Struggling homeowners may soon find it easier to get mortgage help

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WASHINGTON — Some struggling homeowners may soon have a shot at securing a type of mortgage relief that's been off limits to them for years.

The mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac has agreed to sell a chunk of its most troubled loans to an unnamed investor. That investor can now turn around and reduce the size of the borrowers' mortgages if it chooses — an option that would not have been possible had the loans stayed with Freddie.

Freddie, its larger rival Fannie Mae, and their regulator have steadfastly refused to allow such "principal reductions," fearing in part that the arrangements would entice homeowners to intentionally default on their mortgages so they can get better deals.

By selling $659 million in unpaid principal balances to the investor, Freddie is basically opening up a wider range of modification possibilities for those mortgages.

"My assumption is that they're selling the loans because investors have a broader tool kit than they do," said Laurie Goodman, director of the Urban Institute's Housing Finance Policy Center. "Clearly Fannie and Freddie can't do principal reductions, so it's a way around that."

Mortgage debt forgiveness is considered one of the most effective ways to ward off foreclosure for borrowers who are "underwater." These borrowers owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, which leaves them vulnerable to foreclosure because they can't sell or refinance if they run into financial trouble.

In a recent statement, Freddie said it selected the investor out of 22 bidders who took part in a competitive auction at the end of July.

Freddie does not make loans. Together with Fannie, it buys mortgages from lenders, packages them into securities and sells them to investors. For a fee, it insures the loans and pays investors should a loan go bad.

If a borrower falls behind on a mortgage for more than four months, Freddie takes the loan back, pays the investor the principal owed on it, and keeps the loan in its own portfolio.