WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve on Thursday approved proposals designed to make it easier for Americans with mortgages, or shopping for them, to better understand how the loans work.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve on Thursday approved proposals designed to make it easier for Americans with mortgages, or shopping for them, to better understand how the loans work.

The action comes after lax lending and, in some cases, borrowers who didn't fully understand the terms of their home loans, ended up buying houses that they couldn't afford. That contributed to the worst collapse in the housing market in 70 years.

"Consumers need the proper tools to determine whether a particular mortgage loan is appropriate for their circumstances," said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. "It is often said that a home is a family's most important asset, and it is the Federal Reserve's responsibility to see that borrowers receive the information they need to protect that asset."

Among the changes, mortgage lenders would need to explain potentially risky features, such as prepayment penalties, of a mortgage in a one-page "plain-English" question-and-answer format before a consumer applies for a loan. Improved disclosure of the annual percentage rate, or APR, to capture most fees and settlement costs paid by the borrower also would be required.

For customers with adjustable-rate mortgages, lenders would be required to show consumers how their payment might change. For instance, by disclosing the highest monthly amount the borrower might pay during the life of the loan. Lenders also would have to notify customers 60 days in advance — versus the current 25 — of a change in their monthly payment.

Lenders would have to provide a monthly statement of payment options for customers with payments that don't cover the interest on the loan. That increases the loan balance by the amount of the unpaid interest.