August 26th, 2009 9:26 PM by Preston Ware
Adjustable Mortgages Loom as Threat to Housing Recovery
When Harvey Clavon took out an exotic mortgage to refinance his home in Santa Clarita, Calif., three years ago, he thought he knew what he was doing.
Gary Kopff and his wife, Judy, in the backyard of their house in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington in May.
Mr. Clavon, 63, was planning to sell the home in a few years and retire to Palm Springs. So he got a loan called an option adjustable rate mortgage, or option ARM, which allowed him to pay less than the interest for the first five years.
On his annual salary of $100,000 as a television camera operator, he could afford the $2,200 initial mortgage payments. And he planned to sell the home before the mortgage reset.
Now Mr. Clavon is part of what many economists say is a looming threat to a housing recovery: more than a half-million option ARMs scheduled to reset in the next four years, at rates many homeowners cannot afford. His mortgage payments have risen to $2,700 a month because of a clause he did not notice on his contract, and are scheduled to rise above $4,000 in two years.
Since February, default and foreclosure rates on option ARMs have passed those of subprime mortgages, according to the research firm First American CoreLogic, in part because so many subprime mortgages have already failed.
Because Mr. Clavon made only minimum payments on his mortgage, his balance has risen to $680,000 from $618,000, on a house worth closer to $400,000.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, ” he said. “I got duped into the loan, and I consider myself an educated man.”
In June, he filed for bankruptcy protection and stopped making house payments.
As the housing market seeks a bottom, option ARMs, which accounted for $750 billion in mortgages made from 2004 to 2007, according to the industry newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance, remain a risk, especially because many are not eligible for refinancing. About a third are already in default, according to analysts.
Compared with subprime loans, option ARMs are fewer but tend to have larger balances. Resets on option ARMs in recent years have often doubled the payments.
“Everyone’s been focused on subprime, but we’re more concerned about this,” said Todd Jadlos, managing director of LPS Applied Analytics, which analyzes data for the financial industry. “By the time subprime defaults had increased 200 percent, in June and July of 2007, option ARMs had gone up 400 percent. People just didn’t notice because the overall numbers weren’t as high.”
First American CoreLogic anticipates 600,000 option ARMS will reset within four years.
Option ARMs, which lenders stopped offering last year, gave borrowers four payment options: less than the interest, which increases the balance every month; just the interest; the equivalent of a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage; and the equivalent of a 15-year fixed.
Three-quarters of borrowers take the minimum option, which usually expires after five years or when the balance reaches a cap, generally 110 percent to 125 percent of the original loan, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Once the cap is reached, borrowers have to pay down a higher balance at a higher rate in a shorter period of time.
“This was a loan meant for sophisticated investors, or people who expected their cash flow to increase over time,” said Elena Warshawsky, a residential credit analyst with Barclays Capital, which expects 81 percent of the option ARMs originated in 2007 to default, with many ending in foreclosure.
“But then they were extended to all sorts of buyers. Now it wasn’t people hoping their income would grow. It was people hoping their house price would increase” so they could refinance or sell, Ms. Warshawsky said.
The firm projects that banks will lose $112 billion on option ARMs written from 2005 to 2007.
The respite for option ARMs recently is that interest rates have dropped, so loans take longer to reach their cap and do not recast to as high a rate, said Chandrajit Bhattacharya, a mortgage analyst at Credit Suisse. Loans that would have recast this spring will remain at low rates until next year, Mr. Bhattacharya said.
Banks are using the reprieve to help some owners refinance into more conventional loans, said Michael Fratantoni, vice president of single family research for the Mortgage Bankers Association.
But the loans have had extraordinarily high rates of failure even before reaching their reset dates. Ron Dzurinko, 62, who lives on a fixed income in Sacramento, took out an option ARM five years ago without understanding it, knowing only that he could afford the initial payments of $900 a month. “The mortgage person said, ‘It could adjust, but we don’t foresee any major bumps,’ ” Mr. Dzurinko said. “It sounded good to me.”
When his payments shot up to $1,400 last fall, he said, he defaulted on credit cards, took in a tenant and started a vegetable garden, but still could not make the payments. Meanwhile, his home’s value fell below his $260,000 balance. Finally, through a lawyer at Legal Services of Northern California, he was able to get the loan modified to $800 a month — but only after months of calls and rejections.
Mr. Clavon has not had this relief. Sam Hussein, a housing counselor at the nonprofit Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, who has been trying since February to help Mr. Clavon modify his loan, said that even for his eligible clients, lenders have agreed to modifications only about half the time — “and then it’s usually on the lender’s terms,” with payments often increased, at least temporarily, he said.
Amid the wreckage, though, option ARMs have been a boon for some borrowers. Gary Kopff, 64, a retired financial manager, took an option ARM on his Washington home in 2006, increasing his balance to $1.2 million from $800,000. Mr. Kopff chose the minimum payments so that all of his payments were interest, allowing him the greatest tax deduction, and because he had no desire to pay off his home.
But a surprising thing happened. His rate went down.
Mr. Kopff’s rate is tied to a figure called the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, a measure of the rates banks charge one another to borrow money. As the 30-day Libor fell to less than one half of 1 percent, the rate on Mr. Kopff’s loan fell below 3 percent.
Now, though he is still making only the minimum payments, he is actually paying down his balance.
“In 2009 I found out I have a 2.5 percent mortgage,” Mr. Kopff said. “That’s not onerous by any standards.”
But even for Mr. Kopff, the future has some storm clouds. Interest rates are rising again. When he took out the loan, he planned to refinance into a 30-year fixed mortgage before the reset, but now few banks are refinancing loans his size.
“I’m better off than a great deal of mortgage holders,” he said. “But what looks like a good deal today may not look so good in a few years.”