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    The decline of the housing market and its subsequent impact on borrowers' access to home equity loans is well-documented, and with each new report or statistic, the news seems to worsen.

    Home values are down, as evidenced by a recent U.S. Commerce Department report indicating the median price of a home sold in March 2008 dropped 13.3 percent compared with that month just a year ago.

    Foreclosures are up, as evidenced by RealtyTrac data showing a 112-percent increase in foreclosures in the first quarter of 2008 compared with the first quarter of 2007. As a result, the ability of homeowners to secure a home equity line of credit (HELOC) has been damaged severely. Reports are rampant detailing the plight of homeowners whose HELOCs have been frozen as major banks and lenders nationwide cut back significantly on funding available to borrowers.

    Unfortunately, the current situation even affects borrowers who have excellent credit. A good salary and a history of financial responsibility do not create immunity from seeing home values drop. Neither does it make people immune from needing to borrow money from time to time, be it for a home improvement, a child's education or an unforeseen medical expense. Borrowers with a disciplined record of on-time bill payment and debt management should still have access to good loans despite the financial mess created by sub-prime lending and borrowing, a market they never had a hand in to begin with.

    Fortunately, those who have worked hard to establish top-notch credit have not done so in vain. A viable borrowing alternative exists in the form of an unsecured consumer loan. Often linked with disreputable forms of lending such as high-interest "pay day" loans, the unsecured consumer loan has gained traction among many major players in the lending industry. Traditional lenders such as Bank of America, Capital One, Citi Financial, Credit One, GE Money, HSBC and Wells Fargo as well as online lender FirstAgain now are offering unsecured loan programs that provide access to cash without the need to put up your home, automobile or other valuable assets as collateral.

    GE Money, for example, offers a new program called ProjectLoan, an unsecured installment loan with fixed-rate monthly payments. Capital One's personal loans also require no collateral, offer fixed-rate monthly payments and let borrowers use the loan for any purpose. For those individuals with excellent credit who are looking to forgo the paperwork, waiting period and high-interest rates typically associated with traditional lenders, online consumer lender FirstAgain offers the AnythingLoan, a completely paperless loan that can be used for any purpose. AnythingLoan applications are completely paperless and if approved, funds can be made available as early as the same day. The entire process is done online, and according to FirstAgain co-founder and CEO Gary Miller, this provides an innovative option for borrowers with excellent credit who are being squeezed by the current state of the home equity market.

    "We believe that consumers with excellent credit should be rewarded for their financial diligence with convenient loans and great customer service regardless of market conditions," he says. "We are relentless about creating a better customer experience."

    Though unsecured loans typically have been associated with high interest rates, lenders such as FirstAgain and HSBC provide competitive rates and as unsecured lending grows in popularity, others may be forced to do the same. For homeowners in need of cash but unable to tap their equity, it's an avenue worth exploring.

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