WASHINGTON - Fannie Mae has changed its underwriting guidelines so that lenders can more easily make loans to borrowers whose debt exceeds standard ratios.

In a letter to lenders, Fannie Mae said that it would buy loans that exceed the qualifying ratios if the borrower has been paying rent equal to or greater than the proposed mortgage payment.

The Mortgage Bankers Association welcomed the move.

"It's a step in the right direction," said staff vice president Brian J. Chappelle. "It gives underwriters more confidence to lend to borrowers who fall outside traditional credit parameters."

The change reflects current thinking at the secondary-market agencies that a borrower's history of handling housing payments, such as rent, should be given greater weight than tradtional underwriting factors, such as debt ratios, Mr. Chappelle said.

The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. is testing the same thesis in a pilot program with the Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp.

In its letter, Fannie Mae told lenders that it has dropped its requirement that loans made under the more liberal Community Homebuyers program meet a debt-to-income ratio of 40%.

Instead, underwriters will have more leeway to determine if factors such as previous rent payments would justify exceeding the benchmark ratios.

Fannie Mae - formally the Federal National Mortgage Association - also made it easier for borrowers to count income through part-time jobs as income used to qualify for a home loan.

If the borrower has had an uninterrupted 12-month history of holding part-time jobs, Fannie Mae said the income therefrom could be counted as qualifying income.

Fannie Mae also announced:

* It has set up an advisory council made up of senior underwriting executives at 11 lenders. The council will advise Fannie Mae on underwriting issues and review draft underwriting changes.

* It has also set up an internal board to review every affordable- housing loan that the company requires lenders to repurchase because the loans don't meet underwriting requirements.

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