updated 3/4/2009 3:53:09 PM ET 2009-03-04T20:53:09

The Obama administration kicked off a new program Wednesday that’s designed to help up to 9 million borrowers stay in their homes through refinanced mortgages or loans that are modified to lower monthly payments.

Borrowers, however, are being advised to be patient in their efforts to get help because mortgage companies are likely to be flooded with calls.

Government officials, launching the “Making Home Affordable” program also acknowledge that the initiatives are only a partial fix for a sweeping problem that has helped plunge the U.S. economy into the worst recession in decades. In fact, tens of thousands of homeowners in some of the most battered real estate markets — concentrated in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona — won’t be eligible for the two programs.

“It’s not intended to prevent every foreclosure or to help every homeowner,” a senior Treasury Department official told reporters. “It’s really targeted at responsible homeowners.”

There was also skepticism that banks would be willing to participate.

“I’ve just seen so many of the programs not work,” said Pava Leyrer, president of Heritage National Mortgage in Randville, Mich. “It gets borrowers hopes up. They call and call for these programs and we can’t get anybody to do them.”

The Obama administration’s program has two parts: one to work with lenders to modify the loan terms for up to 4 million homeowner, the second to refinance up to 5 million homeowners into more affordable fixed-rate loans.

For the modification program, borrowers who are eligible will have to provide their most recent tax return and two pay stubs, as well as an “affidavit of financial hardship” to qualify for the loan modification program, which runs through 2012.

Borrowers are only allowed to have their loans modified once, and the program only applies for loans made on Jan. 1 2009, or earlier. Mortgages for single-family properties that are worth more than $729,750 are excluded.

Lenders could reduce a borrower’s interest rate to as low as 2 percent for five years. Rates would then rise to about 5 percent until the mortgage is repaid.

If the plan works as intended, it could be a big plus for borrowers like Nick Kavalary, a network cable installer who lives outside Milwaukee.

Kavalary, 42, has been struggling with JPMorgan Chase & Co. to get a loan modification. He was finally approved for one this year, but it only cuts his interest rate to about 9.8 percent from 10.75 percent. Even at the lower rate, he said, making the payment is nearly impossible.

“If I can’t pick up a second job, I’m going to lose this house,” he said. “With the job market being the way it is, nobody’s hiring nobody.”

For the refinance program, only homeowners whose loans are held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are eligible and have until June 2010 to apply.

Consumers should contact their loan servicer — the company that sends out their monthly bill — to find out if their mortgages are held by Fannie or Freddie. The two mortgage finance companies own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans — more than half of all U.S home mortgages.

Many mortgage brokers, however, are critical. They argue the fees imposed by Fannie and Freddie over the past year make it difficult for borrowers to afford to refinance. The two companies, which are now government controlled, have yet to detail how they will implement the plan, or whether any fees will be rolled back.

Meanwhile, action to put in place another part of Obama’s housing plan is expected soon on Capitol Hill.

House Democrats agreed Tuesday to narrow proposed legislation that gives bankruptcy judges the power to change the terms of mortgage loans for debt-strapped borrowers.

In the latest version of the bill, judges would have to consider whether a homeowner had been offered a reasonable deal by the bank to rework his or her home loan before seeking help in bankruptcy court. Borrowers also would have a responsibility to prove that they tried to modify their mortgages.

A full vote in the House could come as early as Thursday.

More on  housing   |  the economy

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