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Are home buyers getting more conservative?

Forget buyer's market and seller's market: housing today is a banker's market. And borrowers are feeling the pain.

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The one-two punch of a tighter mortgage environment and tougher credit standards is forcing buyers toward more conservative home loans, according to economists who study the mortgage industry.

Home buyers and homeowners who want to refinance are moving away from shorter-term adjustable rate loans, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Shorter-term adjustable-rate mortgages (anything that reverts to an adjustable rate in less than four years), which two years ago accounted for more than one out of every three closings, are dropping in popularity. "Piggyback mortgages" (used to finance all or part of a down payment) are getting pricey, pushing buyers to pony up cash for down payments instead, says Jay Brinkmann, vice president of research and economics for the association.

So where does that leave the borrower who needs a more nontraditional loan? "Even if customers want it, they may not be able to find it," says Brinkmann.

2 kinds of buyers
"Borrowers tend to fall into two camps," says Brinkmann. Conservative buyers "are willing to pay more now for not having the risk of payments going up later." The rest focus almost solely on the monthly payments, asking "what is the smallest payment that will get me into a house," he says.

Both groups are shying away from short-term adjustable loans, he says.

For conservative borrowers, the chance that the payment could increase beyond their comfort level is a very real and unwelcome possibility. They prefer the certainty of a fixed-rate 15- or 30-year mortgage, Brinkmann says.

Check the odds
What are the odds you'll go into foreclosure? While everyone's money situation is different, lenders also look at the odds associated with each type of loan. Check out your loan type for the current odds.
What's your foreclosure risk?
Prime-rate fixed-rate: 1 in 588
Prime-rate ARM: 1 in 189
FHA fixed-rate: 1 in 147
FHA ARM: 1 in 101
VA: 1 in 244
Subprime fixed-rate loan: 1 in 77
Subprime ARM: 1 in 31
Source: Mortgage Bankers Association, data for first quarter 2007.

For buyers intent on getting the smallest possible monthly payment, adjustable rates are no longer automatically the ideal. Payments can go up and the ability to refinance in a few years is not a sure thing.

Homeowners who put down 2 percent to 5 percent a few years ago "are finding they can't qualify for refinancing because they don't have enough equity," says Brinkmann.

Subprime borrowers looking for the smallest monthly payment are discovering that a fixed-rate loan may offer them a better payment plan, especially if they won't be able to refinance.

By the spring of this year, the percentage of buyers taking out shorter-term adjustable-rate mortgages had dropped from 36 percent to 17 percent, according to the association. As home-buying season got into full swing in late spring and summer, the popularity of the loans increased slightly. Currently, about one in five home buyers signs on for a shorter-term adjustable-rate loan.

"The market is tightening up, and at the same time, borrowers are much more cognizant that these teaser-rate mortgages are not a free lunch," says Lawrence Yun, senior economist with the National Association of Realtors.

Next: "This year, the average down payment is closer to 20 percent."
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