It’s time to loosen mortgage lending standards

June 20, 2012, 7:19 PM UTC

FORTUNE – As the U.S. economy recovers, some financial institutions have realized that even borrowers with not-so-perfect credit are still a safe bet. In 2011, households with credit scores below 700 were issued $169 billion in car loans, a 26% increase from the previous year. And last May, credit card issuance reached a three-year high.

But while credit cards and car loans have been easier to come by, getting approved for a home loans seems harder than ever. Today, the Federal Reserve is expected to weigh new steps to boost the economy. The central bank has already purchased more than $2.7 trillion-worth of bonds in order to lower long-term interest rates, but the effort to provide cheap money for businesses and consumers hasn’t reached enough households looking to refinance or buy homes.

Lending standards for mortgages are tighter today than they were in the wake of the financial crisis. In 2007, the average Fannie Mae-backed home loan carried a loan-to-value ratio of 75% and a credit score of 716. Last year’s average LTV was 69% and the average credit score was 762, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s latest conservator’s report. Meanwhile, it’s one the cheapest times to buy a home.

“It’s counterintuitive,” says Susan Wachter, real estate and finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

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This isn’t to say that banks should return to those risky days of lending that partly fed the housing market’s bubble and bust. But if homeownership is ever to recover, it’s hard not to wonder if lenders may be judging borrowers’ almost too harshly.

Interest rates have fallen to record lows, courtesy of the Federal Reserve’s policy prescriptions to boost the economy. Home prices have dropped more than 30% during the past five years. And yet, the homeownership rate during the first three months this year fell to 65.4%, its lowest level in 15 years. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, nearly 90% of all new mortgages approved in 2011 went to households with high credit scores; before the financial crisis, it was about 50%.

And it’s likely the trend will continue for years to come, given the growing number of borrowers with less-than perfect credit history.

Since 2007, 19% of all borrowers have gone more than 90 days delinquent on their mortgages, market strategist and blogger Barry Ritholtz wrote this week. That means one in five people (or about 9 million people) who held or qualified for a mortgage not too long ago would not today, since such delinquencies on their credit reports prevent them from qualifying for a new mortgages. So however low home prices go and whatever actions the Fed might possibly take over the coming year to push interest rates lower, access to credit will continue being the big stumbling block diminishing the cost incentives to buy.

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Following collapse of the housing market and one of history’s deepest economic recessions, there are markedly fewer borrowers today without dings on their credit histories. The financial crisis pushed even the most credit-worthy borrowers into foreclosure. And it would be a mistake for lenders to ignore this growing segment, according to a report released last summer by Deloitte. “Some first-time defaulters may be mere one-time defaulters and have the potential, indeed the propensity, to resume good financial behavior,” the report’s authors wrote.

Needless to say, the forces of foreclosure and high unemployment haven’t pushed lenders to judge borrowers all that differently when it comes to mortgages. But isn’t it time to?