(AP Photo/Tom Uhlman)
When Deb Freitag applied for a credit card so she could replace her roof, her leaky refrigerator and her old dishwasher, she was offered a $1,000 line of credit, not the $5,000 she needed.
When Mark Ryan finally scraped together more than enough to buy a home, he found that the mortgage a bank promised him earlier in the year was no longer available.
In a land where TV blares no-money-down pitches and everything from homes to furniture to college education is bought with borrowed money, the crisis on Wall Street is causing the credit market to seize up. On Main Street, this means fewer loans and smaller loans at higher rates — when they are available at all.
No one is quite sure how bad it will get, especially with the fate of the proposed $700 billion government bailout unknown. But people's inability to borrow has potentially dire effects, since consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
"If not fixed fairly soon, we may find that individuals and smaller businesses have much higher costs for borrowing — or in the worst case are unable to borrow at all," said David Stowell, finance professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
Freitag, a 43-year-old freelance writer in Cincinnati, was surprised when she tried to get a credit card from home improvement chain Lowe's Cos. this month. She got the skimpy $1,000 credit line bumped up to $2,000 after she complained, but even that wasn't enough.
Freitag calculated that her purchases would add up to almost $9,000, including the $6,000 for her roof, which was damaged in a wind storm this month. Now she will have to take out a consumer loan, which has bad consequences: Merely searching for the loan could hurt her credit rating, and she will have to start paying it back right away.
"These are needs," said Freitag, whose husband recently lost his job in corporate video production. "I am not going out and buying a designer kitchen."
Ryan, 37, a social worker in New York City, can finally afford a home in one of the most expensive housing markets. But he can't get a mortgage.
Swiftly pre-approved by his bank for a loan last February, he went back this month after finding the apartment he wanted. But he was told he had to fill out a 17-page application to get re-approved — even though he had since added $50,000 to his bank account. While he waited for approval that ultimately never came, the apartment was sold out from under him.
"As a first-time homebuyer, in a way conditions couldn't get any better," he said. "If you can get your mortgage, rates are going down to the point where average people can afford them. But with the banks so paranoid, it's just tough getting one."
Homebuyers are not the only ones hard-pressed to get a loan. Calvin Parker, 39, a mechanic, was shopping for car parts in Harrisburg, Pa., to keep his 1997 Dodge Caravan going until he can meet the daunting terms for a new car.
"They want too much down," he said. "And the interest rates are too high. I believe I wouldn't be able to get a loan without paying $1,500 to $2,000 down."
Oona Rokyta felt the credit squeeze in her education loans. The 27-year-old publicist consolidated her four student loans — one for each year of college — in late August. She paid an average of 9 percent on them but wanted them redone as a single loan, in part to benefit her parents by removing them as co-signers.
The intention was good but the math worked out against her: Wells Fargo & Co. offered her an 11.75 percent interest rate and wanted the new loan paid back within seven years rather than the standard 15. Those changes boosted her monthly payment to $502 a month, from $301.
"I feel like I've been punished for maintaining good credit," she said.
Some mortgage brokers say there is still no problem for qualified borrowers.
And Ron Kelly, manager of the appliance and electronics department at a Sears in Wausau, Wis., said it was business as usual at his store: "It hasn't affected people applying for credit cards that I have seen. We haven't changed anything."
Shelton Head, a 60-year-old resident of Glendale, Ariz., pulled into a Phoenix strip mall Friday destined for a coin shop with a blue velvet box full of 1942, 1943 and 1945 silver dollars.
Unemployed, he said he has tried several times in recent months to get a loan but was rejected every time for not having sufficient income. Now he needed money for gas and groceries.
He left the coin shop 15 minutes later with $65.
Associated Press writers Eileen AJ Connelly, Jessica Elphinstone, Ellen Simon and Betsy Vereckey in New York, Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis., Chris Kahn in Phoenix, Tom Krisher in Detroit, Jessica Mintz in Seattle, Martha Raffaele in Harrisburg, Pa., and Alex Veiga in Los Angeles contributed to this report.