Federal regulators for the first time are laying out rules aimed at ensuring that mortgage borrowers can afford to repay the loans they take out.
The rules unveiled Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau impose a range of obligations and restrictions on lenders, including bans on the risky "interest-only" and "no documentation" loans that helped inflate the housing bubble.
Lenders will be required to verify and inspect borrowers' financial records. The rules discourage them from saddling borrowers with total debt payments totaling more than 43 percent of the person's annual income. That includes existing debts like credit cards and student loans.
The regulations, among the most important handed down yet by the 18-month-old agency, also aim to loosen the choking loan standards that have prevailed since the housing crash. They do so by limiting bankers' liability for prime loans that can be sold to government-backed mortgage giants such as Fannie Mae.
CFPB Director Richard Cordray called the rules "the true essence of 'responsible lending.' "
The rules, which take effect next year, aim to "make sure that people who work hard to buy their own home can be assured of not only greater consumer protections but also reasonable access to credit," he said.
Cordray noted that in years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, consumers could easily obtain mortgages that they could not afford to repay. In contrast, in subsequent years banks tightened lending so much that few could qualify for a home loan.
The new rules seek out a middle ground by protecting consumers from bad loans while giving banks the legal assurances they need to increase lending, he said.
Complying with the rules would provide a "safe harbor" shielding lenders from being sued for one of the most frequent and bitter complaints of the subprime era: sticking borrowers with unaffordable loans, then selling off the loans - and the risk.
One leading consumer advocate said the bureau had gone too far out of its way to accommodate bankers, whose loose lending had triggered the foreclosure crisis and the worst economic collapse since the 1930s.
The bureau's action "invites abusive lending and erodes the progress made by Dodd-Frank," the landmark regulatory reform bill passed after the financial crisis, said Alys Cohen, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
The mortgage-lending overhaul is a priority for the agency, which was created under the 2010 financial law known as the Dodd-Frank Act. The agency is charged with reducing the risk of a credit bubble by helping to ensure that borrowers are better informed and loans are more likely to be repaid.
The agency is charged with writing and enforcing rules that flesh out the law passed by Congress. Some provisions are required under the law, but the agency had broad discretion in designing many of the new requirements.
The rules limit features such as teaser rates that adjust upwards and large "balloon payments" that must be made at the end of the loan period.
They include several exceptions aimed at ensuring a smooth phase-in and protecting access to credit for underserved groups. For example, the strict cap on how much debt consumers may take on will not apply immediately. Loans that meet separate federal standards also would be permitted for the first seven years.
Balloon payments would be allowed for certain small lenders that operate in rural or underserved communities, because other loans may not be available in those areas.
The bureau also proposed amendments that would exempt from the rules some loans made by community banks, credit unions and nonprofit lenders that work with low- and moderate-income consumers.
The rules met with relief from mortgage bankers, who had feared Draconian restrictions from the bureau, created by consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren. The former Harvard law professor, newly sworn in as a U.S. senator, was so at odds with the industry and congressional Republicans that President Barack Obama backed away from appointing her to head the agency after tapping her to set it up.
"The goal of this regulation, ensuring that borrowers receive loans that they can repay, is in everyone's best interest. We cannot, and should not, go back to the high-risk lending environment of the early 2000s," Debra W. Still, chairwoman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in a statement.