With all the attention that the mortgage crisis has gotten over the past year, you might expect us to be closer to solving the housing problem. Yet while waves of government actions and programs have put some of the pieces in place for a solution, their eventual success or failure depends on what homeowners do with them.

Ironically, what could potentially give homeowners the largest amount of help is exactly what many critics blame for the housing crisis in the first place: low interest rates. As mortgage rates sink to their lowest levels in decades, many homeowners now have an unprecedented opportunity to refinance to more affordable loans at a time when they need them the most.

Cheap refinancing, if you can get it
Many believe that easy financing played a huge role in pushing home prices higher, especially in hot real estate markets where a lack of affordable homes already required most buyers to stretch their budgets to the breaking point. Innovative mortgage products like adjustable-rate, interest-only, and negative-amortization mortgages gave borrowers the chance to lower their monthly payments to a point at which they could nominally afford them. But in the long run, they would only be viable as long as home prices continued to rise.

One of the focal points of the government's attempts to restore confidence to the housing market has been to give homeowners a reasonable opportunity to get affordable, sustainable financing. Through a combination of those actions and the slowing economy, long-term interest rates on which most fixed mortgages are based have sunk to incredibly low levels. Consider the mortgage rates at these well-known banks:


Current APR on
30-Year Mortgage

Wachovia Bank




SunTrust Banks (NYSE:STI)


Capital One (NYSE:COF)


Source: Bankrate.com, for mortgages in metro D.C. area as of Jan. 14.

Rates below 5% have allowed many borrowers to cut hundreds off their current monthly payments -- or to get rid of interest-rate risk entirely by switching from adjustable mortgages to fixed-rate financing.

Tighter credit
Unfortunately, not everyone has taken advantage of these low rates. Some can't, as the subprime lenders who gave marginal borrowers credit are largely gone. Big banks like Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), US Bancorp (NYSE:USB), and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) aren't in any hurry to loosen their credit standards to let those borrowers refinance. Despite multiple cash infusions from the government, institutions like Citigroup (NYSE:C) aren't in a great position to extend lots of credit to homeowners right now.

Many homeowners are refinancing. But some of those who need new mortgages the most probably won't. In particular, those who've already gotten bitten once by unscrupulous mortgage lending tactics may not think solving their problems with another loan is a real answer. Even those who know next to nothing about finances typically understand that they shouldn't let themselves get tricked twice the same way.

Of course, giving up the chance to refinance to a better mortgage is just about the worst move these homeowners can make. Yet the problem boils down to a fundamental lack of understanding of how home financing works.

Educating the public
The Motley Fool believes that these problems start from a lack of financial education. Through our Foolanthropy fundraising effort for partner DonorsChoose.org, we're looking to sponsor programs that will give kids the basic financial skills they need to understand investing, credit, and the other things they'll need to know to survive in a tough economy.

We're looking at many different types of interesting programs -- to see them all, click here. Your tax-deductible donation can help us do just a little bit more to help future generations handle their finances better -- and avoid the mistakes many of us have made.

For more on Foolanthropy:

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is looking to save money by refinancing in the near future. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. US Bancorp, BB&T, and Bank of America are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Bankrate is a Rule Breakers pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is on your side.