WASHINGTON - The government is establishing new rules for mortgages that will make it harder for some borrowers to qualify but that are designed to prevent the kind of risky lending that nearly caused the housing market to collapse during the financial crisis.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Thursday will roll out the first of several far-reaching changes to the nation's mortgage market, limiting upfront fees and curtailing practices such as interest-only payments that can leave homeowners stuck with unsustainable loans. The agency also will set standards for how much income a consumer must have to obtain a mortgage.
This marks the first time the government has spelled out what constitutes a "qualified mortgage," an effort to prevent the widespread toxic loans that hurt millions of Americans during the housing crisis.
Banks that offer qualified mortgages will be protected from lawsuits if they adhere to the criteria. That will drive the entire industry to live by the tighter standards that have taken hold since the crisis, ensuring safer loans but potentially limiting the number of people who can qualify to buy a home.
"Credit is going to be restricted, at least a little," said Cristian deRitis, a senior director at Moody's Analytics. "The debt-to-income cap, for instance, is going to affect some folks at the lower end of the income scale."
Under the qualified mortgages, a borrower's overall monthly debt payments cannot be more than 43 percent of income -- making it more difficult for people with lower income to qualify. In real estate markets such as Washington, where prices are high, still more people could run up against the cap as they stretch their dollars to make payments.
The rules will build in some exceptions to the cap for the next seven years so the real estate market nationwide has a chance to heal, officials said. During that period, people with higher incomes and top credit ratings could get qualified mortgages even if the loan brings total debt above 43 percent of monthly income.
The agency estimates that about three-quarters of the mortgages issued in 2011 met the debt-ratio limit and the other standards of qualified loans. An additional 20 percent of loans that year were above the debt-to-income ratio but met the other criteria. Such loans could potentially still qualify under the seven-year exception.
That exception could be key in allowing marginally qualified borrowers to continue to meet the tighter guidelines, said David Stevens, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association.
But considering how conservative lending standards have become, Stevens said, he suspects the new rules will do nothing to extend lending to a broader swath of borrowers.
Lenders are under no obligation to issue only qualified mortgages; they just have to verify that borrowers have the ability to make their loan payments. There is little doubt, however, that banks, which have doled out billions in the past year to settle lawsuits related to mortgage abuses, will be lured by the protections afforded under the new loan category.
If they follow qualified-mortgage standards, banks will receive a massive benefit: They will be all but protected from many homeowner lawsuits.