refinance

Refinance options when you're underwater

Houses underwater hooked by dollar signs
Highlights
  • HARP offers refinance help for borrowers who have kept up with payments.
  • HAMP offers modifications for borrowers who can't pay mortgage.
  • Short sale may be best for homeowners who can't get other help.

Homeowners whose mortgage balance exceeds the current property value know the futility of trying to get a refinance. Refinancing options for so-called "underwater" mortgages are limited because most lenders require some equity in the property -- ideally about 20 percent.

However, borrowers should not give up hope. Options do exist, especially via the government's Making Home Affordable program.

First option: HARP

If you meet certain criteria, your underwater loan may be eligible for a refinance through the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP. The program allows qualified borrowers to refinance a loan that is from 105 percent to as high as 125 percent of a home's value.

However, not every underwater loan qualifies for HARP. First, you must not be on the road to foreclosure: Any delinquent payments in the past 12 months will automatically disqualify you from eligibility.

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Second, either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac must own the loan. You can find a loan lookup tool and other calculators at the government's Making Home Affordable Web site.

Your ability to take advantage of HARP will depend on payment history and other factors including credit score, the structure of the current home financing and specific lender guidelines.

"Can it help everyone? No," says Jason Bonarrigo, senior mortgage banker with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage of Boston.

However, Bonarrigo has closed several HARP loans and says it's worth investigating eligibility.

"If refinancing through HARP can shave $300 or $400 off a monthly mortgage payment, it can sometimes make a difference between keeping and losing a home down the road," he says.

Second option: HAMP

If you not only have an underwater mortgage but also have missed payments, you may qualify for HAMP, the federal Home Affordable Modification Program available through mortgage lenders.

To qualify, you must demonstrate financial hardship that puts your mortgage in imminent danger of default. The mortgage must be owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or by others signed up with the U.S. Treasury to qualify for HAMP. (Call your loan servicer to find out if it is participating.)

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While the program provides government incentives (of up to $1,500) to lenders to process these modifications, the ultimate approval rests with the lender.

"HAMP is not a refinancing program -- it's a change to the contract terms ... but it can lower your payments for up to 60 months," says Michael Goldstein, a bankruptcy attorney and partner at Goldstein and Clegg in Lynnfield, Mass.

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