FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Counting on money from your home-equity line of credit to pay for home renovations or college expenses? Watch out. Some banks are starting to restrict or freeze access to emergency cash.
What's exasperating is that lenders are not even bothering to appraise properties on site or consider borrowers' credit history. They are taking action based solely on the steep decline in home values across the region, a slide that rivals any in the country.
"I don't think it's right," said Louis Moroff, 81, who lives west of Boca Raton, Fla. "It's damaging to the economy, and I really believe it's irresponsible."
Moroff found out in April that his lender, Washington Mutual Inc., had slashed his equity line 34 percent, leaving less than $30,000 on which he can draw against the equity of his house. As a result, Moroff is postponing kitchen and bathroom renovations.
When he questioned the bank, an executive blamed the reduction on the local housing market, Moroff said.
Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation's largest mortgage lender, said earlier this year that it was reducing or freezing the credit lines of 122,000 borrowers.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co. have frozen lines of credit, but have not released numbers of affected borrowers.
"It's not a reflection on someone's credit situation," said David Bradley of Bank of America, which is based in Charlotte, N.C. "But there are certain market realities. We do understand that it can present a hardship for people."
Said Moroff, a retired sales manager who now is a vice president for the Broward County Chamber of Commerce: "I don't blame the banks for trying to do this. But it just seems that the reasonable and proper way is to appraise each of the properties they want to adjust and also to take into consideration the credit status of the individual."
A home-equity line of credit, known as a HELOC, is a second mortgage that allows borrowers to draw cash up to a limit, using the equity in their homes as collateral.
The line of credit was a popular financial tool for consumers as home values soared during the housing boom of 2000 to 2005, helping pay for repairs, vacations and other major expenses.
But home values started declining, and many homeowners who tapped these credit lines found themselves "upside down," owing more than their houses are worth. When homes fall into foreclosure, lenders on second mortgages get little or nothing because the first mortgages must be repaid first.
In the first three months of 2008, losses on home-equity lines of credit nationwide rose to $1.3 billion from $204 million a year earlier, a 537 percent increase, according to the Comptroller of the Currency in Washington. The agency charters and regulates banks.
With interest rates so low, more consumers want to apply for home-equity lines of credit, but are being turned away by local lenders because they do not have sufficient equity in their homes.
In fact, Americans now have the lowest level of home equity - market value minus mortgage debt - since the end of World War II, the Federal Reserve said earlier this month.
During the housing boom, it was common for banks to lend 100 percent or more of a home's value but now they typically do not want to exceed 80 percent to 90 percent of the value. "And that's if you can find a lender," said Jim Sahnger, vice president of Palm Beach Financial Network, a mortgage broker.
Officials with Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America said they would consider reinstating lines of credit if borrowers could show that their homes have not lost as much value as others in the area.
George Richardson, 45, of Wilton Manors, Fla., found out last month that lender USAA Federal Savings Bank froze his $35,000 line of credit. He said the lender did not consider his credit score or appraise his house.
"It was a nice safety blanket," Richardson, a mortgage broker, said of his equity line.
Richardson and other brokers say people who still have access to a home-equity line of credit should consider drawing on the money now and depositing it into an interest-bearing savings account.
Boca Raton financial planner John Carrig said that was not necessarily wise because borrowers probably would not be able to earn enough in interest to offset the monthly cost of the equity line. In addition, people would have to report the interest on their annual income-tax filing.
Banks now are forced to be more cautious after years of freewheeling lending standards, Carrig said.