Updated March 31 at 10:09pm

FHA fee increases may shift its customer base

If you want to buy a house with minimal cash by using an FHA-insured mortgage, here’s some sobering news: Thanks to an ongoing series of fee increases and underwriting tweaks – the most recent of which were announced Jan. 31 – FHA is getting steadily more expensive, and may not work for you. More

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HOUSING

FHA fee increases may shift its customer base

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If you want to buy a house with minimal cash by using an FHA-insured mortgage, here’s some sobering news: Thanks to an ongoing series of fee increases and underwriting tweaks – the most recent of which were announced Jan. 31 – FHA is getting steadily more expensive, and may not work for you.

FHA is the Federal Housing Administration, the largest source of low-down-payment mortgage money in the country. Its minimum down is just 3.5 percent, compared with anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent or higher from conventional, nongovernment sources. For decades, FHA’s affordable financing has made homeownership possible for first-time buyers with modest incomes and credit-history blemishes.

But in the wake of losses tied to bad loans insured during the housing-bust years, FHA has been raising its loan insurance fees and backing more loans to applicants with higher credit scores. With the latest increases, things have gotten to the point where some lenders wonder whether the agency is trying to move away from its traditional customers.

Dennis C. Smith, broker and co-owner of Stratis Financial Corp. in Huntington Beach, Calif., is blunt: “I think FHA is putting itself out of business with the moves they’ve made in the past couple of years.”

While they wouldn’t agree with that assessment, FHA’s top officials readily admit that their priority is not growing market share but protecting the agency’s multibillion-dollar insurance fund reserves and cutting losses.

Starting April 1, FHA’s annual mortgage insurance premiums for most new loans will jump by one-tenth of a percentage point (10 basis points in lending parlance). This is on top of two previous increases since 2011. Other coming changes, but not scheduled to take effect until June 3, include: mandatory “manual” underwriting of applications by borrowers whose total household debt-to-income ratios exceed 43 percent and who have credit scores below 620; and mandatory 5 percent minimum down payments on FHA loans above $625,500 in high-cost areas such as California, metropolitan Washington, D.C., and others.

FHA also announced that as of June 3, it is rescinding its popular policy of canceling mortgage insurance premium charges for borrowers once their loan balance declines to 78 percent of the original amount. This will force FHA customers to pay premiums for as long as they keep their loans, and is in stark contrast to the private mortgage insurance market, where homeowners can request cancellation of premium payments once their loans hit the 78 percent mark.

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