Sun SentinelMore than 180,000 homeowners across the country have refinanced through a revised government program in the first quarter of 2012, up 38 percent from a year earlier, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. It credits the program changes for the increase.

The original Home Affordable Refinance Program reduced fees and loosened eligibility requirements starting in January, but the changes were not fully available until March.

The program debuted in 2009, but many homeowners couldn't qualify because they owed far more than their properties were worth.

Even with the revisions, borrowers must be current on their payments and the loans have to be originated by May 31, 2009, and backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the government-run companies that own about half of all home loans nationwide.

While the housing market has shown signs of strength, nearly one-third of mortgages are underwater, according to first-quarter data from real estate website Zillow.com.

Nearly 5 percent of mortgages carry a balance that's twice the home's value, Zillow said. Those homeowners now can qualify for the revised program, which eliminates a provision that required mortgages be within 125 percent of the value of the home.

Still, the qualifications will exclude many borrowers who need help, said Alex Pool of Academy Mortgage in Boca Raton, Fla. And some lenders impose their own restrictions, he said. "You'll have some people falling through the cracks," Pool said. "It's better than (the first program), but it's not the final solution."

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