Mnuchin and Housing Finance Reform

photo by MohitSingh

Sabri Ben-Achour of Marketplace interviewed me in Choice of Mnuchin Troubles Housing Activists. (The audio is available at the link at the top of the linked page.)  The summary of the story reads as follows:

Donald Trump has tapped financier, Hollywood producer and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary. In that role, Mnuchin would have quite a lot to say about housing, finance and policies related to mortgage lending. Mnuchin has been involved in lending before, and it didn’t go well for many homeowners.

At issue specifically is his an investment in a failing mortgage lender in 2009 called IndyMac in California. Mnuchin and other investors renamed it OneWest, and it proceeded to foreclose on tens of thousands of homes nationwide. Critics say the company could have kept some portion of those people in their homes.

The story reads in part,

“I think the really big place where the Treasury Secretary can have an impact is on housing finance reform and, really, what we should do with Fannie and Freddie.”  David Reiss is a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.

All About Mortgage Brokers

photo by Day Donaldson

Bankrate.com quoted me in Mortgage Broker — Everything You Need To Know. It opens,

When you need a mortgage to buy or refinance a home, there are 3 main ways to go about applying — through a traditional brick-and-mortar bank, an online lender or a mortgage broker (either in-person or online).

Many people first think about shopping for a mortgage where they already have their checking and savings accounts, which is often a major bank or a local credit union. And applying online with a traditional bank or online-only lender has become more common.

But while borrowers are probably the least familiar with using a mortgage broker, it comes with many benefits.

Here’s everything you need to know about using a mortgage broker. 

Working with a mortgage broker

A mortgage broker connects a borrower with a lender. While that makes them middlemen, there are several reasons why you should consider working with a broker instead of going straight to a lender.

For starters, brokers can shop dozens of lenders to get you the best pricing, says Casey Fleming, author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage” and mortgage advisor with C2 Financial Corp. in San Jose, California.

Fleming says the price he charges for certain lenders or banks is very often better than the price a consumer could get by going directly to the same lender.

“When the lender outsources the loan origination and sales function to a broker, they offer to pay us what they would otherwise pay to cover their internal operations for the same function,” Fleming says.

“If we are willing to work for less than that—and that is usually the case—then the consumer’s price through a broker ends up being less than if they went directly to the lender,” he explains.

Further, “A broker is legally required to disclose his compensation in writing — a banker is not,”says Joe Parsons, senior loan officer with PFS Funding in Dublin, California, and author of the “Mortgage Insider blog.”

Variety is another benefit of brokers. It can help you find the right lender.

“Some may specialize in particular property types that others avoid. Some may have more flexibility with credit scores or down payment amounts than others,” says David Reiss, a law professor who specializes in real estate and consumer financial services at Brooklyn Law School in New York and the editor of REFinBlog.com.

In addition, brokers offer one-stop shopping, saving borrowers time and headaches.

“If you are turned down by a bank, you’re done — you have to walk away and begin again,” Fleming says. But “If you are turned down by one lender through a broker, the broker can take your file to another lender,” he adds. The borrower doesn’t need to do any extra work.

A broker’s expertise and relationships can also simplify the process of getting a loan.

Brokers have access to private lenders who can meet with you and assess whether or not you have the collateral, says Mike Arman, a retired longtime mortgage broker in Oak Hill, Florida.

Private lenders, which include nonbank mortgage companies and individuals, can make loans to borrowers in unconventional situations that banks can’t or won’t because of Dodd-Frank regulations or internal policy.

You may get a better price on a loan from a broker as well.

Under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Loan Originator Compensation rule, brokers (but not bank lenders) must charge the same percentage on every deal, so they can’t raise their margin “just because” like a bank can, Fleming explains.

“The intent was to prevent originators from steering borrowers to high-cost loans in order to increase their commission,” Fleming notes.

You should also know that working with a broker won’t make your loan more expensive.

“The lender pays us, just like a cruise line pays a travel agent,” Fleming says.

Working with a traditional bank lender

Banks issue less than half of mortgages these days, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. But working with a broker isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.

“A broker may claim that he offers more choices than a banker because he works with many lenders,” Parsons says. “In reality, most lenders offer pricing on their loans that is very similar.” Although, he notes, a broker may have available some niche lenders for unusual circumstances.

Reiss says that even if you’re working with a mortgage broker, it can be worthwhile to check out lenders on your own since no broker can work with every lender — there are simply too many. He suggests starting with lenders you already have a relationship with, but also looking at ads and reaching out directly to big banks, small banks and credit unions in your community.

It’s important to know your range of options, he notes.

For the same reason, you might want to shop around with a few different brokers.

Preparing for Surprise Closing Costs

photo by Chris Potter

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Buying a Home? Prepare for Surprise Closing Costs. It opens,

Note to house hunters on a budget: A home’s sale price isn’t really the sale price—there are lots of closing costs and expenses that jack up the final number.

According to online real-estate listings site Zillow, buyers typically pay between 2% and 5% of the purchase price in closing costs. So if a home costs $300,000, that buyer can expect to pay between $6,000 and $15,000. Since the financial crisis, there’s more transparency on the part of lenders when disclosing the costs associated with a mortgage, so buyers know in advance how much they’ll need for the closing. But experts say that might not be enough.

Lender fees are only one part of the total cost of homeownership. Buyers must also pay appraisers, home inspectors and settlement agents, as well as the cost of title insurance, homeowners insurance and property taxes. And the fees don’t stop at the closing. Utilities, regular home maintenance and unexpected repairs add up as well—and can derail even the most experienced buyer.

*     *    *

Here are a few considerations to help you avoid surprises at the closing table.

Stash your cash. There is no real rule of thumb as to how much money buyers should put aside in addition to the balance of the purchase price and closing costs. But the more, the better. “You definitely want an emergency fund,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate. “Appliances have a habit of breaking right after you buy a house.”

Close on the last day of the month, or just before. One of the fees due at closing is prepaid interest, the daily interest charge accruing between the closing and the day on which your first mortgage payment is due. Closing on the last day of the month reduces this upfront cost.

Get an estoppel letter from the association. Your real-estate agent or attorney may obtain this letter, which lists the maintenance fee, when it’s due, any required escrows or membership fees and whether a special assessment has been levied. Review this letter carefully, and compare it with the purchase contract to make sure all fees are apportioned accurately between buyer and seller.

Credit Reporting Complaints

photo by Erin Stevenson O'Connor

The Huffington Post quoted me in The Real Reason Everyone Complains About Credit Reporting Agencies. It opens,

The most complained-about financial institutions aren’t banks or credit card companies. They’re credit reporting agencies — and by a wide margin.

In fact, the big three credit agencies topped the latest Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) monthly report. Equifax attracted an average of 1,470 complaints during a three-month period from May to July. Experian took second place with 1,272 complaints, and TransUnion had 1,202 complaints. As a category, all of the credit reporting agencies are up by about 30 percent from the same period a year ago.

By comparison, the most complained about bank, Citibank, had only an average of 922 complaints during the same period.

So why all the gripes? To answer that question, you have to take a closer look at a society that’s heavily dependent on credit and at the companies that determine how much credit each member of society gets. But the answer also reveals a broken system and a few workarounds that could help you avoid becoming another statistic.

The CFPB did not respond to a request for a comment about its complaint data. Neither did two credit reporting agencies, Experian and TransUnion. Equifax deferred to the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA), the trade association for the credit reporting industry.

Decoding the numbers

A CDIA representative suggested the government’s complaint numbers are inflated because they fail to distinguish between complaints and “innocuous” disputes.

“For example, consumers who are reviewing their credit reports for the first time might question an item they don’t recognize or understand and then lodge a complaint,” says Bill Mashek, the CDIA spokesman. “A consumer might also lodge a complaint against one of the credit reporting agencies when their issue is actually with another entity such as a lender.”

The credit agencies also say the government fails to verify any of the complaints; it simply reports them. And it has no way of weeding out potential errors, such as when consumers question an item they don’t recognize or understand on their credit report.

Consumers have a different perspective. They’re people like Peter Hoagland, a consultant from Warrenton, Va., whose homeowner insurance bill rose unexpectedly this year. He hadn’t made any claims, but soon discovered the reason: His credit rating insurance score taken a hit. He contacted his credit reporting agency. ” I could find no one to give me a credible explanation,” he says.

Hoagland contacted his insurance company and explained the problem, but the company stuck with its rate increase anyway.

“It feels to me that insurance companies are using these ratings as contrived reasons to raise rates,” he says. “They can’t cite claims I have made or increased risk with my home. So they hide behind these dubious insurance score ratings as justification to raise rates.”

It’s complicated

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School
, says stories like Hoagland’s are common because credit scores affect almost everyone. They’re also difficult to explain.

“The credit reporting agencies have a big impact on whether someone can get a mortgage to buy a house as well as on setting the interest rate that they will ultimately pay,” he says. “At the same time, they often act in mysterious ways in terms of what they include and do not include on their reports.”

Properly Insuring a Home

hands-and-house

Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Types of Insurance You Need to Buy a Home (and 4 You Don’t). It reads, in part,

When you buy a home, you will be showered with offers to buy insurance—and not just one type, but many types. Such awesome deals! So which ones do you really need?

There are a few that are downright essential, and others are nice but not necessary. Furthermore, others are total rip-offs to avoid at all costs.

To help you differentiate among them all, here’s a rundown of the types of insurance you’ll likely encounter on your home-buying journey and a reality check on whether you need them.

Title insurance

Do you need it? Absolutely!

Normally, this isn’t even a question because it’s almost always mandatory when you’re getting a mortgage. But if you’re paying all-cash, you have the option of skipping on title insurance. You shouldn’t.

Title insurance “ensures both the lender and the owner’s financial interests in the home are protected against loss due to title defects, liens, or other matters,” says Liane Jamason, a Realtor® and owner of the Jamason Realty Group at Smith & Associates Real Estate in Tampa, FL.

It’s especially important to get title insurance in transactions like short sales and foreclosures, which often carry the high risk of some kind of tax lien being attached to the property. Title insurance is going to safeguard against your needing to pay for liens, and will ensure the title is clear so no one down the road could claim they own the property and file a lawsuit.

If for some reason you’re dead set against getting title insurance, Jamason suggests you should at least get a lawyer to “thoroughly check the property’s history to ensure there could be no future claims to title.”

Homeowners insurance

Do you need it? You bet

Like title insurance, this is another one that’s not required if you own the house outright (you’ll need to have it with a mortgage), but this is necessary. Homeowners insurance covers you for a variety of things like fires and storms. You’ll want it even if you aren’t legally required to have it.

Eric Kossian, agency principal of InsurePro, a Washington state insurance agency, cites an example of a wealthy homeowner who had paid off his house and “figured since he had never had an insurance claim he would save himself the $700 a year in premium.” Then some kids near his home started a fire, which got out of control and burned down several houses—including his. It cost the homeowner about $450,000 in damages. Consider this a cautionary tale.

*     *     *

Mortgage protection life insurance

Do you need it? Not really.

In case you die while you’re still paying off a mortgage (bummer, we know), this insurance is supposed to make sure your family is financially covered when it comes to paying your mortgage. But it’s basically pointless.

“I would say as a general rule that mortgage life insurance or mortgage protection insurance is unnecessary,” says David Reiss, a law professor specializing in real estate at Brooklyn Law School. Reiss says consumers “are generally better served by a cheap term insurance policy from a well-rated insurance company,” and “you will generally get more protection per premium dollar with a term life insurance policy.”

Umbrella insurance

Do you need it? Usually not.

Umbrella insurance is basically insurance for your insurance. It vastly expands the amount of damages your insurance will cover. But it’s not necessarily worth it.

“One common rule of thumb is that an umbrella insurance policy should equal the net worth of the insured,” Reiss says. So for the average middle-class American homeowner, Reiss notes that an umbrella policy is generally “less relevant,” probably because your regular insurance covers enough. For the rich, or those who are “reasonably expecting” a rise in income, Reiss says it can be a good idea and worth researching further.

Consumer Protection, Going Forward

photo by Lawrence Jackson

Warren, Obama and Cordray

The New York Times quoted me in Consumer Protection Bureau Chief Braces for a Reckoning. It opens,

Mild-mannered, lawyerly and with a genius for trivia, Richard Cordray is not the sort of guy you picture at the center of Washington’s bitter partisan wars over regulation and consumer safeguards.

But there he is, a 57-year-old Buckeye who friends say prefers his hometown diner to a fancy political reception, testifying in hearing after hearing on Capitol Hill about the agency he leads, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans would like to do away with it — and with him, arguing that the agency should be led by a commission rather than one person.

And with a Republican sweep of Congress and the White House, they may get some or all of what they wish.

Mr. Cordray, a reluctant Washingtonian who has commuted here for six years from Grove City, Ohio, where his wife and twin children live, is the first director of the consumer watchdog agency, which was created in 2010 after Wall Street’s meltdown. By aggressively deploying his small army of workers — he has 1,600 of them — Mr. Cordray has turned the fledgling agency into one of Washington’s most powerful and pugnacious regulators.

The bureau has overhauled mortgage lending rules, reined in abusive debt collectors, prosecuted hundreds of companies and extracted nearly $12 billion from businesses in the form of canceled debts and consumer refunds. In September, it exposed the extent of Wells Fargo’s creation of two million fraudulent customer accounts, igniting a scandal that provoked widespread outrage and toppled the company’s chief executive.

And, according to Mr. Cordray, he and his team have barely scratched the surface of combating consumer abuse.

“We overcame momentous challenges — just building an agency from scratch, let alone one that deals with such a large sector of the economy,” Mr. Cordray said in an interview at his agency’s office here. “I’m satisfied with the progress we have made, but I’m not satisfied in the sense that there’s a lot more progress to be made. There’s still a lot to be done.”

But his future and the agency’s are uncertain. Democrats in Ohio are encouraging Mr. Cordray to run for governor in 2018, which would require him to quit his job in Washington fairly soon, rather than when his term ends in mid-2018. Champions of the agency are imploring him to stay, arguing that if he leaves, the agency is likely to be defanged, its powers to help consumers sapped.

Opponents of the bureau just won a big legal victory: The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said last month that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was unconstitutional, and that the president should have the power to fire its director at will.

The agency is challenging the decision — which was made in a lawsuit brought by the mortgage lender PHH Corporation that contests the consumer bureau’s authority to fine it — and that has temporarily stopped the decision from taking effect. But the ruling has kept alive questions about whether too much power is concentrated in Mr. Cordray’s job, and whether the agency should be dismantled or restructured.

Mr. Cordray, who also battled on behalf of consumers in his previous jobs as Ohio’s attorney general and, before that, its treasurer, is praised in some circles as enormously effective, wielding the bureau’s power to restructure some industries and terrify others.

The bureau has “helped save countless people across the country from abusive financial practices,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Even the regulator’s frequent foes — including Alan S. Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, who says the agency often overreaches — acknowledge its impact.

“I’ve been practicing law in this area for well over 40 years, and there’s nothing that compares to it,” Mr. Kaplinsky said. “Every company in the consumer financial services market has felt the effects.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has nearly replaced the Better Business Bureau as the first stop for dissatisfied customers seeking redress. It has handled more than a million complaints, many of which it has helped resolve.

*     *    *

The housing crisis dominated the bureau’s early days. When Congress created the new overseer, it also dictated its first priority: making mortgages safer. The deadline was tight. If the bureau did not introduce new rules within 18 months, a congressionally mandated set of lending guidelines would automatically take effect.

The bureau made it with one day to spare.

It banned some practices that had fueled the crisis, like home loans with low teaser rates or no documentation of the borrower’s income, and steered lenders toward “qualified” loans with a stricter set of safeguards, including checks to ensure that customers could afford to repay what they borrowed.

After much grumbling — and many dire forecasts that the new rules would limit credit and harm consumers — mortgage lenders adjusted. They made nearly 3.7 million loans last year for home purchases, the highest number since 2007, according to government data.

“It seems like the financial services industry has figured out how to adapt to this new regulatory regime,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studied the effects of the bureau’s rule-making. “We’ve moved from the fox-in-the-henhouse market in the early 2000s, where you could get away with nearly anything, to this new model, where someone is looking over your shoulder.”