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A year later, reality sets in on housing loan mods

About 116,000 homeowners have had their loans modified to reduce their monthly payments, the Treasury Department said Wednesday. Only about $15 million in incentive money has been paid to more than 100 participating mortgage companies. That’s 0.02 percent of the $75 billion available.

Unemployment soared to 10 percent, and home prices continued to fall, especially in some states. 16 million homeowners nationwide now owe more to the bank than their properties are worth, according to Moody’s

Low interest rates and tax incentives have boosted home sales, but are ending soon. The $1.25 trillion program created by the Federal Reserve that has helped keep rates low is scheduled to end next month. The tax credits run out on April 30.

Obama’s plan had two main strategies: The government would channel $75 billion to banks to prod them into modifying the terms of mortgages for up to 4 million borrowers by the end of 2012. It would also relax rules to let up to 5 million homeowners refinance at lower interest rates.

Under the modification plan, borrowers can get their mortgage rates reduced to as low as 2 percent for five years and have the term of their loan extended to as long as 40 years. Borrowers must make three payments on time before the modification becomes permanent. Monthly payments for borrowers in the program have fallen to a median of about $835, down by about $520 a month.

Since the program started in March:

• 1 million people have entered the modification program, and almost 12 percent, or 116,000, have completed the process.

• A third of homeowners who made the three monthly trial payments on time have now fallen behind.

• More than 61,000 homeowners have dropped out, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to do so in the coming months.

• About 220,000 homeowners whose homes have plummeted in value have refinanced.

The process has been time-consuming, bureaucratic and fraught with communication mistakes. Borrowers often feel lost in a maze. When denied by their bank, they often don’t get a clear explanation of why.

To qualify, borrowers need to provide two pay stubs and a letter describing the reason for their hardship. They must give the Internal Revenue Service permission to give out their tax returns to their mortgage company.

Faced with poor results last summer, the Obama administration pressured mortgage companies. Treasury officials summoned key executives from lenders, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, to Washington. The industry was given strict orders: Sign up at least 500,000 borrowers by Nov. 1.

To meet that goal, most companies allowed homeowners to enroll in the program without proof of income. That was the same low standard that lenders used when they made some of the riskiest loans that fueled the housing frenzy.

Getting the documents in advance would have been a better idea, Heid said. That’s because lenders have struggled to get homeowners to complete all the required documentation. Many don’t comply, despite repeated phone calls, mailings and even in-person visits by notaries.

It’s a problem that has perplexed and frustrated industry executives. “Borrowers didn’t understand that if they didn’t send the documents in, they would fail to qualify,” said Sanjiv Das, Citigroup’s top mortgage executive.

Last month, the Obama administration made key changes. It reduced the paperwork requirements and announcing that homeowners will be required to provide proof of their incomes upfront starting June 1.