Qualifying for a Mortgage After (or During) Bankruptcy: What does it take and how long will I wait?

It should come as no surprise that qualifying for a new mortgage or refinance with a bankruptcy in your credit history is likely to complicate the process. But while a bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for a full ten years after your case is complete—which means up to fifteen years total for individuals who file chapter 13—bankruptcy takes its biggest bite on creditworthiness in the first two to three years after the case is first filed.

The good news is that bankruptcy does not automatically disqualify a borrower from obtaining a new mortgage or refinance, and the most available product after bankruptcy usually will be a FHA mortgage (as opposed to a conventional mortgage). The bad news is that eligibility for a mortgage will take time, usually two years or more with reestablished good credit.

As a general rule of thumb, a debtor can qualify for a FHA mortgage or refinance either during or after bankruptcy under the following guidelines:

Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 Bankruptcy: At least 2 years have elapsed since the date of discharge of debts and the borrower has a credit score at least a 640. In most chapter 7 cases, the discharge of debts is entered three months after the case is initially filed.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy: At least 1 year has elapsed since the filing chapter 13 bankruptcy and the borrower has a credit score at least 640, plus the borrower can provide lender with a verified perfect payment history of their chapter 13 plan. Some lenders may also require the chapter 13 trustee’s approval of the loan.

Note: For conventional mortgage products and rural housing, the typical waiting period may be extended to three years or more and often with higher credit score requirements.

If you filed a chapter 7 or chapter 13 bankruptcy, or you are still in an active chapter 13 plan, work now to increase your odds to qualify for a mortgage product by doing the following:

  • Reestablish a good credit score now. The better the credit score, the lower the interest rate will be. While it won’t happen quickly, you do not have to wait until bankruptcy is complete to work on improving a credit score. Pay your mortgage, student loans, vehicle leases and auto loans on time each month so that you get the benefit of the positive credit reporting. If your student loan is in default, get it back on track with an Income Based Repayment program. Don’t let new debts and bills fall into collection. Check your credit report annually for errors that negatively impact your score. And consider a secured credit card or even a traditional credit card with a low limit—use it sparingly, keep the balance below 10% of the available credit limit or, better yet, pay it off in full each month. If your bankruptcy case is already complete, have the state court docket updated to show any pre-bankruptcy judgments were discharged in your bankruptcy case.
  • If you are in an active chapter 13 plan, ensure your monthly chapter 13 plan payment is made on time each month. For debtors with cash flow problems, this may mean that you set up your monthly plan payments to be automatically deducted from your wages or otherwise have your plan payment made via ACH deduction from a bank account.
  • Be prepared and be patient. At a minimum, most borrowers will have to wait at least two years from when a bankruptcy was filed before they will qualify for a FHA mortgage.

As an alternative for homeowners looking to refinance an existing mortgage who do not meet the underwriting requirements for a traditional refinance, the Making Home Affordable program administered through the federal government may offer a better solution. Obtaining a HAMP or HARP mortgage modification essentially provides the benefit of a cost-free refinance with market interest rates however without the strict credit score/financial history requirements or mandatory post-bankruptcy waiting periods. These programs will not exist indefinitely and as of the date of this post, Congress has approved the Making Home Affordable program only through the end of 2016. To identify the various programs and requirements for a mortgage modification, see the official HUD website on Making Home Affordable.

DISCLOSURE: This information is intended as a general guideline only and is not meant to be a definitive response on any individual qualification for a mortgage or refinance. Mortgage underwriting standards change frequently and only a banking institution or loan officer can determine eligibility for mortgage products.

The 2017 Chapter 13 Debt Limits (valid through 2019)

Effective April 1, 2016 and valid for all of 2017 and 2018, the debt limits for filing chapter 13 bankruptcy as prescribed by section 109(e) of the Bankruptcy Code are as follows:

Unsecured debt limit:            $394,725

Secured debt limit:                $1,184,200

These limits adjust every three years and the next chapter 13 debt limit adjustment will occur on April 1, 2019.

The secured debt limit of $1,184,200 includes the total of all debt that is secured by personal and real property owned by the debtor including mortgages secured by real estate (i.e., residential homestead mortgages as well as mortgages on rental or commercial properties, if any) and other collateralized debts such as vehicle loans, equipment loans, etc. The secured limit may also include tax liens.

The unsecured debt limit of $394,725 includes the total of all amounts owed on unsecured lines of credit, credit cards, medial debts and other consumer debts, some taxes owed and even disputed debts in most cases. This unsecured debt limit is calculated per person in the event that a married couple files a joint chapter 13 bankruptcy case.

Any individual that is either employed or self-employed in business is eligible for chapter 13 bankruptcy relief provided the individual’s unsecured debts are within these limits of $394,725 unsecured / $1,184,200 secured.

Individuals who exceed the chapter 13 debt limits still have the option to file under chapter 7 so long as their income qualifies under the means test, or otherwise may file an individual Chapter 11 proceeding, particularly for individuals with income-producing assets such as rental properties, valuable business interests and other property holdings that would be liquidated in chapter 7.

If you exceed the 2016 chapter 13 debt limits, read more about alternatively filing under chapter 11 at What is Individual Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and Why Would I file an Individual Chapter 11?

Attorney Lynn Wartchow advises clients on which form of bankruptcy they qualify for and whether Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 fits their needs best.  Contact for a free consultation and more information on all your options available in bankruptcy.