Rebuilding scores — if you ask

Some credit experts call it the best-kept secret in home-mortgage finance. Others say, so what?

Millions of Americans whose credit scores have declined in recent years because of economic stresses could start rebuilding their scores if their rent, utilities, cellphone, insurance and other monthly accounts were reported to the national credit bureaus.

But typically they are not, and as a consequence fail to show up as positive factors on credit-scoring systems such as FICO or VantageScore. These on-time payments essentially go to waste for consumers, even though monthly rents often can be as large as mortgage bills, and years of utilities and other payments are widely recognized as strong indicators of creditworthiness.

Now for the best-kept secret: Under federal law, these unreported accounts need not go to waste. You as a mortgage applicant are guaranteed the right to bring evidence of your unreported on-time payments to lenders, and they in turn are required to consider those records in making a decision on granting you a home loan — provided you request it. If a loan officer refuses, he or she could be open to legal penalties.

Though federal financial regulators generally acknowledge the right to present supplementary data that consumers enjoy under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, only one — the National Credit Union Administration — has published guidance informing lenders they are required to comply.

Factoring in so-called nontraditional credit accounts not only could provide important help to buyers and owners with recession-scarred scores but could also aid the estimated 35 million to 54 million consumers who don’t show up — or barely show up — in the files of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three national credit bureaus. Many of these are young people with so-called “thin” files with just a couple of credit accounts, and many are minorities.

So where’s the disconnect here? Why aren’t more consumers documenting their otherwise unreported monthly payments? And why are loan officers likely to stare at account records and say: Are you kidding? We only look at credit files.

The problem is complex. Almost no one in the consumer-finance field has paid much attention to the Federal Reserve’s “Regulation B” that interprets the rules on treatment of alternative credit. Lenders who know about it don’t want the hassles of sorting through “shoe box” records that may or may not be accurate. Major players in the mortgage market such as the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all say they’ll accept alternative credit data but have restrictions on what they will consider. FHA, for example, does not permit applicants with low credit scores to boost them by adding positive, nontraditional data.

The credit industry is eager to incorporate accurate, nontraditional information but is ill-equipped to deal with sources that cannot provide large and regular amounts of verified reports.

“The [national] bureaus know that alternative data is highly predictive,” says Barrett Burns, CEO of VantageScore, a joint venture created by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. “We think millions of people could benefit” if it were collected and loaded into scoreable files. Experian already collects positive rent-payment data on approximately 8 million units in large apartment complexes and incorporates the information into its scores, he said.

But Burns noted that the industry has had difficulty accessing information on utilities payments in some states, and collection of cellphone-account records has raised privacy issues. Without accurate information being available in large quantities, he said, it is difficult to assist large numbers of consumers.

Nonetheless, efforts are under way to mine unreported credit data — potentially the untapped shale gas of the mortgage market — and transform it into something useful. A private firm, Trycera Credit Services, has announced an agreement with the National Credit Reporting Association — a trade group representing companies that provide the merged credit-bureau reports and scores used by mortgage originators — to independently verify the accuracy of consumer-supplied payment records. Those records can then be provided to lenders as part of the standard credit reporting and scoring information used in mortgage underwriting.

Michael G. Nathans, president of Trycera Credit Services, says the project is just getting off the ground but that preliminary information is available at the company’s website, www.trycera.com. The service will cost $20 to verify rental and mortgage payments, $15 for other verifications. Trycera also offers Visa debit cards that can help consumers document their nontraditional credit payments in a scoreable format.

Of course there are no guarantees that lenders will accept your alternative credit data. But federal law requires them to at least “consider” it — if you ask.

Source: By Kenneth R. Harney, Syndicated Columnist

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Lawsuit reveals how a middleman is blocking mortgage modifications for homeowners

Pamela Jeter, of Atlanta, Ga., has been trying to get a mortgage modification for more than two years. She seems like an ideal candidate. She has shown she can stay current with a reduction in her monthly mortgage payments. Everybody would seem to win. Even the investors who ultimately own her loan think she should be able to get one. So, why is Jeter facing foreclosure?

A bank that she didn’t even know is involved with her loan has thrown up a roadblock to modifications. At least tens of thousands of other homeowners have shared a similar plight. Jeter’s case is a window into a broken system where even though the actual investors, when asked, say they want to allow modifications, the bank that acts as their representative has refused to allow them.

Two big banks act as middlemen between the homeowners like Jeter who make payments and the mortgage-backed securities investors who ultimately receive them. The banks’ jobs were supposed to be relatively hands-off, devoted more than anything to processing homeowner payments. When the housing bubble burst, they faced new demands.

One of those middleman roles is well-known to homeowners: the mortgage servicer, responsible for collecting homeowner payments and evaluating requests for a modification.

But it’s another middleman that’s proved the real barrier for Jeter: the trustee, who is supposed to be the investors’ representative, making sure the servicer is maximizing investors’ returns and distributing checks to them. HSBC is the trustee for the pool of loans of which Jeter’s is a part — and it’s refused to approve any modifications for loans like hers, saying the contracts around the mortgages simply don’t allow it.

The good news for Jeter is that, in what seems an unprecedented step, her servicer OneWest has taken HSBC to court to allow modifications. It filed suit in June of last year.

But in a sign of just how convoluted the mortgage world has become, OneWest is also pushing to foreclose on her. A recent sale date was avoided only after her lawyer threatened to sue. (One day after ProPublica published this story in March, OneWest postponed foreclosure, saying that it wouldn’t attempt to seize Jeter’s home again for at least two months.)

Bundled loan syndrome

Jeter’s loan was typical of the boom years. To help pay for improvements on her home in 2007, she’d refinanced into an interest-only adjustable-rate loan. That loan was bundled with thousands of others by a Wall Street bank and sold off to investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and banks.

That’s where the trouble started. In Jeter’s loan pool and nine others, the contracts laying out the servicers’ responsibilities and powers contradict each other. OneWest’s lawsuit seeks to sort out that contradiction.

One document, a private contract between the servicer and the Wall Street bank that bundled the loans, explicitly forbids servicers from modifying loans in the pools in a way that would reduce homeowner payments. But other contracts — that investors could see — explicitly allow such modifications.

It’s become a familiar problem during the foreclosure crisis, dealing with the aftermath of the banks’ corner-cutting and sloppy paperwork of the housing boom.

No one appears to have tried to sort out this mess until 2009, when OneWest requested that HSBC, the trustee, allow modifications. The administration had just launched the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which pays servicers and investors subsidies to encourage affordable modifications. Under the program, modifications occur only when they will likely bring a better return to investors than foreclosure.

But HSBC refused to authorize any modifications, saying the contracts prohibit them. It’s obligated to act in investors’ interest, and it feared getting sued by those who didn’t want to cut homeowners’ payments. The dispute dragged on for months. Ultimately, HSBC offered to allow modifications only if OneWest accepted the risk of getting sued by investors, but OneWest wouldn’t.

OneWest was in an increasingly difficult situation, it says in its suit. It faced potential suits from investors if it modified loans, and if it didn’t, homeowners in the pool might sue.

In late June 2010, with HSBC still not budging, OneWest filed suit, asking a federal judge to decide whether modifications should or should not be allowed.

Eligible but not allowed

The case suggests that when investors themselves are asked, they will approve modifications. HSBC polled the investors in the 10 pools after the suit was filed. A large majority favored allowing modifications. Based on those results, HSBC said in a court filing in January that it did not oppose OneWest’s request for a judge to intervene and that if the judge declared modifications were allowed, that would be fine with them.

In the meantime, 3,000 homeowners like Jeter whose mortgages are caught up in the dispute have been unable to get any reduction in payments. When OneWest filed its suit, it said at least 800 of the loans seemed eligible for an affordable government-sponsored modification but couldn’t actually be modified because of HSBC’s stance. Those homeowners “are facing the possibility of losing their homes through potentially avoidable foreclosures every day,” it said.

It’s not clear how many of those homeowners have since been foreclosed on. OneWest said in a statement that it had no choice in pursuing foreclosure: It’s “contractually obligated to continue servicing loans in accordance with the terms of the underlying securitization documents.”

Foreclosure crisis

The suit is remarkable not only because it seems unique — close observers said they hadn’t seen another example of a servicer going to court against a trustee — but also because it lays bare a relationship that is usually a mystery to homeowners and investors in securitized mortgages.

It’s often hard for homeowners to tell if a servicer is correctly citing an investor restriction when denying a modification. Servicers have cited investor restrictions when denying modifications for at least 30,000 homeowners, about 2 percent of the 1.9 million total homeowners who’ve been denied, according to a ProPublica analysis of Treasury Department data. A Treasury spokeswoman said auditors examining such denials had found they were almost always legitimate. That’s not an experience shared by homeowner advocates.

In a number of cases, said Jeff Gentes, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, servicer employees have told his clients that there was an investor restriction, when a little bit of digging showed that’s not true. We reported on this problem last year.

Changes not pursued

In the cases when there actually is a restriction in the documents, the servicer is supposed to at least try to get permission. The HAMP rules require the servicer to send a letter to the trustee requesting that modifications be allowed.

In cases where there’s a clear contractual bar to modifications, the servicer and trustee could take the initiative to change the contracts by having the investors vote on it or, if voting isn’t required, amend the contract themselves.

But in general, said Gentes, the housing attorney, servicers are slow to investigate and eliminate bars to modification. Servicers are paid a low, flat rate per loan and are motivated to keep costs down. “The costs of removing an investor restriction are often borne by the servicers, and so extensive amendment rules often mean that servicers won’t pursue it.”

Trustees, who get paid even lower fees, are no different, said Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial Services, which specializes in mortgage-backed securities. “They’re very, very prone to inaction.”

Both, as middlemen, don’t bear the loss when a home is foreclosed on.

Source: By Paul Kiel, ProPublica.com (April 17, 2011)

Short Sales: 7 Legal Pitfalls

In addition to educating yourself on the ins and outs of these complex deals, you also need a good picture of the legal risks that exist for you.

 1. Misrepresenting tax consequences.

Although it’s true that the federal government passed a law in 2007 directing the IRS not to count mortgage debt forgiven by a lender as income, the provision is limited. It applies only to purchase money; it doesn’t apply to debt on a cash-out refinancing, and it doesn’t apply to second homes. There’s also a dollar limitation, albeit a generous one ($1 million for married couples filing separately, twice that for joint filers). “A lot of associates are telling people there are no tax consequences,” says Lance Churchill, a short sales specialist and trainer who operates in Boise, Idaho, and San Diego. “But it’s a limited law and you just need to be accurate about it.”

2. Misrepresenting how secondary debt is treated.

Practitioners might mistakenly tell sellers that all the house debt is forgiven once the primary lender approves a short sale. But that might not be the case, Churchill says. Holders of second deeds of trust don’t typically forgive the debt. More commonly, they accept a partial payment, like $2,000; and rather than write off the balance, they sell the balance to a collection agency for another few thousand dollars. In many states, these second loans are recourse, so sellers can be caught by surprise when the collection agency contacts them a year later seeking payment of the debt.

3. Acting on inappropriate lender requests for seller contributions.

It’s not uncommon for lenders to go after money that the sellers have in the bank or in a retirement account before they approve a short sale request. They’ll sometimes seek to put the onus on the real estate practitioner to get sellers to sign over a note for the amount they have in the bank as a condition of sale. But in states where mortgage debt is nonrecourse, lenders have no right to the money, and associates that suggest otherwise to the sellers might be later sued for negligence.

4. Breaching fiduciary duty.

Investors are increasingly executing what’s known as a “double close and flip,” a type of short-sale transaction that can leave practitioners exposed to irate sellers who say they got a raw deal. Here’s what typically happens: Investors insist on handling short-sale negotiations with the lender, freeing up their real estate practitioner to concentrate on finding a buyer. During the negotiations, the investors—often without the practitioner’s knowledge—talk the sellers into turning over the deed. Once the practitioner finds a buyer, the investors do a double closing, buying it themselves at a deep discount and then flipping it to the buyer at the listed price, making money on the spread. “The seller might feel he got less than he would have had the associate done his job and not handed over negotiations to the investor,” says Churchill.

5. Providing poor oversight of a loss mitigation company.

Companies that specialize in managing short sales promise to focus on the complicated details of the short sale, freeing up practitioners’ time to find buyers. But if you take a hands-off approach, you can be charged with negligence if a deal falls apart. “A lot of these companies are fly-by-night or have one person who’s overworked,” Churchill says. “Practitioners are coming back a month later to find no one’s even opened the file.”

6. Lacking the required license to undertake loss mitigation.

It often makes sense for practitioners to take a two-pronged approach with clients facing a difficult time paying their mortgage—first trying to help them accomplish a loan modification (for a fee), and then finding a buyer if a modification doesn’t work. But watch out. Depending on your state, you could need a specific license, sometimes called a credit repair license, to earn a fee for helping owners modify mortgage terms. Without having the right credentials, taking a fee for loan modification assistance could be a criminal offense.

7. Facilitating transactions not listed on the HUD-1 form.

It’s not uncommon for investors to offer incentives to sellers to move a deal forward, but lenders typically frown upon sellers who walk away with money when they’re supposedly taking a loss. Investors sometimes work around this limitation by offering to buy something from the sellers at an attractive price, such as a couch for $5,000. Associates who communicate these offers to sellers can get tied into charges of lender fraud because the deals may be deceptive.

Source: By Robert Freedman (April 2009)

5 Real Estate Scams You Need to Know About

Mortgage fraud is pervasive: An estimated $4 billion to $6 billion in annual losses result from mortgage fraud, according to FBI reports. “An entire community can be damaged by mortgage fraud,” says Rachel Dollar, a lawyer from Santa Rosa, Calif., and editor of the Mortgage Fraud Blog. Mortgage fraud can lead to a spike in foreclosures, home values plummeting, and lenders raising their rates and fees to recover losses.

The crimes are often complex, involving several parties and occurring over multiple transactions. To protect you and your clients, educate yourself about mortgage fraud and be on guard for any warning signs in a transaction. You can start by reviewing these five scams, and then test your knowledge by taking our Mortgage Fraud Quiz.

1. The Foreclosure Rescue Scheme

The Scam: “Rescuers” promise cash-strapped home owners that they can save their home from foreclosure. The rescue, which involves paying upfront fees, can take multiple forms, such as the perpetrator obtaining a new loan on behalf of the owner or by having the owner sign over the home’s deed and then rent the home until they can repurchase it. Eventually, the home owner loses the home, either to foreclosure or the fictitious rescue company.

Red Flags: With foreclosure rescue programs, borrowers are often advised to sign over the title of their house to a third party, become renters of their home, not contact their lender, or send mortgage payments to a third party, according to Fannie Mae, which provides fact sheets on mortgage fraud.

2. Loan Documentation Fraud

The Scam: This fraud involves numerous schemes in which a borrower provides inaccurate financial information — such as about their income, assets, and liabilities — or employment status in order to qualify for a loan with lower rates and more favorable terms. Occupancy fraud is one growing area: Borrowers say they plan to live in the property when they actually intend to rent it.

Red Flags: Documentation may raise suspicion if the employer’s address is shown as a post office box, accumulation of assets compared to the person’s income appears too high or low, the new house is too small to accommodate occupants, the person has no credit history, or the application is unsigned or undated, according to Fannie Mae.

3. Appraisal Fraud

The Scam: A faulty appraisal — saying a property is worth more than what it really is — is connected to many types of mortgage fraud. It entails manipulating or overstating comparables, market values, or property characteristics in order to obtain a higher appraisal. The higher property appraisal, which generates false equity, is done by falsifying an appraisal document or using an appraiser accomplice to obtain the higher value.

Red Flags: Be skeptical of appraisals that are dated prior to the sales contract, list comparable sales that do not contain similarities to the property or are outside the neighborhood, the owner is not the seller listed on the contract or the title, or a third party participating in the transaction orders the appraisal, Freddie Mac warns.

4. Illegal Property Flipping

The Scam: This entails purchasing properties and reselling them at inflated prices. These scams usually involve faulty appraisals and inaccurate loan documents. The property is then refinanced or resold immediately after purchase for an inflated value. The home is purchased at a higher price, often by straw buyers working with the “flipper,” and eventually falls into foreclosure. 

Red Flags: Some key things to look for are rapid refinancing of a property; the seller recently having acquired the title or acquiring the title concurrent with the transaction; an appraisal that comes in too high; a property that was recently in foreclosure being purchased at a much lower price than its sales price; or the owner listed on the appraisal and title not matching the seller on the sales contract, according to Fannie Mae.

5. Short Sales Schemes

The Scam: Borrowers owe more than the current value of their home so they fake financial hardship and no longer make their mortgage payments. An accomplice of the borrower then submits a low offer to purchase the property in a short sale agreement. The lender agrees to the short sale, unaware that it was premeditated. The property, after being purchased at the reduced price, is then often resold at the home’s actual value for profit.

Red Flags: The borrower suddenly defaults on the mortgage with no workout discussions with the lender, an immediate offer is made to a lender at a short sale price, the short sale offer is less than current market value, or a cash back is offered at closing to the delinquent borrower (disguised as “repairs” or other payouts, for example) and is not disclosed to the lender, according to Fannie Mae

Source: By Melissa Dittmann Tracey (August 2010)

Fannie Adds Incentive to Avoid Foreclosure

Beginning in July, Fannie Mae will allow financially troubled home owners to complete a “deed in lieu of foreclosure” or a short sale and be eligible to apply for a new Fannie-backed mortgage in two years.

Currently, borrowers who have completed a deed-in-lieu must wait four years to apply for a loan that Fannie will purchase. Home buyers who go through foreclosure must wait five years.

All these waiting periods can be reduced further, if the potential buyer can show extenuating circumstances. “We are beginning to think about post-recession, how you address borrowers who became unemployed through no fault of their own … and now deserve the right to re-enter the housing-finance system,” said Federal Housing Association Commissioner David Stevens.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Nick Timiraos (04/26/2010)

Bank of America wants to suspend mortgage payments for jobless

Bank of America wants to give struggling mortgage customers collecting unemployment benefits up to nine months with no mortgage payment.

That’s right. Zero payment.

Customers would have to agree that, if they haven’t found a job within the nine months, they will sign over their house to the bank. The Charlotte bank would give them at least $2,000 to help with moving expenses.

The proposal needs regulatory approval, and the bank doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.

Some experts say the plan could become an industry model and is the most substantial, creative approach yet to addressing the fallout from stubbornly high unemployment, which is driving mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures.

More relief

The plan also could provide families with faster relief, allow them to save money and provide a timetable for making decisions. The bank could avoid millions in collection and foreclosure expenses.

“It’s an innovative way for Bank of America to demonstrate it’s working with its customers,” said Mark Williams, a former Federal Reserve bank examiner. “Regulators should view this as a positive step as well.”

The $75 billion federal mortgage-aid program, announced in February 2009, has struggled to fulfill President Obama’s estimate of helping millions. Through March, only 230,000 families had received final mortgage modifications under the Home Affordable Modification Program, called HAMP.

The program holds few options for the jobless, even as the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent. The Charlotte area’s rate is near 13 percent. And more than 6.3 million people nationwide have been out of work longer than six months.

“It’s something I would have done,” said Bill Sagy, a Bank of America mortgage customer laid off last June from his management consultant position. “That would definitely have worked.”

Instead, he spent months working with the bank for reduced payments that he thought would become a long-term modification. But that didn’t happen, making him one of a growing group of homeowners who spent scarce resources that didn’t ultimately save their homes.

Sagy’s Huntersville, N.C., home, which he bought for $253,000 in 2006, has shed value and is unlikely to sell for what he owes. Without a modification, he’s behind on payments and says the bank wants to foreclose.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Sagy, who with his wife is considering relocating.

Mark Pearce, a leader in national foreclosure-prevention efforts, called the plan a step forward.

“This seems like a new idea that offers a lot of positives for both the homeowners and the bank,” said Pearce, an North Carolina deputy banking commissioner. “There’s a nice balance, giving people more breathing space but with a date certain for moving to the next step if things don’t work out.”

Reducing worries

In addition to reducing worries, the program could, for example, mean families are able to keep current with a car payment and avoid repossession. Losing a car makes it harder to find or keep a job. Borrowers also might be better able to afford expenses such as child care, freeing them to attend job fairs and interviews.

Steve Obendorf, who works in the credit-counseling unit of Family Services, a Gastonia, N.C., nonprofit, likes the idea of giving people “a breather.” But the bank also needs to make sure people understand they’re agreeing to sign over their homes if they can’t get a job. Otherwise, he speculates, there could be a wave of homeowners begging for a reprieve.

Obendorf, who works with people facing foreclosure, said unemployment is the key reason people seek free counseling services. He recommends saving as much as possible during any grace period to build a cushion.

Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, said the bank “deserves high marks” for the effort but questions how many the program could help. The self-employed, for example, don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Homeowners with a lot of equity aren’t likely to sign up because they would not want to risk losing their home

The bank has 1.44 million customers who are 60 days or more past due, nearly 14 percent of the 10.4 million mortgages it services. But it hasn’t broken out how many of those might be helped by the proposed plan. Many details, such as eligibility and the application process, also haven’t been finalized because the bank can’t go ahead without regulators’ approval.

Also unclear is whether zero would really mean no payment at all.

That’s the goal for Jack Schakett, who is leading negotiations for the bank. That would mean the bank pays bills such as property taxes and insurance during the nine-month break. That’s what happens now when a customer is delinquent.

Bank of America, like most servicers, has faced criticism for inept handling of the modification process. Several lawsuits allege the bank hasn’t delivered on mortgage modifications. More broadly, the industry is under pressure from lawmakers and the public, angered by financial firms’ role in the national meltdown.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers, by Stella M. Hopkins (04/25/2010)

New-home sales jump 27%, biggest gain in 47 years

Sales of new homes surged 27% last month, bouncing off the previous month’s record low and blowing past expectations as better weather and government incentives boosted sales.The Commerce Department said Friday that new-home sales rose in March to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 411,000. It was the strongest month since last July and the biggest monthly increase in 47 years.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a sales pace of 330,000. February’s results were revised upward to 324,000, but remained an all-time low. Sales had been especially weak over the winter, partly due to bad weather in much of the country.

The median sales price was $214,000, up more than 4% from a year earlier but down more than 3% from February.

The new-home sales report reflects signed contracts to purchase homes rather than completed sales and thus gives economists a feel for how many buyers were out shopping for new homes in a given month.

It is likely capturing consumers who are trying to qualify for federal tax credits that will expire at the end of this month. The government is offering an $8,000 credit for first-time buyers and $6,500 for current homeowners who buy and move into another property.

To qualify, buyers must have a signed contract complete by the end of next week and must complete the transaction by the end of June. Nearly 1.8 million households have used the credit at a cost of $12.6 billion, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The rise in new-home sales was seen nationwide. Sales grew a whopping 44% in the South and 36% in the Northeast. They also rose about 6% in the West and 3% in the Midwest.

The number of new homes up for sale in March fell 2% to 228,000. At the current sales pace, it would take nearly 7 months to exhaust that supply.

Source: Associated Press, by Alan Zibel (04/26/2010)