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The hottest trend of the spring selling season is a builder-backed mortgage payment relief program.

As the economy continues to put the hurt on the No. 1 driver of new-home demand—jobs—making a spring selling season happen has become exponentially harder for builders. In February alone, 651,000 jobs were lost, sending unemployment skyrocketing to 8.1 percent from 7.6 percent in January, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This economic reality is giving many would-be buyers reason to pause on a new-home purchase. But some builders are trying to quell buyers' fears with mortgage payment relief programs.

The programs work as an unemployment safety net in that if a buyer loses his or her job, the builder will take over the mortgage payments for a limited time. Many of these programs have restrictions, but the overarching idea is that buyers can feel more secure about buying a home because the mortgage will still get paid while he or she seeks alternative employment. Toll Brothers, Bowen Family Homes, Fischer Homes, M/I Homes, and Lennar, to name a few, have this type of program in their sales arsenals.

“It used to be that customers would come in worried about having a down payment. We have found that people are ready to buy, but they are fearful of losing a job,” said Kelly Fink, regional marketing director at Atlanta-based Bowen Family Homes. The company launched a payment relief program, known as its Safety Net Program, in February.

Bowen Family Homes has partnered with America Home Key Mortgage, the company's preferred lender, to offer clients this mortgage payment relief program that allows up to $2,000 per month for up to four consecutive months of mortgage payments if a buyer loses his or her job.

Brian Fannin, director of marketing for Cincinnati-based Fischer Homes, echoed Fink. “We believe our protection program, along with interest rates as low as 3.99 percent, will ensure the peace of mind that everyone needs when making such a significant buying decision.”

However, not all buyers qualify for these programs. For example, with the Toll Brothers program, those who are self-employed, independent contractors, or active military are ineligible, as are people who work for a family member or own more than a 10 percent share in an employer's business.

The popularity of these programs has made other builders curious. “The No. 1 fear is jobs,” said Scott Shapiro, CFO of Highland Homes in Lakeland, Fla. Shapiro recently looked into Statesville, N.C.-based Producers Financial Network's Paycheck Guardian product, an unemployment insurance program. He wasn't alone.

“We have been inundated in the last couple of weeks for requests and inquiries from builders, lenders, and car dealers,” said John Hartline, Producers Financial Network's president.

While some builders move forward with these marketing incentives, hoping to ease buyers' fears, others have taken a more cautious outlook.

“To me, this just seems rife with potential fraud,” said Buz Hoffman, president of Chicago-based Lakewood Homes.

—Lynn Norusis