Increasing Price Competition for Title Insurers

The New York State Department of Financial Services issued proposed rules for title insurance last month and requested comments. I submitted the following:

I write and teach about real estate and am the Academic Director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.  I write in my individual capacity to comment on the rules recently proposed by the New York State Department of Financial Services (the Department) relating to title insurance.

Title insurance is unique among insurance products because it provides coverage for unknown past acts.  Other insurance products provide coverage for future events.  Title insurance also requires just a single premium payment whereas other insurance products generally have premiums that are paid at regular intervals to keep the insurance in effect.

Premiums for title insurance in New York State are jointly filed with the Department by the Title Insurance Rate Service Association (TIRSA) on behalf of the dominant title insurers.  This joint filing ensures that title insurers do not compete on price. In states where such a procedure is not followed, title insurance rates are generally much lower.

Instead of competing on price, insurers 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 real estate 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.  These expenses are a component of the filings that TIRSA submits to the Department to justify the premiums charged by TIRSA’s members.  As a result of this rate-setting method, New York State policyholders pay among the highest premiums in the country.

The Department has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry.  The first proposed regulation (various amendments to Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York) 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 second proposed regulation (a new Part 228 of Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York (Insurance Regulation 208)) is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, they amount to half measures because the dominant title insurance companies are not competing on price and therefore will continue to seek to compete by other means, as described above or in ever increasingly creative ways.  Proposed Part 228, for instance, will do very little to keep title insurance premiums low as it does not matter whether affiliated companies act independently, so long as all the insurers are allowed to file their joint rate schedule.  No insurer will vary from that schedule whether or not they operate independently from their affiliates.

Instead of adopting these half-measures and calling it a day, the Department should undertake a more thorough review of title insurance regulation with the goal of increasing price competition.  Other jurisdictions have been able to balance price competition with competing public policy concerns.  New York State can do so as well.

Title insurance premiums are way higher than the amounts that title insurers pay out to satisfy claims.  In recent years, total premiums have been in the range of ten billion dollars a year while payouts have been measured in the single percentage points of those total premiums.  If the Department were able to find the balance between safety and soundness concerns and price competition, consumers of title insurance could see savings measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Department should explore the following alternative approach:

  • Prohibiting insurers from filing a joint rate schedule;
  • Requiring each insurer to file its own rate schedule;
  • Requiring that each insurer’s rate schedule be posted online;
  • Allowing insurers to discount from their filed rate schedule so that they could better compete on price;
  • Promulgating conservative safety and soundness standards to protect against insurers discounting themselves into bankruptcy to the detriment of their policyholders; and
  • Prohibiting insurers from providing any benefits or gifts to real estate lawyers or other parties who can steer policyholders toward particular insurers.

If these proposals were adopted, policyholders would see massive reductions in their premiums.

Some have argued that New York State’s title insurance regulatory regime promotes the safety and soundness of the title insurers to the benefit of title insurance policyholders.  That may be true, but the cost in unnecessarily high premiums is not worth the trade-off.

Increased competition is not always in the public interest but it certainly is in the case of New York State’s highly concentrated title insurance industry.  The Department should seek to create a regulatory regime that best balances increased price competition with adequate safety and soundness regulation.  New Yorkers will greatly benefit from such reform.

Secrets of The Title Insurance Industry

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.

The Lowdown on Blockchain & Real Estate

There is a lot of hype out there about the impact that blockchain technology will have on the real estate industry. There is no doubt that blockchain will be revolutionary over the long term, but its impact in the short term is much more limited. Spencer Compton and Diane Schottenstein have written an article for Law360 (unfortunately, behind a paywall), How Blockchain Can Be Applied To Real Estate Law, that provides a nice overview of where blockchain stands today in the real estate industry. It opens,

Real estate transactions are steeped in traditions that have hardly changed over hundreds of years. Today, as computer-based property recording systems are prevalent in our cities but roll out at a snail’s pace in rural areas (often hindered by strained municipal budgets), and e-signatures are little used (due to legitimate fears of fraud), arguably the real estate closing process has lagged in its use of computer aided technology. Yet other aspects of real estate ownership have been transformed by the internet: smart home technology to remotely control heating and lighting and monitor security; Airbnb which increases the value of real estate ownership and disrupts the hotel industry; and the real estate brokerage community’s design/photographic/communication technology to list and virtually show properties. Now add to our brave new world blockchain, a cloud-based decentralized ledger system that could offer speed, economy and improved security for real estate transactions. Will the real estate transaction industry avoid or embrace it?

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is best-known as the technology behind bitcoin, however bitcoin is not blockchain. Bitcoin is an implementation of blockchain technology. Blockchain is a data structure that allows for a digital ledger of transactions to be shared among a distributed network of computers. It uses cryptography to allow each participant on the network to manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central authority such as a bank or trade association. Using algorithms, the system can verify if a transaction will be approved and added to the blockchain and once it is on the blockchain it is extremely difficult to change or remove that transaction. A blockchain can be an open system or a system restricted to permissive users. There can be private blockchains (for ownership records or business transactions, for instance) and public blockchains (for public municipal data, real estate records etc.). Funds can be transferred by wires automatically authorized by the blockchain or via bitcoin or other virtual currency. Transparent, secure, frictionless payment is touted as one of blockchain’s many benefits.

The article goes on to answer the following questions:

  • How does a blockchain differ from a record kept by a financing institution or a government agency?
  • How is a blockchain transaction more secure than any other transaction?
  • How widely is blockchain used?
  • How blockchain is being used to record real property instruments?
  • How might blockchain affect the role of title insurance companies?

If the impact of blockchain on the real estate industry has mystified you, this primer will give you an overview of where things stand today and maybe tomorrow too.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Calculating Closing Costs

image by www.lumaxart.com/

Realtor.com quoted me in How Much Are Closing Costs? What Home Buyers and Sellers Can Expect. It reads, in part,

Closing costs are the fees paid to third parties that help facilitate the sale of a home, and they vary widely by location. But as a rule, you can estimate that they typically total 2% to 7% of the home’s purchase price. So on a $250,000 home, your closing costs would amount to anywhere from $5,000 to $17,500. Yep that’s one heck of a wide range. More on that below.

Both buyers and sellers typically pitch in on closing costs, but buyers shoulder the lion’s share of the load (3% to 4% of the home’s price) compared with sellers (1% to 3%). And while some closing costs must be paid before the home is officially sold (e.g., the home inspection fee when the service is rendered), most are paid at the end when you close on the home and the keys exchange hands.

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Why Closing Costs Vary

The reason for the huge disparity in closing costs boils down to the fact that different states and municipalities have different legal requirements—and fees—for the sale of a home.

“If you live in a jurisdiction with high title insurance premiums and property transfer taxes, they can really add up,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “New York City, for instance, has something called a mansion tax, which adds a 1% tax to sales that exceed $1 million. And then there are the surprise expenses that can crop up like so-called ‘flip taxes’ that condos charge sellers.”

To estimate your closing costs, plug your numbers into an online closing costs calculator, or ask your Realtor, lender, or mortgage broker for a more accurate estimate. Then, at least three days before closing, the lender is required by federal law to send buyers a closing disclosure that outlines those costs once again. (Meanwhile sellers should receive similar documents from their Realtor outlining their own costs.)

Word to the wise: “Before you close, make sure to review these documents to see if the numbers line up to what you were originally quoted,” says Ameer. Errors can and do creep in, and since you’re already ponying up so much cash, it pays, literally, to eyeball those numbers one last time before the big day.

Equitable Subrogation in Mortgage Refinancing

Freyermuth-Wilson1

Professor Freyermuth

I am speaking on Equitable Subrogation in Mortgage Refinancing and Land Purchase Transactions in an ABA Professor’s Corner webinar on Wednesday with Professor Wilson Freyermuth of the University of Missouri School of Law. If this sounds like an esoteric topic, it is!

Subrogation refers to the substitution of one party for another and equitable subrogation refers to the doctrine where a court may use its equitable powers to find an implied assignment of a mortgage in order to avoid the unjust enrichment of a party. Since the commencement of the foreclosure crisis, this doctrine has been put to the test. Wilson and I will take a look at some of the recent cases that do the testing. More info about the webinar is below:

Professors’ Corner

FREE monthly webinar featuring a panel of law professors, addressing topics of interest to practitioners of real estate and trusts/estates. All are welcome and encouraged to register and participate.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

12:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Central/9:30 a.m. Pacific

Equitable Subrogation in Mortgage Refinancing and Land Purchase Transactions

Speakers:  

David Reiss, Brooklyn Law School

Wilson Freyermuth, University of Missouri School of Law

When a lender makes a mortgage loan to refinance an existing first mortgage, the lender typically expects its refinancing loan to have first priority.  If there is an intervening lien on the mortgaged property, however, a priority dispute may result in which the intervening lienholder argues that the recording statutes give it priority over the refinancing lender’s mortgage lien.

In this situation, the principle of equitable subrogation may apply to allow the refinancing lender to be subrogated to the priority of the paid-off mortgage so as to obtain priority over the intervening lien.  The Restatement (Third) of Property: Mortgages (1997) embraced the liberal application of equitable subrogation in this context.  While many courts have embraced the Restatement approach, not all courts have embraced the Restatement approach (including a recent Delaware Supreme Court decision rejecting the application of equitable subrogation in the refinancing context).

Our speakers will discuss a series of recent decisions (all decided in the 2015 calendar year) addressing the extent to which equitable subrogation is (or should be) available in the mortgage refinancing and land purchase context.

Register for this FREE webinar at http://ambar.org/ProfessorsCorner.

Sponsored by the ABA Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section, Legal Education and Uniform Laws Group.