Looking for Blame in the Mortgage Crisis

by Dan Krell © 2007

The daily media reports of abuse, fraud, and other problems in the sub-prime mortgage industry attempt to make sense of a real estate industry in turmoil. It appears that the problems in the real estate industry are similar to those in Big Business. Like many of the recent business scandals, schemes and wrongdoing are carried out because the financial rewards seem greater then the risk. Those who are caught usually point their finger at their boss claiming that they were told to do so in fear of losing their job.

The present mortgage crisis is similar to some extent. Sensationalized media accounts of what went wrong and who is to blame seem to be in the daily headlines. The blame of the present crisis was first placed on the lenders and investors, who with their lenient underwriting guidelines, allowed many to borrow beyond their means. The new focus in the crisis is on inflated appraisals and how appraisers are “forced” to provide these appraisals in order to maintain business. Additionally, there has been some discussion about the loan officers who originated the loans, without regard to the consequences to the borrower.

The story of inflated appraisals on the mortgage industry is about how some appraisers are “forced” to provide appraisals with an inflated price or they will lose business. For a real estate appraiser, the pressures of complying with lenders’ requests to inflate appraisals are inherent to the business, but not necessary. To demonstrate the extent of the problem, the Baltimore Sun reported (April 10, 2007) that appraiser groups are asking regulators to crack down on the lenders who pressure appraisers for inflated appraisals.

On the other hand, not enough has been said about the loan officers who originate these loans. Many loan officers who originate sub-prime mortgages are mortgage brokers and are paid on commission; they only get paid if the loan closes. Most mortgage originators act ethically in the borrower’s best interest. However, some will say or do just about anything to get the loan to close, including making unrealistic promises to the borrower as well as pressuring others to ensure loan closure. Unless there is blatant fraud, loan originators are not usually held responsible for a “bad loan.”

There are reports of possible federal investigations of mortgage misrepresentation and non-disclosure of loan terms. A recent MSNBC article (April 10, 2007) reports that many sub-prime borrowers who were deceived by mortgage brokers and loan officers are filing law suits for violations of the Federal Truth in Lending Act. These borrowers include those who were misled to believe the terms of their mortgage, as well as others who were misguided to obtain a high interest rate mortgage when they qualified for a more favorable loan. Under the law, the full terms and conditions of loans must be disclosed to consumers. Additionally, some have interpreted that any misrepresentation, written or verbal, is a violation of this law.

Although most real estate professionals are reputable and act within the guidelines of the law and the ethics code of their profession, unfortunately some do not. Like Big Business, it appears that some of the problems in the real estate industry exist not just because of a lack of ethical behavior, but a lack of character as well.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 23, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Fair Housing Month 2007

by Dan Krell

April is finally here, which means spring is around the corner and we celebrate another Fair Housing Month. When you think of Fair Housing Month, thoughts of celebrating equality among the diverse come to mind. This year, however, people are talking about the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown as an indicator of how we are doing in promoting equality and fairness in real estate.

At first you might find it difficult to fathom how lending practices and fair housing go hand in hand. After all, isn’t mortgage lending a highly regulated industry? Aren’t lenders using exacting rules to qualify home buyers for mortgages?

The mortgage industry is vigilant in maintaining strict quality control standards as well as cracking down on abuses such as fraud. However, the saying “where there is a will, there is a way” holds true. There are unscrupulous people who continually scheme to make their fortune through blatant mortgage fraud and other dishonest practices.

Although there are new schemes that pop up every year, most schemes involve the use of straw buyers (fraudulent using another person’s information to obtain a mortgage), giving false information, and/or providing manufactured financial documents to obtain mortgage funding. Fortunately these folks get caught and end up in jail.

Another problem that contributes to issues in the mortgage industry is the forcing of clients to use a specific lender for a kickback (violating federal law). When this happens, it is common for the consumer to pay excessive fees, points, as well as having a higher than average interest rate.

Mortgage schemes like these are just a sample of lending abuses that occur. In addition to other predatory lending practices, all lending abuse preys on an uninformed consumer. Perusing the Mortgage Fraud Blog (mortgagefraudblog.com) you overwhelmingly get an idea of the extent of the problem.

Why talk about mortgage lending practices, predatory lending, and mortgage fraud during Fair Housing Month? The reason is that many of the abuses that occur in the lending industry are due to the targeting of certain classes or sub-classes of home buyers.

The problem does not lie with the mortgage industry per se. The problem extends from the lending industry to other professionals involved in the real estate transaction. If the settlement agent or Realtor is not already aware of the abuse, they may turn a blind eye when they become aware at settlement when they review the closing documents. If the home buyer catches on to the high fees and interest rate, they are sometimes guaranteed a refinance in a couple months by their Realtor or settlement agent (which is a common predatory lending practice).

Like many things in life, it’s not the tool; however, it is the tool’s abuse by the ill intentioned or uncaring that produces disrepute. It needs to be said that Sub-prime and interest only mortgages are needed and can be useful tools in the purchase of real estate. However these tools need to be used responsibly. A guide to mortgages and other consumer information can be found on the National Association of Realtors website (www.realtor.org/housopp.nsf).

This Fair Housing Month, let’s just not commit to practice fair housing, rather let’s assist others to practice fair housing by not turning a blind eye to their lapses.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 16, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Sorting Through the Paperwork

by Dan Krell
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Have you read your purchase contract or listing agreement? Many people won’t read the documents thoroughly, if they read them at all, and rely on their Realtor’s explanation to help them understand the legal and binding contract to which they are entering. Unfortunately, there is a chance that your Realtor may not understand the documents either and may have given you misleading information.

What was once a simple two page purchase contract is now an often confusing and seemingly endless forty to fifty pages of clauses and addendums. The contract of yesteryear may have been easier to read, however it was not very specific and was written in favor of the home seller. Today’s real estate contract is very specific to many aspects of the transaction, discussing the terms of the agreement as well as contingencies, notices and disclosures.

To make matters more confusing, there are two contracts in use in our area. The MAR contract is provided by the Maryland Association of Realtors and the Regional Contract is offered by the Greater Capital Association of realtors. Up until recently, there were major differences between the two contracts. Attempts for parity have been helpful, however differences continue. You should consult with your Realtor to determine which contract would benefit your situation.

As hard as it may be to read through the contract and understand its terminology, can you depend on your Realtor to explain it to you correctly? Both contracts along with addendums undergo constant change requiring Realtors to re-familiarize themselves with the documents. Because of this, it is common for even a seasoned Realtor to get tripped up.

When presented with a listing agreement and/or a purchase contract, your Realtor should explicitly explain the meaning of each clause so as you understand it. It is a good idea to even consult an attorney.

Today’s real estate contract specifies the rights and responsibilities of each party. Additionally, the contract defines default, discusses recourse and hiring an attorney. The MAR contract requires you to attempt meditation prior to going to court.

Additionally, you may find that there are many additional disclosures that are part of the contract. Contrary to belief, these addenda are not filler paper; many of these disclosures ensure you understand your rights as a home buyer or home seller.

For example, many home buyers don’t know that they have the right to review condo and HOA docs. You have seven days to review condo docs and five days to review HOA docs. If you find that there is anything in the docs that is not acceptable, you can declare the contract null and void.

Why should you understand the contract? Believe it or not the real estate contract survives even after settlement. This is an important concept as it is mistakenly thought that once settlement occurs there is no recourse. Disputes can arise after settlement if the home seller decides to take items they were supposed to leave in the home, or if there were misrepresentations in property condition.

A real estate contract is not to be taken lightly as there are consequences to any breach of this contract. Make sure you understand your rights and any responsibilities, and if in doubt-consult an attorney.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 9, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Foreclosure Assistance

by Dan Krell

It is common to experience financial problems at any given time in one’s life. There are many reasons people experience financial problems. If it isn’t being surprised by loss of employment, illness, or divorce it may be due to lack of financial planning. Whatever the reason, experiencing a financial crisis, including foreclosure, is an unsettling process for anyone.

A site that is becoming more frequent in any neighborhood is the home going through the foreclosure process. The owner may still be in the home or they may have vacated months earlier leaving an empty shell to deteriorate in the ensuing months.

At first, you may not notice anything different in the home, but as time progresses it hard to not notice. You may notice your neighbor withdrawing and evading anyone coming to the door. The house numbers may disappear in an attempt to confuse those trying to identify the home. The lawn may be neglected and become overgrown with grass and weeds. The home itself may noticeably fall in disrepair as well.

Many people facing foreclosure tend to be in denial and believe that nothing is wrong and go about their lives thinking that they will not lose their home. Denial is a common defense mechanism that serves to lessen the severity of emotional pain that one may endure. However, it is not useful when facing foreclosure. Denial is a slippery slope such that people may not confront the challenges they face, and in this case-lose their home.

If you are falling behind in your mortgage, you may want to consult a bankruptcy attorney. As foreclosure is a manifestation of a larger financial problem, reorganizing your debts may help save your home.

If you find that you can no longer afford your mortgage, selling your home may be an option; however, as home prices have dropped you will have to determine if this is practical. If you can prove that your home has lost value, a common tactic is to ask the lender for a short sale, which is essentially asking them to take less than what is owed.

If you do not pay your mortgage, the mortgage company will be trying to contact you; it is important to communicate with the mortgage company so as to determine if they can assist through such measures as forbearance. You may be able to renegotiate the terms of your loan, or even have your late payments forgiven in an attempt to remedy the situation.

If you continue to not pay, you will receive a notice of default through certified mail. After receiving the notice, you may have an opportunity to reinstate your loan by paying the past due amount including late fees.

At this point, if you do not take action, the mortgage company will initiate the foreclosure process. Once the foreclosure process starts, your options are limited; the time from the initiation of the process to the foreclosure sale can be quite fast.

The foreclosure process is not pleasant, and can impact those involved with long lasting financial and psychological scars. If you know that you may be facing a foreclosure, it is important to be proactive. If you need assistance, the Maryland Attorney General offers information to those in foreclosure on the web at: www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/foreclose.htm.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice.This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of April 2, 2007. Copyright (c) 2007 Dan Krell.

Subprime Mortgage Woes – Again

by Dan Krell

The adage that we are doomed to repeat history unless we learn from it is once again demonstrated. The recent news that the subprime mortgage industry is in trouble should not be a big surprise. The fact that subprime lenders are in trouble is the consequence for an industry whose foundation is high risk.

If you are unaware of the subprime mortgage industry, here is a rudimentary primer. Subprime lenders provide mortgages to borrowers who would not otherwise qualify for a standard Fannie Mae/ Freddie Mac loan. Most often, these borrowers have credit challenges; however, some have good credit but do not meet the Fannie/Freddie income, asset, and/or employment guidelines.

The subprime lenders’ underwriting guidelines dictated by investors who ultimately buy the mortgages on a secondary market (usually Wall Street). The attraction to investors is that they receive a high yield based on the risk. Generally, subprime underwriting guidelines become lenient when the market is favorable for these loans.

Up until about a year ago, the subprime mortgage industry exploded because the risk was countered by a safety net that was the record sellers’ market. Many subprime borrowers who fell behind in mortgage payments found themselves able to sell their home before foreclosure, pay off their mortgage, and make a little money in the deal.

Since the market has slowed, many subprime borrowers cannot sell to avoid foreclosure. This has impacted subprime lenders by the loss of revenue. Subprime investors have forced lenders to tighten their subprime underwriting guidelines to meet new requirements and lessen their risk.

The subprime mortgage industry has a cyclic history of loosening and tightening of underwriting guidelines. The last time the subprime industry was in a crisis was in the latter part of the 1990’s when mortgage fraud and illegal flipping schemes were widespread and took advantage of the loose subprime underwriting guidelines of the time.

At that time, subprime lenders lost millions on blatant fraud and real estate schemes. Some loan officers and mortgage companies found it easy to perpetrate fraud on loan files so as to have the loans approved. Additionally, schemes using tactics such as straw buyers or fraudulent appraisals were devised either to defraud lenders or take advantage of home buyers, or both.

In response, “due diligence” became the hot buzz word. Subprime lenders were forced to tighten their underwriting guidelines and institute a number of quality assurance checks, both prior to loan approval and post settlement.

Although we may not feel compassion for the lenders and investors of subprime mortgages, the unfortunate casualty is the consumer. The last few years found an explosion of minority home ownership that is unprecedented. Unfortunately, as reported in a front page article in the Washington Post (March 26, 2007), many of those affected by the perfect storm of a declining real estate market and high risk lending are recent immigrants and minorities.

In a year or two the cycle of subprime lending will return to liberal underwriting guidelines. Make no mistake, subprime lending is needed and is beneficial. Hopefully we in the real estate industry have learned the lesson to practice our profession responsibly by ensuring that borrowers understand the risks and realties of subprime mortgages. If we don’t, we are doomed to repeat history.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of March 26, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.