Millions of Americans are refinancing their mortgages to save money as superlow interest rates create a rare financial bright spot amid the pandemic.
But homeowners are about to get hit with a big new fee. Starting next month, all home mortgages that are refinanced will have to pay half of 1% of the loan. In other words, $1,500 for a $300,000 mortgage.
The fee will be charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guarantee about half of all mortgages in the country. The government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie and Freddie, were created separately decades ago to keep the market stable. Their loan guarantees make banks more willing to loan money.
Many experts say the new fee could discourage homeowners from refinancing.
"This is harming American families," says Mike Calhoun, president of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending. "It's absolutely the wrong thing to be doing now."
Calhoun says Fannie and Freddie should not be putting barriers in the way of people being able to refinance to save money, given that both entities have received massive support from the government because of the key role they play in the economy.
"We should be doing more to help people refinance," he says. "And this is going in the opposite direction."
Fannie and Freddie say the extra fee makes up for the added risk they are taking on because of "adverse market" conditions. In other words, with the pandemic and economic crisis, there's more risk of defaults and foreclosures.
The entities also stress they are not charging the fee on home purchases so as not to hurt home sales. And they say banks and other lenders are making record profits on refinanced loans, so they don't necessarily have to pass along the added cost to homeowners.
But with so many homeowners clamoring to take advantage of record-low interest rates, demand is high and most lenders are unlikely to absorb that extra cost.
"It will be passed along to the consumer," says Bob Broeksmit, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. He blames the Trump administration-appointed regulators at the Federal Housing Finance Agency who approved the new fee.
"To raise the cost of refinancing and put a real barrier between American consumers and these lower payments is absurd at every level," Broeksmit tells NPR. "And I just can't understand, particularly as President Trump seeks reelection, why in the world they would do this."
The White House says it's reviewing the fee.
Meanwhile, Calhoun says that those looking to refinance should shop around. He says that especially right now, some lenders are offering lower rates than others. Also, the new fee can be added to the principal of the loan so it can be paid off over a long period of time.