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A new policy goes into effect tomorrow which will make it easier for some Americans to come up with a down payment for a house. The vast majority of home loans made today are guaranteed by the government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And as NPR's Chris Arnold reports, the regulator in charge of Fannie and Freddie will allow first-time homebuyers to put down as little as 3 percent.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The move is part of an effort by Fannie and Freddie's regulator to make homeownership, once again, more attainable. That regulator is Mel Watt, the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
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MEL WATT: Our objective here has been to normalize the availability of credit for borrowers who have the ability to repay a loan.
ARNOLD: That was Watt speaking at a recent Senate hearing. Under this latest move, if you qualify - and let's say you're buying a $200,000 house - you could now put down just $6,000 instead of 10,000. But many conservatives don't like that.
EDWARD PINTO: I think it's a bad thing.
ARNOLD: Edward Pinto is a director of the American Enterprise Institute's Center on Housing Risk. He says going back to such low down payment loans is risky. He says if you put 3 percent down and house prices start falling even a little bit, you can quickly end up owing more than your house is even worth.
PINTO: This was the beginning of the last run that ended poorly with the housing price collapse in 2006, 7. Back in 1994, Fannie announced it would start doing 3 percent down loans.
ARNOLD: Now, nobody is saying we're anywhere near returning to the days of wildly reckless lending during the housing bubble. You probably remember those no-document loans or zero-down interest-only loans or there were the loans where, after two years, the payment just completely exploded beyond what the homeowner could possibly afford. These new 3 percent down payment loans are plain-vanilla 30-year fixed-rate mortgages. Still, Pinto says...
PINTO: Risk is moving up slowly but steadily, and these things take place over a period of many years. And it tends to be like the proverbial frog in the pot of water put on a slow boil. The frog doesn't notice it because it's happening very slowly. That's one of the reasons that we decided to publish the risk index that we published.
ARNOLD: But some housing experts say, to extend Pinto's analogy, we're still dealing with a very cold frog. That is, the system is still too risk-averse and it's too hard to get a mortgage. Mike Calhoun is the president of the Center for Responsible Lending. He says just look at the credit scores of people who are actually getting approved for home loans.
MIKE CALHOUN: Right now, credit scores for loans that are being approved are at their tightest level ever.
ARNOLD: Calhoun says the average American household's credit score is under 700, and the average loan that's getting approved is for someone with a 750 credit score.
CALHOUN: That is a big difference. There are estimates that anywhere from half a million to a million households each year who would normally qualify for home mortgages are being cut out of the market today because of this overly-tight credit.
ARNOLD: So Calhoun, anyway, sees this latest move to offer 3 percent down payment loans for first-time homebuyers as a step in the right direction. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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