Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

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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.

What Is a HUD Foreclosure?

Mike Licht

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is a HUD Foreclosure? A Home That’s Below Market Value. It reads,

“Foreclosure” is a scary word with a simple definition: It’s the process of a lender attempting to recoup the balance owed on a loan after the homeowner fails to pay the mortgage. Mortgage lenders can be banks, private institutions, or the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA is the world’s largest insurer of mortgages; FHA loans are managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. So any foreclosed house that was purchased with an FHA loan is called a HUD foreclosure. But what exactly is a HUD foreclosure?

What is HUD?

HUD is a federal agency with the mission to help low-income and first-time home buyers. Through mortgage assistance and subsidized housing, it helps make the dream of owning a home a reality for many Americans.

A major division of HUD is the FHA, which is the world’s largest insurer of mortgages.

“A HUD foreclosure is the foreclosure of a loan that was insured by the FHA,” says David Reiss, professor of law and research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship
 at Brooklyn Law School
.

When a homeowner defaults on this government-backed loan, HUD pays off the mortgage and becomes the property’s de facto owner. To recoup financial losses, HUD then puts the house on the market.

The benefit of buying a HUD foreclosure

The upside for bargain home hunters is that HUD-owned properties are usually sold well below market value.

While anyone can buy a HUD home, “the agency has a special program for teachers, police officers, firefighters, and EMS personnel called the Good Neighbor Next Door program,” says Reiss.

This program allows people in those professions to purchase a HUD property at a whooping 50% discount if it’s in a “revitalization area” and the owner occupies it for three years. Revitalization areas are neighborhoods with very low income, low homeownership, or a high concentration of foreclosed homes.

How to buy a HUD foreclosure

HUD foreclosures are not sold in the typical manner, according to Reiss. Instead of open houses and offer letters, he explains, HUD foreclosures are sold through a bidding process that favors owner-occupants (people who actually want to live in the house) over investors by giving them priority in bidding.

Prospective owners working with a real estate agent authorized to sell HUD property submit bids but have no idea what the other bids are. If the property fails to sell to an owner-occupant, the HUD foreclosure is then open to investors.

How to find a HUD foreclosure

According to Reiss, HUD maintains the HUD Home Store, an online database that lists all its foreclosures. And unlike some foreclosed properties that may have liens (a notice attached to your property that means you owe a creditor money), HUD homes are for sale lien-free.

Millennials and Homeownership

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TheStreet.com quoted me in Millennials Are Accruing Less Debt, Bypassing Homeownership. It reads, in part,

Millennials are accruing less debt than their counterparts did back in 2003 — despite being saddled with large amounts of student loans — because they are putting off buying homes.

The research conducted by Torsten Sløk, a Deutsche Bank international economist, shows that Millennials, ages 25 to 35, attained less debt in 2015 than their counterparts did in 2003. The data demonstrates a 29-year old in 2003 had an average debt amount of $41,761 compared to $36,810 in 2015 or a 33-year old owed $56,859 in 2003 and $52,640 in 2015.

“It is an urban myth that the young generation today is more indebted, it is the older generations that have higher debt levels,” said Sløk in a research note. “The reason is that since 2009, it has been difficult for Millennials to get a loan. As a result, 25 to 35 year olds today have less debt than in 2003.”

Debt has been “harder to obtain” for Gen Y-ers whether they are credit cards or mortgages, said Jim Triggs, a senior vice president of counseling and support of Money Management International, a Sugar Land, Texas-based non-profit debt counseling organization.

“Millennials have not been inundated with easy to obtain credit cards like in past years,” he said. “Creditors are not on college campuses offering credit cards to college students any longer.”

While Millennials are saddled with record levels of student loans because of the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and the ease of obtaining these loans, Millennials “continue to have less credit card and mortgage debt than their parents and grandparents,” Triggs said.

The level of student loan debt is hindering borrowers ages 18 to 35 from paying for necessities such as rent, utilities and even food as 43% expressed this sentiment, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s 2016 consumer financial literacy survey, said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit organization.

“There is a staggering amount of student loan debt and it is a burden for many,” he said.

Homeownership Delays

Although Millennials have expressed the desire the own a home in the future, they are keen to keep renting in part because many of them switch jobs frequently, have not amassed a down payment or do not want the financial commitment. The zeal to pursue the “American dream” of owning a home has waned.

*     *     *

The assumption that home values would rise faster than other investments has been challenged since the Great Recession, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“One big issue is the role that home ownership plays in wealth creation,” he said. “The bottom line is that homeownership can help build a nest egg for retirement, but long-term trends and individual decisions about homeownership will have a big impact as well.”

Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers

 

photo by Ben Jacobson

Realtor.com quoted me in Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers (and What It Means to You). It reads, in part,

Take that, Alan Dershowitz: Although both doctors and lawyers can typically afford better-than-decent-sized homes, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in states with a certain legal provision, physicians’ houses are bigger. Often much bigger.

So what’s the deal? It seems to come down to two factors: First, the skyrocketing costs of financially devastating medical malpractice suits; second, a once-obscure provision called “homestead exception” which can protect the assets of doctors in some states from being wiped out by those suits when they invest their cash in their homes.

“We have been interested in understanding how does that pervasive aspect of a physician’s career influence the decisions they make … whether it means they invest more in houses to protect themselves against liability,” Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the paper, tells the Washington Post.

Here’s how homestead exception works: If creditors are hounding you for unsecured debts—as opposed to secure ones, like your mortgage—they can’t take your home as collateral, as long as you declare bankruptcy. In fact, they can’t even place a lien on the property to collect when you sell. These exemptions vary by state: Some, such as New Jersey, have no such safeguard; in California, individuals’ homes are protected up to $75,000 (which generally won’t get you past the front porch).

Yet a handful of states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia—have unlimited homestead exemption. Doctors in those states bought homes that were 13% more expensive than the homes of doctors elsewhere. The homes of medical doctors (and dentists, who are essentially in the same medical malpractice boat) were markedly more expensive than the homes of professionals making similar salaries—even lawyers, who know a thing or two about malpractice suits. The authors drew from U.S. Census Bureau data on 3 million households about profession, household income, and home value.

So why should you care? Because homestead exemptions apply to you, too—even if the closest you come to the medical profession is annual checkups and late night reruns of “ER.”

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But don’t get the wrong idea: The homestead exemption isn’t a bulletproof way to ward off foreclosure. Remember, it applies only to unsecured debt such as credit cards—not secured debt like your mortgage.

“If you borrow money for a home, the homestead exemption typically does not apply,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. In other words, if you don’t pay your mortgage and default on your loan, your lender can foreclose and seize your home.

And we’re not saying you should run from your creditors, because eventually they’ll catch up to you. But if you are in financial straits and scared sick of losing your house, check your local homestead exemption laws first—you might be safer than you think.

Bank Break-ins

"Balaclava 3 hole black" by Tobias "ToMar" Maier. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg#/media/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg

Chris Odinet has posted Banks, Break-Ins, and Bad Actors in Mortgage Foreclosure to SSRN. The abstract reads,

During the housing crisis banks were confronted with a previously unknown number mortgage foreclosures, and even as the height of the crisis has passed lenders are still dealing with a tremendous backlog. Overtime lenders have increasingly engaged third party contractors to assist them in managing these assets. These property management companies — with supposed expertise in the management and preservation of real estate — have taken charge of a large swathe of distressed properties in order to ensure that, during the post-default and pre-foreclosure phases, the property is being adequately preserved and maintained. But in mid-2013 a flurry of articles began cropping up in newspapers and media outlets across the country recounting stories of people who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments returning home one day to find that all of their belongings had been taken and their homes heavily damaged. These homeowners soon discovered that it was not a random thief that was the culprit, but rather property management contractors hired by the homeowners’ mortgage servicer.

The issues arising from these practices have become so pervasive that lawsuits have been filed in over 30 states, and legal aid organizations in California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and New York report that complaints against lender-engaged property managements firms number among their top grievances. This Article analyzes lender-engaged property management firms and these break-in foreclosure activities. In doing so, the paper makes a three-part call to action, which includes the implementation of bank contractor oversight regulations, the creation of a private cause of action for aggrieved homeowners, and the curtailment of property preservation clauses in mortgage contracts.

This is a timely article about a cutting edge issue. All too often I have heard pro-bank lawyers claim that banks almost never foreclose improperly. The news reports and lawsuits discussed in this article counter that claim. And yet, I hope that some empirically-minded person could quantify the frequency of such misbehavior to better inform policymakers going forward.

Home Loan Toolkit

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued Your Home Loan Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide. The toolkit is designed to help potential homeowners navigate the process of buying a home. As the press release notes,

The toolkit provides a step-by-step guide to help consumers understand the nature and costs of real estate settlement services, define what affordable means to them, and find their best mortgage. The toolkit features interactive worksheets and checklists, conversation starters for discussions between consumers and lenders, and research tips to help consumers seek out and find important information.

*     *     *

Creditors must provide the toolkit to mortgage applicants as a part of the application process, and other industry participants, including real estate professionals, are encouraged to provide it to potential homebuyers.

The toolkit asks many of the important questions that homebuyers have:

  • What does affordability mean for you?
  • What kind of credit profile do you have?
  • What kind of mortgage is right for you?
  • How do points work?
  • How do you comparison shop with lenders?
  • How does a closing work?
  • How do you read your Closing Disclosure?
  • How do keep your mortgage in good standing?

That being said, it remains to be seen whether this toolkit will actually help potential homeowners. It is important for the CFPB to design an effectiveness study to see how the toolkit performs in practice.

Supreme Take on Truth in Lending

The United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 13-684 (Jan. 13, 2015).  Jesinoski resolved a circuit split regarding notice requirements under the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) that apply when a homeowner is rescinding certain types of home mortgage loans.

Justice Scalia wrote the short opinion for a unanimous Court. The Court held that a “borrower exercising his right to rescind under the Act need only provide written notice to his lender within the 3-year period, not file suit within that period.” (syllabus at 1) Countrywide had argued that the borrower had to file suit within that 3-year period. In finding for the borrowers, the Court found that the language of the statute was “unequivocal.”

While some have said that this result will lead to borrowers walking away from their loans, that is unlikely to occur in all but a handful of cases. That is because in order to rescind the loan, a borrower would need to tender back the original loan proceeds. Hard to imagine too many borrowers being able to do that.

The opinion is important because it resolves a significant circuit split, but its unanimity reflects that this case was perceived by the members of the Court as a straightforward question of statutory interpretation. As such, it does not appear to be signaling much about the Court’s approach to consumer protection jurisprudence more generally.