Here's a little guessing game for mortgage watchers:
If home-lending standards were scored at 100 last year, when credit was excruciatingly tight, what would the reading have been at the height of the housing bubble? A higher number means looser credit.
If you said 300, 500 or even 700 you have underestimated the extent to which the mortgage industry tossed caution to the wind during the era of low-doc, no-doc and stated-income loans, when down payments were low and cash-out refinancing was the rule.
Back in 2006, borrowers with bad credit or no credit history could get 100% financing to buy homes at the peak of the market -- although in many cases that required them or their mortgage mongers to exaggerate the size of their paychecks and savings accounts.
The actual reading in 2006 and 2007 would have worked out to about 800, according to the Mortgage Bankers Assn. and mortgage information firm AllRegs, which have teamed up to produce a new monthly survey of mortgage credit availability.
The survey, unveiled this week, found that lenders are offering home loans on slightly easier terms these days than they did last year, a trend mortgage professionals have reported recently.
It assigned a benchmark index reading of 100 to March 2012, when qualifying for a home loan was a monumental task. The index rose from 108.6 in April to 108.9 in May.
Despite the improvement, there was nothing in the survey to set off mass celebration among home buyers.
For one thing, a higher reading just means that someone out there somewhere is offering loans on easier terms -- not that borrowers will necessarily find those terms at their bank or mortgage broker.
For another, most of the easing will be enjoyed by the 1%, not the masses.
"To our eyes, the slight amount of loosening so far is really at the jumbo end of the market," which makes outsized loans to wealthy borrowers, said Michael Fratantoni, vice president of research at the bankers group.
"Your first-time home buyer is not going to see any change," Fratantoni said in an interview.
The survey, which covers mortgages offered by independent brokers and so-called correspondent lenders that sell their loans to larger banks, monitors credit standards set by 85 lenders and investors.
Credit scores, loan types, loan-to-value ratios and other factors are weighted into the formula that produces the monthly numbers, as a slideshow on the index shows in detail.