WASHINGTON — The Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a program Wednesday to help underwater borrowers refinance their mortgages, but its details appeared to pose fresh challenges for servicers and lenders.

The agency said borrowers with payment- and debt-to-income ratios over a certain threshold must complete a three-month trial period in a new loan before the Federal Housing Administration would insure it. Some analysts said that stipulation could cause problems.

"Some folks thought the credit ratios would have been a little more liberal, particularly in light of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s experience with the IndyMac portfolio," said Brian Chappelle, a partner at Potomac Partners LLC and former HUD official.

The Hope for Homeowners program allows borrowers to take out FHA-insured mortgages, relieving the owners of the old mortgage of a delinquent loan in exchange for writing its value down to 90% of the current home value and waiving any prepayment or late payment fees. The FHA in turn will pay off the old loan and give second lien holders a share in the possible future appreciation of the home's value.

Though the program was created by a bill passed in July, it left most of the details to HUD and an oversight board of federal regulators.

Under those details, which were released Wednesday, the borrower's payment-to-income ratio cannot exceed 31%, and the debt-to income ratio cannot exceed 43%, for the FHA to insure a new mortgage immediately. Borrowers with higher ratios — up to 38% for payments and 50% for debt — may still participate, but the FHA would require the three-month trial.

Rod Dubitsky, the head of Credit Suisse Group's asset-backed securities research division, said the requirement that servicers try a payment plan before turning the borrower over to an FHA-insured loan left room for the original servicer and the new lender to clash over decision-making authority.

"There's a 'he said, she said' potential from the borrower's standpoint," he said. The setup "requires the servicer and the FHA lender to work hand in glove."

Observers said the FHA's underwriting procedures for the program are also strict. New lenders must obtain two year's worth of tax returns on the borrower from the Internal Revenue Service, among other things.

The eligibility requirements released Wednesday also dictated that loans be originated before this year. Borrowers must have made at least six payments and must not be able to make more. Borrowers are banned from participation if the mortgage is not on their primary residence or if they own a second home. The new loans cannot exceed $550,440.

At a press conference announcing the details, HUD Secretary Steve Preston said it was open to improvments. "We will continue to listen to the industry as they adopt the program and experience homeowner needs."

HUD officials and observers said they were hoping that the passage of a bailout bill for the financial industry would make the program more efficient.

Under the existing program, lenders considering making new loans to struggling borrowers would not have any up-front financial incentive. They would only be able to share in the possible future appreciation of the borrower's home. The bailout bill, which the Senate was expected to pass Wednesday, would authorize the FHA to pay the new lender up front instead. The bill also would encourage servicers to use the program for eligible loans purchased by Treasury as part of its proposed facility to buy $700 billion of troubled mortgage assets.

FHA Commissioner Brian Montgomery would not comment specifically on the fate of the two changes to the plan that are in the bailout bill, but he said HUD was still making improvements to the plan.

"We're kind of flying the plane and fixing it at the same time," he said. "Our work doesn't end today. A good bit of it does, but this product is out there for the next three years, so as we go forward we'll adjust as we need to."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.