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Cheap home-energy loans come with some caveats

Consumer Reports News: April 22, 2011 02:31 PM

Want a quick $25,000 to slice your home-energy bills? A new partnership between the Federal Housing Authority and 18 private lenders is charging below-markets rates for loans aimed at improving your home's energy efficiency. But check your credit rating: Today's tight-money policies also mean those deals include a few strings.

The new PowerSaver loan program will make up to 30,000 loans at rates between 5 and 7 percent—well below some home-equity loans—through national, regional and local lenders, including Quicken Loans. Options start with energy audits and include installing insulation, efficient doors and windows, heating and cooling systems, water heaters, and solar panels, among others. Participating lenders will work with established home energy retrofit programs from states, cities, utilities, and contractors, including the Energy Department's BetterBuildings Program.

Now for those strings: You'll need some equity in your home and a credit score of at least 660. Your debt-to-income ratio can't exceed 45 percent, and the energy loan must be repaid within 20 years.

Some of those restrictions are aimed at getting the feds out of the home-loan business: "The FHA will cover up to 90 percent of any defaulted loans, but the lenders will also have skin in the game to encourage responsible underwriting," Peter True, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which oversees the FHA), told Consumer Reports. Lenders may also be eligible for further incentives from the FHA that would allow even lower rates.

"We're hoping to collect enough data from the first round of loans to show that the idea works for everyone, and that private capital can build out the program on a much broader scale," True added.

More energy-saving advice: See a list of the latest products from Consumer Reports tests that can cut your carbon footprint. We also detail which water heater—tankless, hybrid electric heat pump, or solar--saves the most money with the shortest payback time. And don't skip those warnings on home energy audits and solar-energy scams; the video below details how to spot energy drains in your home.

Gian Trotta

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