by Binyamin Appelbaum
Friday, March 4, 2011
Provided by The New York Times

How might home buying change if the federal government shuts down the housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage loan, the steady favorite of American borrowers since the 1950s, could become a luxury product, housing experts on both sides of the political aisle say.

Interest rates would rise for most borrowers, but urban and rural residents could see sharper increases than the coveted customers in the suburbs.

Lenders could charge fees for popular features now taken for granted, like the ability to "lock in" an interest rate weeks or months before taking out a loan.

Life without Fannie and Freddie is the rare goal shared by the Obama administration and House Republicans, although it will not happen soon. Congress must agree on a plan, which could take years, and then the market must be weaned slowly from dependence on the companies and the financial backing they provide.

The reasons by now are well understood. Fannie and Freddie, created to increase the availability of mortgage loans, misused the government's support to enrich shareholders and executives by backing millions of shoddy loans. Taxpayers so far have spent more than $135 billion on the cleanup.

The much more divisive question is whether the government should preserve the benefits that the companies provide to middle-class borrowers, including lower interest rates, lenient terms and the ability to get a mortgage even when banks are not making other kinds of loans.

Douglas J. Elliott, a financial policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Congress was being forced for the first time in decades to grapple with the cost of subsidizing middle-class mortgages. The collapse of Fannie and Freddie took with it the pretense that the government could do so at no risk to taxpayers, he said.

"The politicians would like something that provides a deep and wide subsidy for housing that doesn't show up on the budget as costing anything. That's what we had" with Fannie and Freddie, Mr. Elliott said. "But going forward there is going to be more honest accounting."

Some Republicans and Democrats say the price is too high. They want the government to pull back, letting the market dictate price, terms and availability.

"A purely private mortgage finance market is a very serious and very achievable goal," Representative Scott Garrett, the New Jersey Republican who oversees the subcommittee that oversees Fannie and Freddie, said at a hearing this week. "No one serious in this debate believes our housing market will return to the 1930s."

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