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A guaranteed end to PMI payments

It is one of the key tradeoffs for anyone who wants to buy a house but doesn't have much for a down payment: The lender will approve your mortgage application but only if you agree to pay for private mortgage insurance, or PMI.

Those premiums, paid by an estimated 5-million American homeowners, can add $50 to $150 a month to your mortgage bills for close to a decade.

Now one player in the mortgage insurance industry is letting buyers nail down a precise date for canceling premium payments. Radian Guaranty Inc. of Philadelphia will automatically terminate certain homeowners' monthly payments after 60 months of coverage. No property appraisals and no formal requests to the lender are necessary. The main requirements are that the homeowners maintain a solid history of on-time payments during the first five years, have a FICO credit score no lower than 660 and agree to pay slightly higher monthly premiums.

For a 30-year, 6 percent, $180,000 first mortgage with a 10 percent down payment on a $200,000 home purchase, the higher premiums would range between $7 and $8 more a month through year five, compared with standard Radian PMI premiums for the identical loans.

Radian's new "Free After Five" plan, launched Sept. 8, is part of an industrywide effort to deal with consumer criticism of PMI coverage. Other efforts include a congressional campaign to amend the tax code to make mortgage insurance premiums deductible and the introduction of discounted "lender-paid" insurance that automatically makes premiums tax-deductible by including them in the mortgage interest rate.

The Radian program aims at consumer unhappiness about the uncertainties surrounding termination of PMI payments. The federal Homeowners Protection Act of 1998 mandates automatic cancellation of PMI whenever a borrower's loan balance is paid down to 78 percent of the home's value at the time of purchase. To qualify, borrowers must have on-time loan payment histories for the year before termination and no other mortgage liens against the property.

But that automatic termination can take a long time to happen: seven to nine years, depending on the loan amortization schedule. That is too long a wait for many consumers.

As an alternative, the 1998 law also lets borrowers with mortgages originated on or after July 29, 1999, request termination of insurance payments when their balance hits 80 percent of the original value of their homes; in other words, when their equity reaches 20 percent. Typically, such homeowners must pay for an appraisal conducted by someone selected by their lender or loan servicer. That appraisal may come up with a value lower than the borrower expected, leaving the insurance coverage and premium payments in place.

PMI cancellations requested by borrowers _ much in demand in high-appreciation real estate markets _ have other complexities. For example, if the insured mortgage is owned by investors Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, their rules govern whether a homeowner's request for cancellation is approved. As general policy, neither company will agree to PMI cancellations within the first two years of the mortgage, even in hyperinflationary markets where property values are gaining at double-digit annual rates.

Fannie and Freddie also insist on a higher borrower equity standard _ a 25 percent stake rather than 20 percent _ for cancellation requests between two and five years of a mortgage origination. Neither will agree to borrower-initiated PMI cancellation requests if the homeowners have made a payment 30 days late in the 12 months preceding the request, or a 60-day late payment during the preceding 24 months.

Radian's plan, virtually guaranteed to be matched by competing mortgage insurers in the months ahead, seeks to bypass the uncertainties and hassles of the standard cancellation procedures. It also includes a carrot for lenders who offer it to home buyers: Though the borrowers' insurance payment responsibilities will stop at month 60, Radian's coverage of the lender against financial loss caused by borrower delinquencies continues until the automatic termination date.

It's win-win for the lender and consumer, say Radian executives. But of course, the cancellation feature is inherently a tradeoff itself: It costs the borrower extra every month but costs the lender or servicer nothing at all.

E-mail Ken Harney at kharneywinstarmail.com.

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