Countrywide wants to sell you a house.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 4 2008 11:42 AM

Countrywide Wants To Sell You a House

The foreclosure boom means they're the seller, the lender, and maybe even the appraiser. Would you buy a home that way?

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Surprisingly, exactly what kinds of loans Countrywide is pushing and how much its underwriting practices have changed is still a murky question.  A year ago, a "leaked" Countrywide memo to brokers said that the company would no longer give out loans for 100 percent of a house's value. Then, just a few days later, Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide's ever sanguine CEO reassured potential customers that no, they could still get a house with no money down.

 When it comes to its own foreclosed properties, that's most assuredly the case. Take this two-bedroom starter house in San Diego's Linda Vista subdivision: a Countrywide foreclosure that sold for $330,000 in August and was financed again with a 100 percent mortgage from the folks at Countrywide. Or the house in Palm Springs, Calif., that sold not long afterward, in September, for $275,000. Who knew you could get a house in Palm Springs for less than $300,000? Even better, according to mortgage records, the new mortgage from Countrywide was for the full $275,000.

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The rub, of course, is that in the heady days of mortgage free love, all those zero-down mortgages tended to come with unpleasant side effects, such as high interest rates and prepayment penalties. And they often went to people who, not being able to afford to put any money down, were very optimistic about how much they could pay each month.

We won't know for a while whether the loans in this go-round are any less toxic than the ones that came before. But if the experience of other booms and crashes is any indication, there's every reason to think that however low standards went on the way up, they can go even lower in the last ill-fated efforts to keep the game going on the way down.

Mark Gimein is a New York-based writer.