New Program Could Help Half a Million Homeowners

CitiMortgage, the nation's fourth-largest mortgage lender, announced today a new assistance program aimed at homeowners potentially at risk of falling behind on their payments or losing their homes to foreclosure.

Citi's homeowner assistance program will reach out to 500,000 customers still current with their monthly payments but who live in areas where home prices are falling or unemployment rates are rising. This represents nearly a third of the mortgages that Citi owns.

"Borrowers need to know what options are available to them before they are in a situation of financial distress," said Sanjiv Das, CEO of CitiMortgage. "They should know Citi will modify their loan even before they miss their payments."

Citi expects the program will almost immediately impact nearly 130,000 customers, totaling $20 billion in loans, by assisting borrowers regardless of the type of loan they currently own.

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"Ours is not product specific, ours is borrower specific," said Das.

The new initiative from Citi comes as federal and state governments, homeownership preservation groups and other banks -– most recently JP Morgan Chase –- have launched programs over the past year to help homeowners -- at risk of foreclosure -- stay in their homes in order to shore up the nation's crumbling real estate market.

But Guy Cecala, publisher of the trade publication "Inside Mortgage Finance," cautioned that initiatives like this from CitiMortgage, as well as programs from other banks, look great on paper but often are not that dramatically different from what the banks have already been doing.

"Generally, the numbers they throw out there in terms of expectations are not that different from what they said they would do six months or even a year ago," he said. Cecala pointed out that the announcement from Citi comes a day before congressional hearings that could be critical of the action or inaction by lenders and mortgage services to help struggling homeowners.

"All these initiatives are as much in response to political pressure as they are to lenders responding to rising foreclosures."

Citi's Plan to Help Homeowners

Citi's program is modeled after the FDIC IndyMac modification program. That plan adjusts mortgages for eligible homeowners currently delinquent so their payments are no more than 38 percent of total income. Citi will modify at-risk mortgages to 40 percent.

Citi will adjust loans by reducing the principal owed, extending the term of the loan or reducing the interest rate. In some cases, Das said, the bank could use a combination of these options such as extending the loan to 40 years and then reducing the interest rate to 1 percent for up to two years in order to provide an affordable monthly payment for borrowers so they can stay in their homes.

And unlike other programs including the FDIC IndyMac plan, Citi's will be available not just for homeowners already late making their payments, but for any customers who could be at risk due to circumstances, such as a job loss.

"We will preemptively reach out to help at-risk homeowners before they become delinquent," said Das in a statement, "which is critical to avoiding the loss of a home and protecting their credit score and future borrowing potential."

Citi will redirect 600 employees in the sales force to the counseling center in order to call its customers about the program.

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