So what do the new changes to the government's Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) mean for you? If you're an underwater homeowner, it could mean a lot.

In fact, it could be the thing that finally allows you to refinance your mortgage at some of those all-time low interest rates you've been hearing about, but couldn't qualify for. Here's a look at some of the key elements of the changes to the government-backed mortgage refinance program, announced Monday by the Federal Home Finance Agency (FHFA).

No loan-to-value restriction

The main thing is that you no longer have to worry about how far your home has fallen in value since you took out your mortgage. Previously, you couldn't get a HARP refinance if your mortgage balance exceeded your home value by more than 25 percent. That limit has been totally eliminated, meaning you can still refinance even if your home value is a third of what you owe on your mortgage, or even less.

Appraisals, fees waived

The new rules waive certain fees charged at closing, particularly for borrowers who choose to refinance into 15- or 20-year fixed-rate mortgages. High closing costs have been seen as a barrier to refinancing under HARP, so the administration hopes that waiving these fees will enable more homeowners to refinance. Since home value is no longer an issue, appraisals are no longer required, as long a reliable automated estimate is available, though some lenders may still insist on one.

There will still be some fees associated with closing costs on the new loan, which can be financed as part of the new mortgage.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac mortgages only

The HARP underwater refinance is available only to borrowers who have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Since they're already on the hook if the loans go bad, it's in their interest to enable underwater borrowers to refinance so they're less likely to default. It doesn't really matter to them if the interest rate is reduced, since the interest is paid to the investors who buy the guaranteed loans from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. You can find out if yours is a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loan at the agencies' web sites.

Who's eligible?

To qualify for the new HARP refinance, you need to have been current on your mortgage payments for the last six months and been late no more than once in the past year. The mortgage must have been transferred to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac no later than May 31, 2009. The mortgage must be on a one-to four unit dwelling that serves as your primary residence.

How much can I save?

Underwater borrowers refinancing through the program will save an average of $2,500 a year on their mortgage payments, or more than $200 a month, according to Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The government estimates the changes to the program will benefit up to 1 million people, although Moody's Analytics puts the figure at 1.6 million. The Obama administration may be a bit cautious after their original estimates for borrowers helped by the current version of HARP and its companion HAMP loan modification program turned out to be too optimistic.

What kind of loans can I get?

This is a significant change from the current HARP. The administration is encouraging underwater borrowers to refinance into short-term 15- and 20-year fixed-rate mortgages by waiving most or all program fees for those loans. The current program mandates that borrowers refinance into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages only. Homeowners will still be able to refinance into 30-year loans if they wish, but they'll have to pay more fees if they do. Combined with the ultra-low rates now available on 15-year mortgages, that's a significant prod for borrowers who've been in their homes a number of years to shorten up their term and start building back more quickly toward positive equity.

When is it available?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are scheduled to provide full details of the program, including information to lenders, by Nov. 15. The FHFA says some lenders may be able to start offering the program by Dec. 1, although most estimates are of a rollout in the first quarter of 2012 for most participating lenders. Chase Bank and mortgage lender Genworth have already indicated they look forward to participating.

Sounds great! What are the downsides?

Like the current HARP, the new version is voluntary, so not all lenders may participate. But if you have a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage, you can refinance with a participating lender even if your current one is not in the program.

Because the program is voluntary, lenders may have their own requirements they overlay on top of the HARP guidelines, though there will likely be limits on what they can do. However, there will still likely be credit score and income requirements, the same as for any mortgage.

It's also not yet clear how the new guidelines will address loan-level price adjustments, which are tacked onto the interest rate to reflect certain risk factors. Since being underwater in itself is considered a major risk factor, interest rates offered to homeowners under the current program have sometimes been considerably higher than they expected, even above what they are currently paying. But if seriously underwater borrowers are able to get near-market interest rates when refinancing, this could be a real bonanza for financially stable underwater homeowners.

Further information:

Published on October 25, 2011