The subprime mortgage crisis is spreading to a somewhat unexpected place: homes costing more than $500,000.
As lending has rapidly gotten more restrictive for borrowers taking out large loans, sales of expensive homes have fallen sharply around the country during what should be one of the busiest seasons for buyers and sellers, mortgage bankers and real estate agents say.
To some degree the change is due to difficulty getting financing, as borrowers are finding fewer lenders willing or able to fund "jumbo" mortgages, loans for amounts greater than $417,000. Such loans are too big to be guaranteed by government-sponsored housing finance agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or Ginnie Mae.
Given the troubles in the subprime sector, investor appetite for all types of mortgage loans not guaranteed by housing finance agencies has nose-dived.
Banks until recently were able to offload the risk of many jumbo mortgages by selling the loans to investors. But now, as investors burned by the subprime debacle have become extremely picky about what they will buy, banks are having to keep more of these loans on their own books and as a result are charging higher rates.
Some lenders _ such as Countrywide Financial Corp. _ have made a point of saying they're now most focused on making loans that can be guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie.
Other lenders have simply tightened up their lending standards, for example by no longer making jumbo loans to lenders who can't fully document their income, even if they make large down payments and have stellar credit histories.
The banks that are still making jumbo loans are charging substantially higher rates to compensate for the lack of investor demand. Borrowers who could have gotten rates as low as 6.5 percent in June are now having to pay as much as 9 percent.
But aside from the financial impact of higher rates, in certain high-priced real estate markets, the effect of the suddenly tighter lending environment is more psychological, mortgage bankers and real estate agents say, as buyers and sellers alike don't want to plunge into an uncertain future.
"Showings are down, contracts written are down, and sellers are just as backed away as buyers are," said Lou Barnes, a partner in mortgage bank and brokerage Boulder West Financial Services in Boulder, Colo. The company arranges for financing on many higher-priced condominiums and houses in the state.
"I think the psychological damage is worse than the financial damage" which is already bad enough, he said. Even for buyers who have plenty of cash or can easily afford higher mortgage rates, the sudden change in the financing environment reduces "the ardor to buy a house unless you have to," he adds.
With numerous buyers and sellers sidelined, the higher cost of big mortgages is bound to put downward pressure on home prices should the lending environment stay tight for a long period of time, said Ellen Bitton, president of Park Avenue Mortgage, a mortgage bank and brokerage that does business in several states, including New York, Florida and Utah.
In New York, the most pronounced effect so far has been at the very top end of the market, for properties priced $25 million and above, said Dolly Lenz, vice chairman with Prudential Douglas Elliman.
"Every single person I have at the highest end is on hold. They're going to wait and see what happens," she said. "It has nothing to do with them being able to afford" properties or not, Lenz added. "It's a confidence thing. They somehow feel poorer, whether they are or not."
In California, where the median home price is well above $500,000, jumbo mortgages are as much as 44 percent of all mortgages issued in certain metro areas, according to data from First American LoanPerformance.
In and around San Francisco, where the median home price is about $1.1 million, the tougher financing environment has created a "hesitancy" and has led to some canceled escrows for buyers around the $1 million range, said Rick Turley, president of the San Francisco and Peninsula Region for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.