Government Shutdown Puts Some Mortgage Deals In Limbo

by Kim Boateng Posted on January 11th, 2019

The partial shutdown of the federal government is causing some financial problems for furloughed workers who can’t refinance their mortgages or buy homes because lenders can’t verify their income. But unpaid federal employees aren’t the only ones running into problems.

Libby Anderson, for example, got her final divorce decree on Tuesday. She’d hoped that would mean her ex-husband would finally move out of their Des Moines, Iowa, home, where they’ve been living separate lives under one roof for eight months.

“I mean, we were really going to take care of it today — the day after it was final — and then he would be out,” Anderson, a marketing researcher, said in an interview on Wednesday.

That didn’t happen.

Anderson’s ex-husband is a furloughed air traffic controller, and the shutdown means he can’t reach someone to help him split his government retirement account with her. She needs those funds to refinance the house under her name. And he can’t qualify for his own mortgage because he hasn’t been paid for three weeks.

The government stalemate also means they haven’t explained the pending change to their young son.

“We don’t have those answers yet,” Anderson says.

As the shutdown drags on, more people will find themselves facing similar roadblocks.

Refinance applications are booming as mortgage rates fell nearly half a percentage point in recent weeks. But furloughed workers can’t lock those rates in.

Anyone looking to buy or refinance may have a harder time getting through to federal agencies to verify income taxes or get certain loan information from the Federal Housing Administration, which remains closed. Rural home loans guaranteed through the Department of Agriculture are on hold, too.

Margie Hofberg, president of the Residential Mortgage Center in Rockville, Md., near Washington, D.C., says her business will likely see a ripple effect.

“If I can’t close and buy your house, then guess what? You can’t buy the house that you were buying even though you don’t work for the federal government,” she says.

Two deals nearly fell through this week, but Hofberg persuaded the lenders to waive certain paperwork. She says banks’ strict requirements of borrowers create many potential snags.

“My hope would be that the lenders start becoming a little more flexible, because it’s not in their best interest to not do loans, either,” Hofberg says.

There’s some precedent for these kinds of shutdown-related problems. During the 16-day shutdown in 2013, the National Association of Realtors says, 2 percent of home loans never closed.

“The headache really is related to delays,” says Lawrence Yun, the Realtor group’s chief economist. They affected 17 percent of home loan deals during the 2013 shutdown, largely because of a big backlog.

Most deals get done, Yun says, but the bigger worry is a possible impact on homebuyer psychology.

“The longer the shutdown, it causes greater uncertainty about the economic direction, which means that even the private sector employees may be less willing to purchase home[s] over time,” he says.

If the shutdown moves into open house season, that could affect certain markets where there are lots of government employees.

“What furloughed employees are going to go out and buy a house right now, when there’s no definitive date of a compromise?” says Gregg Busch, vice president of First Savings Mortgage, a big player in the Washington, D.C., area.

He says it will likely especially hit government contractors, who outnumber federal workers.

“There’s a lot of contractors here that aren’t getting paid,” Busch says. “People who own those companies, they’re not going to buy, be able to refinance and they’re going to start laying people off.”

For Libby Anderson, the new divorcee, the shutdown cannot end soon enough. While her breakup with her ex-husband has been amicable, she says sharing space is taxing.

“It just feels like you’re at the finish line and the finish line keeps getting moved, but you’re exhausted,” she says. “There’s not much you can do about it. You can’t move the finish line closer because it’s totally out of our control.”

The latest her ex-husband expected to move out was April 1. But now, Anderson worries the shutdown could go beyond that date.

“Obviously I wouldn’t kick him out into the street,” she says. “But we really both need to move on and and have some physical distance from each other.”

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Kim Boateng

Kim Boateng

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