REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 23, 2017

Renovating Among The Stars

By David Reiss

Justin Theroux, photo by David Shankbone

Realtor.com quoted me in Justin Theroux’s Renovation Drama: What Went Wrong? It opens,

Actor Justin Theroux might have many admirers (including his wife, Jennifer Aniston), but apparently the “Leftovers” hunk inspires more than his share of haters, too—including his Manhattan neighbor Norman Resnicow. Apparently their feud started two years ago, when Theroux decided to renovate his apartment; Resnicow lives one floor down.

As anyone who’s lived under, next to, or anywhere near a demolition site knows, home renovations can get noisy—which is why Resnicow, a lawyer, felt it within his rights to ask Theroux to do the neighborly thing and install soundproofing to muffle the ruckus. There was just one problem: According to the New York Post, the requested soundproofing would cost a whopping $30,000 and make it difficult for Theroux to preserve the original flooring in his place, which he was keen to do. So he refused.

That’s when things got ugly. According to a lawsuit filed by Theroux, Resnicow embarked on a “targeted and malicious years-long harassment campaign” to derail those renovations and just make life unpleasant for the actor.

  • Resnicow accused Theroux’s contractors of damaging the marble in the building’s entranceway, and demanded they make repairs.
  • He halted Theroux’s roof deck renovations by arguing that the fence separating their portions of the deck encroached on his property.
  • Then, for good measure, he cut down the ivy lining the fence purely because he knew that the site of the foliage made Theroux happy.

Theroux now seeks $350,000 from Resnicow, alleging nuisance, trespass, and all in all “depriving Mr. Theroux of his right to use and enjoy his property.”

But Resnicow remains resolute, telling the Post, “I have acted for one purpose only, which remains to assure my and my wife’s health and safety.”

How to balance renovations with neighbor relations

As Theroux’s predicament makes painfully clear, few issues can ruin a neighborly relationship like noise—particularly if you live in an apartment building or other tight quarters. Problem is, homeowners also have a right to make home improvements. So at what point does reasonable renovation ruckus become so loud it’s a legitimate nuisance? That depends, for starters, on where you live, as noise ordinances and other regulations vary by area.

New York City’s Noise Code prohibits construction noise that “exceeds the ambient sounds level by more than 10 decibels as measured from 15 feet from the source.” (And in case you have no clue how to figure that out, the city uses devices called sound meters; you can also download sound meter apps to take your own measurements.) Volume levels aside, most areas have limits on when you can hammer away; in New York, work is typically limited to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The third variable to consider is the co-op, condo, or HOA board that governs your building or community, which may place further restrictions on hours or even the type of renovations you do. Yet if a homeowner like Theroux is following these rules, odds are he’s in the clear.

“In New York City, they say ‘hell hath no fury like an attorney dealing with noisy neighbors,’ but as long as you have the proper permits, then construction noise created during normal business hours is generally allowed, with the understanding that it will only be temporary,” says Emile L’Eplattenier, a New York City real estate agent and analyst for Fit Small Business. “As long as he isn’t running afoul of his building’s rules—which is doubtful—then his neighbor has little recourse.”

Still, if you’re a homeowner about to embark on a renovation who doesn’t want to drive your neighbors nuts, what can you do? For starters, keep in mind that even if the sounds don’t ruffle you, people’s noise sensitivities can vary.

In the words of David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “One person’s quiet hum is another’s racket.”

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May 23, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Roundup

By Jamila Moore

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia is gearing up to hear the landmark case challenging the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In 2016, PHH received a 100 million dollar fine regarding their consumer and mortgage insurance practices. PHH alleges the director of CFPB has sole power to make decisions without necessary checks and balances which is unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling will determine the constitutionality of the bureau’s leadership structure.
  • The De Blasio administration recently proposed the addition of a new homeless shelter in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Many of the residents in the Crown Heights neighborhood expressed growing concerns regarding the types of residents flocking to their neighborhood. Although the city’s 32 million dollar structure is much needed, residents seem to think one more shelter is too much for their community.

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May 23, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

May 22, 2017

Using Home Equity Responsibly

By David Reiss

photo by Scott Lewis

Chase.com quoted me in How a Home Equity Line of Credit Can Help Your Family. It reads,

If you’re a homeowner, you could qualify for a unique financial product: the Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). HELOCs allow you to borrow money against the equity you have in your home and similar to a credit card, they offer a revolving credit line that you can tap into as needed.

“Equity is the market value of your home less what you owe on your mortgage balance,” explains David Lopez, a Philadelphia-based member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountant’s Financial Literacy Commission.

With home values on the rise and interest rates historically low, HELOCs are an attractive option right now. Plus, according to Lopez, for most borrowers, there’s the added benefit of a potential tax deduction on the interest you pay back.

However, since your home is on the hook if you can’t meet your debt obligations, you’ll have to be cautious, explains David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinblog, which covers the real estate industry.

So, what are the most common reasons you might consider leveraging this tool? According to the Novantas 2015 Home Equity Survey, 50 percent of people said they opened a HELOC to finance home renovations, upgrades and repairs.

That was the case for Laura Beck, who along with her husband, used their equity to fund a substantial home renovation that doubled their square footage and home’s value.”The HELOC let us do a full renovation right down to re-landscaping the yard without being nervous about every penny spent,” she says.

Interested? Here are a few of the most common reasons people leverage a HELOC:

Home improvement expenses

Upgrades to your home can increase the market value and not to mention, allow you to enjoy a house that is customized to fit your family’s needs.

Pro Tip: Some improvements and energy efficient upgrades, such as solar panels or new windows may also score you a bonus tax credit, says Lopez.

Debt Consolidation

Exchanging high interest debt (like credit cards) for a lower interest rate makes sense, especially since interest payments on your HELOC are usually tax deductible, says Lopez.

Pro Tip: Reiss stresses how important it is to “be cautious about converting unsecured personal debt into secured home equity debt unless you are fully committed to not running up new balances.”

Surprise expenses

When faced with a situation in which money is the only thing preventing you from getting the best medical care, a HELOC can be a literal life saver, Reiss explains.

Pro Tip: If you need to pay an existing medical bill, however, try negotiating with the health care provider rather than use your equity, says Reiss. Often, they are willing to work something out with you, and you won’t have to risk your house.

College expenses

Reiss explains how a good education can improve one’s career outlook, increase earnings, and has the potential of offering a strong return on your investment.

Pro Tip: Before turning to your equity for education costs, try to maximize other forms of financial aid like scholarships, grants, and subsidized loans.

No matter your reason for considering a HELOC, if used responsibly it can be a great tool, says Reiss. For information on how to qualify, speak to a banking professional to see if this is a good option for you.

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May 22, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

By Jamila Moore

  • A Florida couple is unhappy. The Eleventh Circuit upheld a fine and probation sentence given to the couple by a lower district court. The initial ruling, stemmed from the couple’s failure to disclose an insurance company’s payout of a sink hole found on their property. Furthermore, the couple did not repair the sink hole with the funds received which added to the damage of their failure to disclose issue.
  • Wells Fargo Bank NA plead with the Supreme Court regarding a Nevada Lien Law. The Nevada law allows homeowner associations “seeking back dues in foreclosure” to receive lien priorities over lenders. The Ninth Circuit invalidated the law, and Wells Fargo Bank is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will do the same.
  • The Department of Revenue failed in their attempt to tax rooftop solar panels. An appellate Arizona court recently “upheld the state law exempting rooftop solar panels from property tax valuations.”

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May 22, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

May 19, 2017

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

By David Reiss

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

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May 19, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

May 18, 2017

Secrets of The Title Insurance Industry

By David Reiss

The New York State Department of Financial Services has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry. Premiums for title insurance in New York State are set by regulators, so title insurance companies cannot compete on price. Instead, they compete on service.  “Service” has been interpreted widely to include all sorts of gifts — fancy meals, hard-to-get tickets, even vacations. The real customers of title companies are the industry’s repeat players — often lawyers and lenders who recommend the title company — and they get these goodies.  The people paying for title insurance — owners and borrowers — ultimately pay for these “marketing” costs without getting the benefit of them.

The first regulation is intended to get rid of these marketing costs (or kickbacks, if you prefer). This proposed regulation makes explicit that those costs cannot be passed on to the party ultimately paying for the title insurance. The proposed regulation reads, in part,

(a) As used in this section:

(1) Compensation means any fee, commission or thing of value.

(2) Licensee means an insurance agent, title insurance agent, insurance broker, insurance consultant, or life settlement broker.

(b) Insurance Law section 2119 authorizes a licensee to receive compensation provided that the licensee has obtained a written memorandum signed by the party to be charged, in accordance with such section.

(c) A licensee shall not charge or collect compensation without such a memorandum, nor shall any such licensee charge or receive compensation except as provided in Insurance Law section 2119.

(d) The memorandum shall include the terms and date of the agreement, and the amount of the compensation. Where compensation is permitted, to the extent practical, the licensee shall obtain the written memorandum prior to rendering the services. The licensee shall not stipulate, charge or accept any compensation if the licensee has not fully disclosed the amount or nature of the compensation or the basis for determining the amount of the compensation prior to the service being rendered. (5-6)

The second regulation is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, I wonder how effective they will be, given that title companies cannot compete on price. Maybe it would be better to let them do just that, as some other states do . . .

These are mighty technical proposed regulations, but they will have a big impact on consumers. Have no doubt that industry insiders will comment on these regs. Those concerned with the interests of consumers should do so as well.

The Department of Financial Services is accepting comments on these two proposed regulations through June 19th, 2017.

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May 18, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

May 17, 2017

Assessing RESPA

By David Reiss

image by Yoel Ben-Avraham

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding 2013 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act Servicing Rule Assessment. The Bureau

is conducting an assessment of the Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X), as amended prior to January 10, 2014, in accordance with section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Bureau is requesting public comment on its plans for assessing this rule as well as certain recommendations and information that may be useful in conducting the planned assessment. (82 F.R. 21952)

This is certainly a pretty obscure initiative, albeit one required by the Dodd-Frank Act. But it is worth determining what is at stake in it. The Request includes some additional background:

Congress established the Bureau in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act).1 In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress generally consolidated in the Bureau the rulemaking authority for Federal consumer financial laws previously vested in certain other Federal agencies. Congress also provided the Bureau with the authority to, among other things, prescribe rules as may be necessary or appropriate to enable the Bureau to administer and carry out the purposes and objectives of the Federal consumer financial laws and to prevent evasions thereof. Since 2011, the Bureau has issued a number of rules adopted under Federal consumer financial law.

Section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act requires the Bureau to conduct an assessment of each significant rule or order adopted by the Bureau under Federal consumer financial law. The Bureau must publish a report of the assessment not later than five years after the effective date of such rule or order. The assessment must address, among other relevant factors, the rule’s effectiveness in meeting the purposes and objectives of title X of the Dodd-Frank Act and the specific goals stated by the Bureau. The assessment must reflect available evidence and any data that the Bureau reasonably may collect. Before publishing a report of its assessment, the Bureau must invite public comment on recommendations for modifying, expanding, or eliminating the significant rule or order.

In January 2013, the Bureau issued the ‘‘Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X)’’ (2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule). The Bureau amended the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule on several occasions before it took effect on January 10, 2014. As discussed further below, the Bureau has determined that the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule and all the amendments related to it that the Bureau made that took effect on January 10, 2014 collectively make up a significant rule for purposes of section 1022(d). The Bureau will conduct an assessment of the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule as so amended, which this document refers to as the ‘‘2013 RESPA Servicing Rule.’’ In this document, the Bureau is requesting public comment on the issues identified below regarding the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule. (Id., footnotes omitted)

The Bureau will be evaluating servicer activities such as responses to loss mitigation applications and borrower notices of error. It will also be evaluating fees and charges; the exercise of rights by consumers under the rule; and delinquency outcomes.

The Bureau is requesting comment on some technical subjects relating to the assessment plan itself. But if you think you have something to add, you should submit comments by July 10th here.

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May 17, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments