Will mortgage loan-limits increase?

by Dan Krell

Are you planning to buy a home this year? If you are planning to purchase a home that is priced more than $417,000, you could get a lower interest rate-if Congress raises conforming loan limits.

First, a very basic primer in mortgage jargon: “Conforming” refers to mortgages that correspond to Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) guidelines. GSE refers to those quasi-government enterprises that include (among others) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Conforming guidelines include underwriting criteria that lenders use so they can sell the loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The guidelines have strict borrower criteria as well as loan limits. The loan limit is set annually as a reflection of changes to the national average single family home price as determined by the Federal Housing Finance Board’s Monthly Interest Rate Survey. A “jumbo loan” is a mortgage that exceeds conforming loan limits; and usually has higher interest rates because of the higher risk involved.

Two large associations advocating for higher loan limits include the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Both the NAR and NAHB argue that increasing conforming loan limits would solve liquidity problems in the jumbo loan market, which would make lending for loans up to $625,000 easier for home buyers who are looking to purchase a home over the current loan limit of $417,000. The NAHB suggest that loan limits be raised temporarily while secondary markets normalize, and be re-evaluated after a two year increase. The NAR cites the need for stimulation of the housing market and the lowering of interest payments to those obtaining loans over the $417,000 limit.

The issue of raising GSE loan limits is not as simple as stimulating a sluggish housing market; as Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, made clear to Congress in September 2007. His statement to Congress implied that any increase in loan limits could provide false security to investors on the secondary market – increasing risk to those investors, their companies, and the government. Additionally, Dr. Bernanke implied that if Congress is inclined to increase the loan limits that it should be done quickly, temporarily, and ensures that any increase will function as intended.

What’s the risk? A recent report from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO.gov) (the government entity whose mission is to ensure the safety and soundness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) entitled “Potential Implications of Increasing the Conforming Loan Limit in High-Cost Areas” reports that any loan limit increase would only help those in high cost areas as most jumbo loans tend to be geographically centered (California had almost forty-nine percent of the jumbo loans originated in 2007). One unintended consequence from raising loan limits to lower mortgage interest payments may be that home prices will increase to make high-cost areas actually cost more. Additionally, anticipated savings benefit may not be achieved as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have to charge for taking any increased risk.

As for now, it appears that loan limits for 2008 will remain the same as 2007. It is clear that although there are benefits, there may also be too many questions left unanswered before Congress can act quickly to raise GSE loan limits.

This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of January 21, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dan Krell.