Predatory Upfront Loan Modification Fees

I’m troubled by a trend that I’m seeing.  Recently I’ve noticed that mortgage brokers/loan originators have become interested in learning about loss mitigation techniques. When I ask why, they say that they’re hearing there’s good money to be made doing loan modifications.  What? Wait a second. I thought loan modifications were done by the lender for free.

More and more spam is popping up in my spam bin advertising loan modification services, offered by loan originators so I decided to call one of these LOs today after sending an email late last night asking for more information and receiving no reply. 

This particular person goes by the title of “mortgage planner.”  On her website, she advertises a wide variety of mortgage products including the pay option ARM and the hybrid ARM (are those even available anymore?) but there’s nothing on her website about loan modifications. None of the staff bios show any experience in doing loan modifications. Here’s what I found out.  The upfront fee charged to the homeowner is $3500.  But the LO assures me that all the work is handled by attorneys, she says.  The borrower’s up front fee is placed into escrow.  If a request for loan modification is accepted by the lender for loss mitigation (statistics were offered that 93% of loans are being modified) the full fee is due.  If the loan does not get modified, $2,000 is refunded and the remaining $1500 is not.  I asked the LO why a homeowner wouldn’t just work directly with an attorney.  She said that she works with a network of attorneys with a high loan mod approval rate and homeowners are always free to hire their own attorney and not work with her.

I asked her how much of the $3500 goes to the attorney and how much of it she gets to keep.  Her response was, “why are you asking me that?” To which I replied, “because if the attorney is doing all the work, then I’m wondering how much of that fee is going to you.”  She said “Well I work with the clients. I put a package together and follow up with the lender.” I said, “but a few minutes ago you mentioned that everything is handled by attorneys.”  Of course at this point the conversation has turned a tad bit adversarial and she starts to probe deeper into my true intentions. My intentions are only to get closer to what’s really going on here. I need to know if this sort of gig is something that is a viable alternative for Realtors to know about when counseling homeowners in financial distress.  My intentions are to be able to help other loan originators evaluate whether receiving a referral fee on a loan modification is going to get them into trouble.  If I were to guess, I’d say that the LO earned $2,000 for a successful loan mod and the remaining $1500 went to the attorney. There are forums out there confirming my guess.

In some states, including Washington State, Mortgage Brokers and their LOs now owe fiduciary duties to consumers.  Fiduciary comes from the Latin word fiducia, meaning “trust.

Why do banks take so long to approve a short sale?

This question comes up over and over again from Realtors, homeowners and homebuyers everywhere I go. A one sentence answer doesn’t exist for this question. If you truly want to know the answer to the question, “why” continue reading.  This means you will have to take a step back from your particular emotional situation enough to really listen to what’s being said because everyone wants their deal approved NOW. 

Banks are under no obligation to approve your short sale.  I know what you’re thinking, reader. You’re thinking, “Well if the G.D. bank would just approve my short sale faster, they wouldn’t be losing so much money!”

Let’s start at the beginning. A homeowner is said to be in a short sale situation when he or she owes more than what the home is currently worth, is in default and must sell.  Traditionally, homeowners agreed to pay back the difference between what was owed and the sales price. The short sale seller signed a new, unsecured note at closing and promised to pay back the difference in regular monthly installments.  The only cases where the debt was “forgiven” was for true financial hardship cases where there was absolutely no way the homeowner could ever repay the difference. An example would be the untimely death of one of the breadwinners. But that was then.

In today’s politically charged, loan modifications for all, HoHo, let’s-dump-everything-into-FHA environment, homeowners in a short sale situation today are receiving debt forgivness and even temporary tax exemptions on top of that.  Don’t worry, the rest of us tax payers will pick that up for you.

The first step in figuring out why your short sale is taking so long to be approved is to inquire about whether the homeowner is asking the bank to forgive the difference or if the homeowner is gainfully employed and able to pay back the difference.  This all must be proven and documented to the lender’s satisfaction.  If the homeowner is asking for debt forgiveness, the short sale will take longer to approve if the bank does not have all the required documentation.

Thought question: Why would any lender approve a short sale, especially one that requires debt forgiveness, unless there is proof that foreclosure is imminent? Answer: They won’t.  Lenders have to weigh the costs associated with the short sale proposal against the cost of foreclosure.  If a homeowner has not yet defaulted on their loan, the bank has little motivation to approve the short sale. Why not wait for a better offer to come along?  (Note, homeowners reading this article should always consult with an attorney if you are selling short, in default, or will be in default on your mortgage loan(s).)

All loan servicing departments have processes in place for dealing with short sale approvals.  They may not have fancy computer systems so that everything is automated but maybe that’s a good thing. Look where automated underwriting got us.

Next step: Homeowners must prove that they do not have the money to make up the shortfall. This means sending in copies of all bank statements, tax returns, w-2s, and other supporting documents to verify that the homeowners is financially insolvent. Short sales are reserved for people with NO MONEY. 

Gentle reminder: The new sale must be an arms-length transaction.   Another common problem that lenders must watch for is when the real estate agent on the transaction happens to be the “assigned” buyer on the purchase and sales agreement.  The lender is not going to be thrilled in paying a real estate commission on that kind of transaction. Further, there are plenty of foreclosure rescue scams happening nationwide. Lenders scrutinize short sale offers to look for signs of fraud.  Tanta reminds us:

Is it the job of the Loss Mitigation Department to care about clearing your local RE market? No. Is it their job to care about keeping your buyer wiggling on the hook long enough to get papers signed? No. Is a short sale supposed to be a painless alternative to foreclosure for anyone involved? No. There are no painless alternatives. There shouldn’t be. There cannot be.

Next, everyone who is patiently waiting for the bank to approve the short sale must now realize that once the bank says “okay” to the short sale, there very may be a long list of investors who own pieces of this mortgage loan. Each and every investor will have to give their approval for the short sale.  We enjoyed many years of growth in the real estate industry and the overall economy thanks to the invention of Residential Mortgage Backed Securities.  RMBS made millions of dollars for many people.  The downside to securitizing mortgage loans and then selling off slices of each mortgage to different investors is that when it comes time to tell the investor “you’re going to have to take a haircut” that investor gets to have a say in the matter.

Calling loan servicing and yelling at them over the phone will get you nowhere.

I would like to be first to predict that the next meltdown will be loan servicing.  But perhaps my prediction is so obvious as to not be much of a prediction at all.  How much longer can they sustain this level of stress and pressure, with their current staffing levels, while the banks are facing enormous losses?  Of course when that meltdown happens, I predict our government will step in and mandate harsher regulations on servicers, which will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher interest rates.

Loan servicing use to offer what it said: “service.”  It was treated as a cost center on a bank’s balance sheet.  Over the past 15 years, servicing became a “profit center” and the highest expense, namely labor, was cut to achieve profit goals.  This is one more lesson in underpricing. The cost of “good” loan servicing in which phones are answered and files processed smoothly, would have cost us all way, way, way more on the retail end, than what we paid. 

Let’s say we could create instant loss mitigation nirvana today.  All phones are answered on the first ring, all short sales are approved with no questions asked, no documentation required, no proof of hardship necessary, no proof of financial insolvency needed, and all Realtors receive their full 6% commission. 

The consequences of not performing due diligence at the loss mit stage are disaster for all of us. Compare this to the current nirvana we just left behind: A world where anyone could get a mortgage loan with no verification of ability to repay, with massive fraud still being uncovered.  We need to do it right this time, and it takes TIME to do proper short sale loss mitigation.