What to Beware in Third Party Services


RESPA (Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act) prohibits an agent from requiring you to have other services performed by outside companies. RESPA also prohibits an agent from accepting payment (kickbacks) from third party service providers. Nonetheless, these are major problems in the real estate world.

It is an unfortunate fact that many agents care far more about the little bit of extra they get from third party service providers than they do about their fiduciary responsibility to the client who helps put potentially many thousands of dollars in your pocket.

For instance, never take a real estate agent's unsupported word about a loan officer. It happens on a routine basis that I talk to people in other parts of California where I'm not set up to be their real estate agent (kind of hard for me to show someone a property in Redding when I'm in San Diego), but thanks to the modern age, I am perfectly capable and set up to be their loan officer. Approximately one real estate agent in three completely refuses to cooperate with me as a loan officer, despite the fact that I'm getting their client a better loan than the loan officer this person wants them to use. I can have written authority for the information, and they won't give it to me. Okay, so I go through the escrow company - no big deal in most cases.

I can understand and sympathize with this attitude, if what they were worried about was my ability to do the loan at all. After all, if the loan isn't ready at the end of the escrow period, this transaction they've spent so much effort on falls apart.

So I tell them what I'm going to tell you in another essay: Have your friend do the back up loan, if you're so certain I'm full of it. If they were worried about a client's best interest, they'd sign off on that in a heartbeat. I know that's my attitude in those rare cases where I'm the agent but not the (primary) loan officer. This guy delivers, my client is very happy and has gotten a better loan and I have served my client's interests. This guy doesn't deliver, my loan is ready to go, the client doesn't lose his deposit, and I've still served my clients interest.

There is only one motivation that I can think of for what happens consistently: the agent keeps carping at my client to cancel the loan with me. Let's consider what this means.

No matter how unlikely the agent thinks it is that I'll deliver exactly that loan, with cancellation, the probability I can deliver it goes to zero. So I can now guarantee that this client to whom he has a fiduciary responsibility doesn't get the lower rate loan I was working on. Greatest possible benefit to client: zero. Downside: higher payments, higher costs, worse loan, zero leverage on other loan officer to deliver the loan he said he would.

Furthermore, no matter how good a loan officer, there's always a chance something goes astray, and for whatever reason the loan doesn't get approved. He's now exposing his client to the possibility that his friend, the loan officer, won't have a loan ready to go. If this happens, client loses house, deposit and other time and money invested. Possible benefit to client: $100 retyping fee for the appraisal saved. Possible downsides to client: no house, lose deposit, fees for appraiser, inspectors, etcetera wasted. Furthermore, the agent loses his prospective commission - several thousand dollars.

So what could cause an agent to want his client to cancel my loan? The only thing I can think of that explains the whole shenanigan is that this agent is in line for a payoff. Can I prove it? Absolutely not. Have I tried to think of alternative explanations that make sense? Many times. Maybe I'm missing something here (if so, email it to me), but I sure can't see a benefit to the client or the agent.

Here's another thing. Title and escrow companies. There are a variety of services escrow companies are supposed to provide the transaction - but title companies are actually the ones set up to provide many of these services. So the title company charges a sub escrow fee, messenger fees, etcetera for performing those services. But, they will waive those fees (not charge them) IF the escrow company in the transaction happens to be one they own.

Hey, I think, a pretty nifty way I can save my clients several hundred dollars! Makes me more valuable to them! And since kickbacks from title and escrow are illegal as well as unethical (according to RESPA and the Code of Conduct as well as good business practice, respectively) I certainly can't see a benefit to me for urging them to choose otherwise.

(And I am truly sorry to anyone reading this who works at an independent escrow company. As far as I can determine, you're just as competent as the title company escrows, and no more intrinsically expensive. But it's really hard for your company to compete when choosing your competition saves my client money that's usually about equal to the base escrow cost. Plus the fact is that it's a violation of my fiduciary duty if I don't tell them this)

You wouldn't believe the resistance I get from agents who obviously want their client to choose one particular escrow company, and one particular title company that aren't affiliated. True, it is the sellers who have the right to choose title and escrow companies. But that's the seller's right, not the seller's agents. And a failure to inform them of obvious ways to save money by choosing an escrow company that will save your clients this money is a violation of fiduciary duty.

I just finished fighting one not too long ago where the seller supposedly wanted to choose an escrow company whose name just happened to be the same as the name of the real estate office that the seller's agent worked for (I.e. X Real Estate and X Escrow company). Now it may be possible that they are unaffiliated with that real estate office, and it may be possible that they are set up to handle all of the duties that cause the title company to charge those extra fees. So my client's counter-offer included the following phrase

"Since the seller has chosen title and escrow companies unaffiliated with each other, seller is to be solely responsible for all sub escrow, messenger, and additional fees assessed by the title company above the cost of the title policy."

It even gives them an out - if the escrow company is set up to handle these services that are supposedly their responsibility, and does so that the title company doesn't charge for them, it makes no difference to either client.

This guy didn't want to present the counter to his client. He specifically asked me to drop that wording. I knew exactly what this meant, particularly in the case of the escrow company that just happened to share the name of his real estate brokerage. No evidence admissible in court, of course. But I had to threaten to have my boss call his broker with the clear intimation that my next call would be to Department of Real Estate in order just to get him to present the offer to his client. Do you think it's possible he failed to inform his client about this trivial way to save money? How likely do you think it that there was some kind of payment going on off the books? All of this is illegal.

There are two companies that provide the vast majority of all home warranties, at least in this area. I can't even name another home warranty company off the top of my head. Each of them is affiliated with a particular title company. The policies are the same, as far as I can tell. Somebody wants to know the differences, I tell them to consult an insurance expert (The expert I consulted concurred with my opinion). But one of these insurance carriers is more expensive. If I'm representing the buyer, I don't care - his coverage is going to be pretty much the same. If I'm representing the seller, I'll tell them to please consult a licensed casualty insurance agent, but B is less expensive as far as I can tell. Why then, do I keep seeing sellers who are volunteering A? I can't believe a fully informed client is volunteering to spend more money for the buyer's benefit in order to buy coverage that looks to be the same.

The long and the short of this post is that just because it's illegal under the law doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Just because that agent has a fiduciary responsibility to you under the law doesn't mean they take it seriously.

What can you do?

Well, choose an escrow company that's affiliated with your title company, or an escrow company that's affiliated with a title company, and choose that title company too. On refinances as well, do not allow your loan provider to choose title and escrow who are unaffiliated with one another (to be honest, I haven't helped buy or sell property outside of California, so have no idea how this works in an attorney state). Look for something like "X Land Title" and "X Escrow." This will save you hundreds of dollars.

Ask not just your real estate agent, but also your insurance agent about home warranty policies. Or look in the Yellow pages under Home Warranty Coverage and call around if you're selling a property. Do this BEFORE you have an offer.

And above all, don't just go with your agent's recommendation on a service provider. It's unethical, illegal, and just plain bad business practice, but that doesn't stop a certain number from having their hand out behind your back. And it's just as likely to be the highly accredited agents with years in the industry who are doing this.

Caveat Emptor.


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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 15, 2007 10:00 AM.

The Best Idea About Applying for a Mortgage was the previous entry in this blog.

Understanding Loans: When There Is A Problem, It's Good If They Tell You Right Away is the next entry in this blog.

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