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Feds to back bigger mortgages in Sonoma, Napa counties

Rising home prices in Sonoma and Napa counties are triggering a change in federal housing rules that will help home buyers in both counties obtain larger mortgages and make smaller down payments.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency is raising conforming loan limits in both counties on Jan. 1, which will allow entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy or guarantee bigger mortgages in both counties.

Loan officers and real estate officials characterized the increase as a modest but positive step that will reduce the cost of buying homes in Sonoma and Napa counties.

“It certainly is going to help,” said Leslie Appleton-Young, chief economist for the California Association of Realtors. “It’s not a huge increase, but every little bit helps.”

Higher-income buyers will benefit the most from the changes. Appleton-Young said the increased loan limits could prove a factor in roughly 6 percent of local housing sales, or nearly 300 of the more than 4,700 single-family homes expected to be sold in Sonoma County this year.

In Sonoma County, the conforming loan limit will increase by 4.5 percent to $554,300. In Napa, the limit will climb 1.7 percent to $625,500, the maximum allowed and the same amount as in pricey markets such as San Francisco.

Along with the increase in loan amounts, borrowers next year will be able to qualify with only a 5 percent down payment, significantly less than the previous minimum of 10 percent.

Increasing the size of loans that can be backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will make them more affordable. Loans that exceed the conforming loan limit typically come with higher interest rates and stricter underwriting standards because they are not backed by the federal government.

Higher costs, in turn, make homes less affordable and shrink the pool of potential buyers.

In Sonoma County, buyers next year who obtain the maximum loan amount with 5 percent down would need an annual income of nearly $120,000 a year in order to qualify, said Kris Anderson, a senior loan consultant for Allstate Mortgage in Santa Rosa. Their monthly payment, including taxes and insurance, would total nearly $3,800.

Under the new rules, such buyers would need about $30,000 less for their down payments, Anderson said. That means they could more quickly become home buyers.

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