By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/24/2008 7:32:44 AM ET 2008-03-24T11:32:44

Like many homeowners during the housing boom, Lynnette Madden and her husband decided to open a home equity line of credit about a year and a half ago as “padding” for emergency expenses and a cushion for Madden’s commission-based real estate career. The couple, who live in Bakersfield, Calif., never paid the bill late and never drew more than $14,000 in debt from the line’s $100,000 credit limit.

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That’s why Madden was surprised when Countrywide sent her a letter in late January stating that the couple's home equity line was “suspended” and they could no longer use it. The reason? Their home, the letter stated, had declined in value and thus the couple no longer had the amount of equity they did when they opened the line.

“I went ballistic,” Madden says. “I could understand it if we missed a payment or maxed it out, but we’ve been responsible.”

Madden is learning that even with a high credit score, substantial  home equity and a history of using debt carefully, the rocky real estate market is punishing even responsible consumers. Madden disputes the lender’s claim that her shrunken home value disqualifies her for the line: She says the home was worth over $500,000 two years ago, is still worth over $400,000 and that the mortgage balance is below $220,000.

Given the current credit crunch and real estate downturn, Madden doubts she can persuade the company to reinstate the home equity line. She says a Countrywide rep told her that if she paid for a new appraisal (at a cost of more than $400) she could try and use it to appeal the lender’s justification for the closure. But Madden says she has no intention of paying for a new appraisal just two years after she paid over $2,000 in non-refundable fees to open the line.

A home equity line of credit, or HELOC in industry-speak, is a revolving credit line with a limit proportionate to the homeowner’s equity in their property. Home equity lines offer much lower interest rates than regular credit cards do because they are issued against a “secured asset” — a home.

As property values soared across the country in recent years, such home equity lines of credit helped consumers finance everything from home remodels to vacations and nights on the town. But as home values have dropped, consumers have seen their equity shrink or even disappear, which in some cases means the lender no longer has any security for the home equity loan.

For example: A consumer who put 10 percent down to buy a $500,000 home would owe $450,000 on his or her mortgage. Under old standards, he might have been able to get a $50,000 home equity line of credit a year or two later when his home appraised at $550,000. Under that scenario he would owe up to $500,000 on the home but still would have at least 10 percent equity in the property.

But if the value of the home sank bank to $500,000, he would be left with no equity and might lose access to the credit line.

Madden and her husband have plenty of company: Countrywide confirmed in an e-mail that to date 122,000 customers have been notified by letter that their home equity lines of credit have been impacted by falling home values. The company stated that according to credit lending regulations, “a creditor may prohibit additional extensions of credit during any period in which the value of the dwelling that secures the plan declines significantly below the dwelling’s appraised value for the purposes of the plan.”

Other lenders including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase confirmed that they are following suit, reviewing existing credit lines, lowering their limits, or suspending them altogether — if not on the scale of Countrywide.

Lenders periodically conduct “portfolio reviews” to examine whether the assets (in this case homes) against which they have extended credit have held their value, says Richard Hagar, an appraiser at American Home Appraisals in Mercer Island, Wash., who teaches courses on mortgage fraud.

In recent years, Hagar says lenders would loan up to 120 percent of a home’s value (up to 100 percent for a primary mortgage plus 20 percent for a home equity line). But now lenders have returned to their prior conservative metrics. This means they’ve capped lending for 90 percent of the home’s value, including the primary mortgage and home equity line. And they're doing it at a time when many markets’ home values are declining.

“This is the pendulum swing back to the safe side,” he says. “There’s not much a consumer can do.”

For a homeowner like Madden, that’s cold comfort.

“They’re putting everyone in the same fishbowl,” she says. “How many people would pay another $400 or $500 to pay for a new appraisal in today’s market?”

Madden’s arguments aside, lenders say the suspensions are good for the consumer.

“We don’t want the customer to owe more on the house than it’s worth,” says Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for Chase Home Lending.

Terry Francisco, a Bank of America spokesman, says that the bank will reinstate suspended equity lines if a home’s sunken value revives. But it’s hard to predict when that will happen.

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Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.67%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.00%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.36%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 11.09%
11.09%
Cash Back Cards 16.42%
16.42%
Rewards Cards 16.04%
16.04%
Source: Bankrate.com