay stubs was closed.

DONAHUE: And the person at the VA said, nope, that department's now shut down. We have no idea when it's going to open. We can't find out anything. There's really nothing we can do for you. And so I sat in my car and welled up with tears. And so we basically went into a panic.

ARNOLD: Donahue is also selling her current house, so her family has to move out so the new buyers can move in. They've got a dog and, of course, their child. It's a big headache. And as it turns out, Donahue works at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Her boss is an economist, Eric Belsky, who is watching all this unfold across the country.

ERIC BELSKY: It still remains a little bit to be seen how significant an impact the shutdown will have.

ARNOLD: But Belsky says it's already probably having a bigger effect than many people realize. The Federal Housing Administration is officially open but only with 5 percent of its full staff. So lots of things aren't getting done there. Also, lenders can't confirm people's Social Security numbers and income with the IRS. And that means that lenders take risks if they push ahead without that paperwork.

BOB WALTERS: We're seeing that some are taking that risk, some are reluctant to do it.

ARNOLD: Bob Walters is chief economist at Quicken Loans, a big national lender. He thinks that most of the major national lenders, so far, are operating almost business as usual. And as far as Quicken...

BELSKY: We're more than managing to get by, and so far, nobody's had any interruption in being able to get their loan processed and closed.

ARNOLD: Eric Belsky says, though, the longer the shutdown drags on, the more cautious lenders will likely get, and we could start to see some real damage to the housing recovery.

Back in Malden, Massachusetts, Kerry Donahue is hanging the sold sign in front of her house with her realtor Debra Agliano.

DEBRA AGLIANO: So it just goes right down here. We've got these little tie wraps. I'll just stick it on here.

ARNOLD: Donahue is clearly happy that the people buying her house got their loan approved. But with Donahue's new house, they had to work out a deal where they're going to move into it and rent it until they can finally get their loan sorted out.

DONAHUE: We are moving into a house that we don't actually own yet.

ARNOLD: And that's not perfect. The house needs a new furnace before they move in and some other work.

The new boiler is not cheap, right?

DONAHUE: No. No. We're going to probably spend about $12,000 on the house before we technically own it, which is risky. But we love the house. We're hoping that all will work out just fine.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the VA tells Donahue that the Army office that can send those pay stubs that she needs is now back open. So it looks like, at least in her case, things will get sorted out pretty quickly. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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