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Originally published Friday, January 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Nation's Housing

Fannie's resolution: It's time to pay up

Syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — Here's mortgage giant Fannie Mae's sobering New Year's greeting for homebuyers and refinancers in 2011: Give me more money!

If you want a loan this year, you're going to have to pay more — thousands of dollars more in some cases — even if you've got stellar credit scores and bundles of cash handy for a down payment.

Things could get much worse if your scores have been sagging with the economy and you don't have much money upfront.

In a Dec. 23 memo to lenders in its network, Fannie announced that it has decided to impose a new schedule of higher add-on fees, similar to what Freddie Mac — the other huge congressionally chartered mortgage investor — rolled out to jeers from the real-estate industry just before Thanksgiving.

Both corporations have required massive federal financial infusions — estimated at close to $150 billion — since the housing market began deteriorating, and now operate under a federal "conservatorship" arrangement.

The Obama administration plans to submit long-promised proposals to Congress this month on what to do with the two — phasing them out, restructuring them, privatizing one or both of them, or other solutions.

But meanwhile, Fannie and Freddie continue to fund or guarantee upward of two-thirds of new mortgage originations. Because of their sheer size and market dominance, they play pivotal roles in determining whether — and how fast — the housing market can rebound.

Their new fees scheduled to start this spring, however, don't appear likely to make financing a home any easier. In fact, some potential buyers who have high credit scores and hefty down payments may be surprised that even they are being targeted for higher "risk-based" fees.

Consider these examples of how Fannie's revised list of loan add-ons will affect borrowers. Say you want to buy a house that requires a $300,000 first mortgage. You have impressive FICO scores — above 800 — and cash for a down payment just under 25 percent.

Purely on the basis of your credit score and loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, Fannie now plans to charge an extra quarter of a percentage point of the loan amount — $750 — to do the deal.

During 2010, by contrast, your substantial down payment combined with your FICO score — signifying virtually no risk of default — would have cost you zero.

Now take the same loan amount, but substitute a lower score and smaller down payment. Say your FICO score is 679, and you have down-payment money just under 20 percent, Fannie will soon begin hitting you for 2 ¾ percent in add-on fees — a staggering $8,250 extra solely attributable to your FICO and LTV.

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That's up by $1,500 over what you would have been charged during 2010.

But these fees are just the start of the multilayered, cumulative risk-based pricing system that both Fannie and Freddie employ.

Every perceived risk factor in a loan transaction receives its own separate add-on fee, all of which gets totaled up for your final loan charges.

Some fees are keyed to the type of real estate you want to finance. Condos, for example, are charged higher fees than stand-alone houses — a flat three-quarters of 1 percent by Fannie when the down payment is less than 25 percent.

Rental investment properties, manufactured homes, loans with interest-only payment features — all get separate fees that can mean significantly higher costs.

That's not all. Both Fannie and Freddie also tack on what they call adverse-market fees of one-quarter of 1 percent to all loans — the equivalent of cover charges at a night club — just to get you seated at the table.

In the $300,000 example above, that's a standard admission ticket of $750 — not what you'd consider chump change. All the fees can either be paid by you upfront as part of the transaction costs or financed with a higher interest rate on the mortgage itself.

What's the justification for these add-ons? Though Fannie Mae declined to comment on its latest fee hikes, Edward DeMarco, acting director of the federal agency that oversees both Fannie and Freddie, called the add-ons "necessary to protect [the companies] from the costs and risks" inherent in the mortgages they buy or guarantee.

Both Fannie and Freddie "underpriced mortgage credit risk" in the boom years, said DeMarco in a recent letter to Capitol Hill critics.

The implication here for borrowers in 2011: It's payback time, folks. Get ready to do precisely that — whether the heavy add-ons hamper a housing recovery or not.

Kenneth R. Harney: kenharney@earthlink.net

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