With new-home buyers scarce, many builders have turned to new programs to create new ones by helping potential home buyers remove financing barriers through fixing their credit lines and setting up savings accounts to get them in homes.
Through credit enhancement programs, builders offer home buyers free credit counseling either through in-house specialists or contracted companies.
"This is a credit enhancement program, not debt consolidation or renegotiating debt," said Dan Klinger, president of K. Hovnanian American Mortgage. The company uses Debt Resource USA to help customers go through their credit reports and work out any inaccuracies that may be detrimental to the client getting the best loan rate possible. So far, Klinger said, 65 home buyers have graduated or are about to graduate and another 109 are enrolled.
"This is certainly not a silver bullet, but in today's economy, every sale counts," Klinger said. Hovnanian pays for the program through a 50/50 deal with Debt Resources in which Hovnanian pays 50% up front and the remaining 50% at closing. And, the credit program stays with the client for one year after they close, making sure the buyer stays on track with their credit record.
C.P. Morgan is another builder using this type of program; five months ago, the company hired an in-house credit care specialist to help its clients get their credit in order. So far six people have graduated the no-fee program and another 50 are "working on basic budget and savings plans to get them ready for homeownership," said Blair West, C.P Morgan's corporate public relations manager.
D.R. Horton's Home Buyers Club offers potential buyers, free of charge, access to in-house credit advocates to help with credit coaching, debt reduction, and more. The assistance comes with one string attached; those who enroll must first complete a home buyer education course offered by an independent third party.
Credit issues aside, buyers also have to have money on hand for a down payment, a task that is harder now that down payment assistance programs have been shelved and loan requirements have been upped. Gone are the days of no money down on a home loan; buyers ideally need a 20% down payment to get the best mortgage rates. Lower down payment percentages are available with FHA loans, which require a minimum of 3% down until end of the year, going up to 3.5% on Jan. 1. In response, builders are also extending their arms to help buyers save for the down payment that will help get them in the door to their new home.
Later this month, Hovnanian will release its strategy of a savings program called "Passbook to the American Dream." Using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's savings feasibility worksheet to calculate buyers' appropriate debt-to-income ratios, the company plans to help buyers get on track to saving up for their future homes. Centex Corp. and C.P. Morgan have similar plans.
"Each month a buyer contributes to an escrow account, and once 50% of the down payment is reached, we begin construction on the home," said C.P. Morgan's West.
"They put money down much like a layaway plan for a Christmas Club," Hovnanian's Klinger said, adding that this type of program has been active for a long time but was unnecessary in the past due to relaxed loan arrangements. "This is getting back to the basics."
Beazer Homes USA also has a savings plan they have unrolled called "Doors to Down Payment," an online tool buyers can resource for down payment ideas. Suggestions include gift funds, secondary financing by family members, sale of personal property, employer assistance plans, savings bonds, tax credits, IRAs, thrift savings plans, 401(k)s, and Keogh accounts. Beazer also has a "Buy and Save" program, which mimics a layaway program.
With some builders going the route of helping buyers with down payment savings plans, Toll Brothers is going a slightly different route. The company unveiled a lease-to-own program in markets in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.
Mark Bailey, assistant vice president of Toll Brothers' Phoenix office said the program is new to the company with starting dates varying by market, but in his office eight people are using the program, which has a 12-month lease provision.
"After the 12 months the customer can close and 50% of the lease pay is credited to them and the customer locks in a today's market rate," he said. "If a customer decides they don't want to stay, they can walk away."
So far, Bailey said, the program has been well received although no numbers were available company wide.