Chaos in homeowner help plan

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Homeowners feel frustrated by the slow rollout of the Obama refinance plan.

“The plan is not as great as advertised (I’m a tax accountant so I’m not surprised),” says Beth Stahlberg, who owns a home in the Denver area.

Under the Obama administration’s Making Home Affordable program, homeowners can refinance their mortgages, even on houses that have lost value. There are a few catches: The borrower has to have a clean payment history, the current mortgage has to be guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and the new loan can’t be for more than 105 percent of the home’s current value. You can use Bankrate’s handy calculator to find out how your home’s value stacks up against your mortgage loan.

The program was conceived as a way to reward responsible homeowners who otherwise couldn’t refinance. Obama administration officials announced the plan’s outlines in mid-February; more than two months later, mortgage servicers are telling customers that they still await details. Homeowners say mortgage servicers provide contradictory information and quote high fees.

Stahlberg got a rate quote with higher-than-expected fees, and then, “overnight Fannie Mae had changed the program” and even more fees were tacked on. Fannie and Countrywide want origination and risk-adjustment fees of 4.25 percent of the loan amount, plus other closing costs.

After mulling it over for a few weeks, “I held my nose last week and signed on to refi,” she says. “We are locked and have dropped our 30-year fixed mortgage into a new 30-year loan that is 2 points lower than our current loan. Since we plan on being in this house for at least 30 years it is unpleasant, but we are ‘underwater’ and have no other option to drop our rate like that.”

Bankrate solicited e-mails from readers who have tried to get loans under the refinancing program. A few say they are satisfied. Most say they aren’t. Homeowners blame the chaos on the Obama administration, mortgage servicers and lenders, and Fannie and Freddie.

While it’s politically correct these days to blame the mortgage mess on borrowers who supposedly are uninformed, the people who shared their stories with Bankrate are a knowledgeable bunch. They often know more about the Obama refi plan than the mortgage company customer-service representatives who answer the phones.

“On March 27, I spoke to National City and they claimed the details were not available yet,” says a homeowner in Eagle, Idaho. “They were supposed to have called back already, but I am still waiting.”

Another homeowner, Collette Brown, tells a tale of confusion that began in March, when she contacted Bank of America, “and I was told that they weren’t ready to even evaluate anyone for the program until April 7.”

That’s because Fannie and Freddie updated their loan-underwriting software on the weekend of April 4 to incorporate changes under the Making Home Affordable refinancing plan. Brown says that she got a call from Bank of America the evening of April 7, and was told that her application “wouldn’t pass through their computer system” and that “I should wait for the Phase 2 of the Obama plan. I didn’t even know there (were) going to be phases!”

Indeed, for the Making Home Affordable plan, Bank of America and other lenders are refinancing loans in phases. In the first go-round, banks will refinance home loans that don’t have private mortgage insurance. In the second phase, banks will refinance home loans with mortgage insurance.

Bank of America Home Loans is dividing refinances into two phases for a couple of reasons, says the division’s president, Barbara Desoer. One is that there is more complexity involved in refinancing loans with mortgage insurance and it takes more time to set up those procedures and train employees. Another is that there are millions of people who hope to refinance and it helps to separate that vast workload into manageable chunks.

This isn’t just Bank of America’s policy. Under the Making Home Affordable program, most, if not all, lenders are refinancing noninsured mortgages first. They will refi insured mortgages later. But lenders are not describing this policy intelligibly.

Some borrowers come away with the impression that their loans are ineligible for refinancing under the plan, solely because they have private mortgage insurance. Others say they were told they can’t refi their insured mortgages because of a software glitch. Still others are told, usually erroneously, that their only option is to refinance into an FHA-insured loan — swapping private mortgage insurance for government mortgage insurance.

These stories come from customers of many banks, not just a few. Judging by the e-mails they write, these customers aren’t dumb. They understand complex explanations. The unavoidable conclusion is that the banks are doing a bad job of explaining their policies to customers. The borrowers listen carefully, and the lenders explain carelessly.

Bankrate has assembled a quiz to help homeowners determine if they are eligible for mortgage help under the Making Home Affordable plan and what steps to take if you are or are not.