home equity

Why a home equity loan is hard to get

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Highlights
  • Home equity loans and credit lines aren't easy to get.
  • Borrowers must have equity, good credit and adequate income relative to debt.
  • Interest rates on home equity loans may be unappealing to homeowners.

Many homeowners long to hear the magic words, "your home equity loan is approved." But for most, this type of loan, which allows a homeowner to borrow against the equity in the home, is hard to get.

The typical barriers are lack of equity, impaired credit and inadequate income to support additional borrowing.

Of those, negative equity, also referred to as being "upside down" or "underwater," may be the most daunting hurdle to jump over.

More than 27 percent of U.S. homeowners who had a mortgage were in a negative home equity position or had less than 5 percent equity in their home as of Sept. 30, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data service in Santa Ana, Calif.

Negative equity is heavily concentrated in five states: Nevada, where 67 percent of homeowners who had a mortgage were upside down, Arizona (49 percent), Florida (46 percent), Michigan (38 percent) and California (32 percent).

Those figures mean substantial numbers of homeowners in those states have no chance of getting a home equity loan, even if they meet the income and credit score guidelines.

Why home equity loans are scarce

Homeowners who have equity, a strong credit score and enough income to support a second loan payment may still find only limited options to get a home equity loan or line of credit. That's due largely to changes in the lending industry, according to Shari Olefson, a real estate attorney with Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and author of "Foreclosure Nation," a book about the foreclosure crisis.

These changes, Olefson says, include the following:

  • Consolidation in the lending industry, resulting in fewer lenders, loan officers, mortgage brokers and so-called lead aggregation companies that used to heavily promote home equity loans.
  • Stricter government regulations, requiring lenders to hold higher reserves and generally constraining all types of lending, including home equity loans and lines of credit.
  • Short sales, foreclosures and borrowers who have decided not to make their mortgage payments, even though they can afford to do so, making lenders more risk-adverse and skittish about equity-based lending in particular.

Lenders that offer equity loans may charge higher interest rates to offset those perceived risks.

"Second mortgages really do reflect the idea of risk pricing," Olefson says. "But even with risk pricing, now, lenders have gotten wise and said, it's not worth the risk at any price because people have embraced the option of just walking away from (a loan), and how do we price for that risk?"

What it takes to get a home equity loan

Homeowners in such equity-rich states as New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, to name the top five according to CoreLogic, are in a much better position to get a home equity loan or line of credit.

And some lenders still approve these loans, if the homeowner has enough "borrowing power," says Gary Korotzer, senior vice president of marketing for home equity at Wells Fargo in San Francisco.

That power consists of collateral, which refers to the home's value as determined by an appraisal or automated-valuation model, AVM, and capacity, which refers to the borrower's income relative to debt obligations, Korotzer says.

Borrowers should expect to provide paycheck stubs, tax returns or other documentation, so the lender can verify income.

Beyond those generalities, there are "no absolutes that say minimum this or maximum that," Korotzer says. Rather, loan approvals are based in part on local market conditions and the borrower's personal situation, including his or her intended use of the money. Home improvements, debt consolidation and college costs may be more likely to make the cut than, say, buying groceries.

"The best thing to do," Korotzer says, "is to come in and talk to a banker about your situation. At the end of the day, it's a combination of factors, and you should have a conversation with someone who can guide you through the process."

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