It’s Now Easier for Millions of Student Loan Borrowers to Get a Mortgage

Student loan borrowers who are making reduced income-driven repayments on their loans will have an easier time getting mortgages under a new policy announced recently by Fannie Mae.

Nearly one-quarter of federal student loan borrowers benefit from reduced monthly student loan payments based on their income, Fannie Mae says. However, there’s been some confusion about how banks should treat the lower monthly payments when they calculate a would-be mortgage borrower’s debt-to-income ratio (DTI): Should banks consider the reduced payment, the payment borrowers would have to pay without the income-based “discount,” or something in between?

It’s a tricky question, because student loan borrowers have to renew their qualification for the lower payments each year, meaning a borrower’s monthly DTI could change dramatically a year or two after qualifying for a mortgage. The banks’ confusion over which payment amount to use can mean the difference between a borrower qualifying for a home loan and staying stuck in a rental apartment.

There’s even more confusion when a mortgage applicant qualifies for a $0 income-driven student loan payment, or when there’s no payment amount listed on the applicant’s credit report. Previously, in that situation, Fannie Mae required banks to use 1% of the balance or a full payment term.

As of last week, Fannie has declared that mortgage lenders can instead use $0 as a student loan payment when determining DTI, as long as the borrower can back that up with documentation.

That announcement followed another Fannie update issued in April telling lenders that they could use the lower income-based monthly payment, rather than a larger payment based on the full balance of the loan, when calculating borrowers’ monthly debt obligations.

“We are simplifying the options available to calculate the monthly payment amount for student loans. The resulting policy will be easier for lenders to apply, and may result in a lower qualifying payment for borrowers with student loans,” Fannie said in its statement.

Taken together, the two announcements could immediately benefit the roughly 6 million borrowers currently using income-driven repayment plans known as Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR), and Income-Based Repayment (IBR).
Freddie Mac didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about its policy in the same situation.

What This Means for Student Loan Borrowers Looking to Buy

Michigan-based mortgage broker Cassandra Evers said the changes “allow a lot more borrowers to qualify for a home.” Previously, there was a lot of confusion among borrowers, lenders, and brokers, Evers said. “[The rules have] changed at least five or six times in the last five years.”

The broader change announced in April, which allowed lenders to use the income-driven payment amount in calculations, could make a huge difference to millions of borrowers, Evers said.

“Imagine you have $60,000 in student loan debt and are on IBR with a payment of $150 a month,” she said. Before April’s guidance, lenders may have used $600 (1% of the balance of the student loans) as the monthly loan amount when determining DTI, “basically overriding actual debt with a fake/inflated number.”

“Imagine you are 28 and making $40,000 per year. Well, even if you’re fiscally responsible, that added $450-a-month inflated payment would absolutely destroy your ability to buy a decent home … This opens up the door to a lot more lenders being able to use the actual IBR payment,” Evers said.

The Fannie Mae change regarding borrowers on income-driven plans with a $0 monthly payment could be a big deal for some mortgage applicants with large student loans. A borrower with an outstanding $50,000 loan but a $0-a-month payment would see the monthly expenses side of their debt-to-income ratio fall by $500.

It’s unclear how many would-be homebuyers could qualify for a mortgage with an income low enough to qualify for a $0-per-month income-driven student loan repayment plan. Fannie did not have an estimate, spokeswoman Alicia Jones said.

“If your income is low enough to merit a zero payment, then it is probably going to be hard to qualify for a mortgage with a number of lenders. But, with the share of IBR now at almost a full 25% of all federally insured debt, it’s suspected that there will be plenty of potential borrowers who do,” Jones said. “The motivation for the original policy and clarification came from lenders’ requests.”

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