The BPC Housing Commission believes that counseling and education must be a central part of a more responsible approach to homeownership, particularly for first-time buyers.
I first learned about the benefits of housing counseling from NeighborWorks America, one of our country’s leading community development organizations. In 2007, then-Senator Dodd and I sponsored legislation supporting NeighborWorks’ efforts to help forestall foreclosure for struggling families.
When homeowners experience an unexpected setback – the loss of a job, a medical emergency, or some other crisis – housing counselors can help them find solutions before they fall behind on their mortgage payments. But the benefits of counseling are often felt even before the home purchase takes place, as counseling can help families decide whether they are prepared for the financial and other obligations of homeownership. In meetings with counselors, civic officials, and families, I heard time and time again that pre-purchase counseling’s most important contribution may be helping prospective buyers understand when it is not the right time for them to buy a home.
The latest proof that pre-purchase counseling can offer powerful benefits comes from a recent NeighborWorks study examining 75,000 mortgages originated over a two-year period from October 2007 to September 2009. The study concludes that mortgage borrowers who participated in NeighborWorks’ pre-purchase counseling program were nearly one-third less likely to be 90 days or more delinquent on payments in the first two years after closing than those borrowers who did not receive counseling. This percentage reduction in mortgage delinquencies was the same for both first-time and repeat buyers.
Pre-purchase counseling provided by the NeighborWorks network of organizations consists of a minimum of eight hours of group education and individual counseling sessions. These sessions examine the potential homebuyer’s personal and financial situation; details about house selection, the financing process, and the closing; and post-purchase concerns like home maintenance.
Also, the NeighborWorks study responds to one of the main challenges in evaluating the effectiveness of pre-purchase counseling: selection bias. The concern is that people who enter counseling may have certain “unobserved” characteristics related to how they manage credit that can affect mortgage performance, either positively or negatively. To mitigate the impact of selection bias, the study utilized data about borrowers’ credit practices and behaviors from the credit-rating agency Experian and employed a procedure called “propensity scoring” to create a comparison group with the same observable characteristics as the counseling clients.
The NeighborWorks study makes a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of the potential effectiveness of pre-purchase counseling. It’s good to see that the study is receiving some national attention, and it is a must-read for housing practitioners and policy makers.