Impound Accounts Facts and FAQs


I've seen a fair number of questions on impound accounts in the last several months. An impound account, also known by the confusing term escrow account because the lender is holding it in escrow, is money that you give the lender in order to pay the property taxes and homeowner's insurance on the property.

The first thing to note and emphasize is that money going into an impound account is not a cost of doing the loan. It is your money. You own it. It will be used solely to pay your property taxes and insurance. At the conclusion of the loan, whether you paid it off with cash or refinanced or or sold the property, you get this money back. The lender is required to send you the check within sixty days of loan payoff.

An impound account is meant to address any lender's two largest worries in regards to a loan: Uninsured destruction of the property or losing the property to an unpaid property tax lien.

The problem with an uninsured destruction should be obvious. The structure is destroyed or heavily damaged and no money exists to rebuild. The borrower doesn't have it and the bank isn't going to throw good money after bad. Here in California, the average property is worth maybe $500,000 or so, but without the home sitting on it, the property may only be worth fifty to a hundred thousand. Within ten miles of my office sit hundreds, probably thousands, of new homes that sold for $700,00 and up even though they sit on a lot that's less than 5000 square feet (0.115 Acres). Many condominiums are over $400,000. Given the location, a 5000 square foot lot may be $200,000, but it's not $500,000, and the lender will take a loss even on the $200,000 because they're not in the business of real estate. They loan $500,000, it burns down without insurance, they lose $350,000. People also lose their jobs over this.

Property tax liens are a major issue as well. They automatically take priority over everything else, and the rules about what the condemning governmental entity has to do are much looser than they are for the bank. They will usually do quite a bit over the minimum, but they will sell the property most of the time, no matter how minimal the best bid. Minimum auction amounts, etcetera go out the window. Many times this situation can require the lender to step in and pay the property taxes, intending to turn around and sell the property themselves merely to take a smaller loss.

A lender wants you to pay property taxes and homeowner's insurance, and they want to know you've paid them. They encourage this via the method of impound accounts. The theory is simple. Every month you pay the lender, in addition to your actual loan payment, an amount equal to your pro-rated property taxes and homeowner's insurance, and they will pay these when they are due.

No lender is perfect about these, and some are less so than others. A large percentage of the biggest and worst messes I have ever dealt with came about as the result of the lender somehow messing up the inpound account. Others have arisen because even though the lender acted within the law, the client got angry about something. Sometimes it's for a good reason, sometimes it's not.

Because lenders want you to have them, however, they are ubiquitous, and every lender I know of charges extra on your loan if you do not want to do an impound account. Usually this amount is about one quarter of a discount point. On a $500,000 loan, this amounts to a charge of over $1250 just to not have any impounds.

On the other hand, in places where property values are high, you can have to come up with $5000 or more at loan time just to adequately fund an impound account. Here's a computation of how much you need to fund it works. The lender will divide the annual property taxes and homeowner's insurance by twelve. This will be the monthly payment. The lender is legally able to hold up to two months over the amount required to make the payments, and they want this reseve. So they will look at the projected payments for the next year and figure out how many months they need up front to always have two months worth in reserve. I'm writing this on February 3, and California taxes were due on the first even though they are not past due until April 10th. But the lender uses February first to calculate even though they won't actually make the payment until early April (they earn interest on the money, whether or not they pay any. Some states require that interest be paid, but it is typically something small and worthless like two percent).

February first is usually when the lenders here in California figure will be the low point of the account for the whole year. But if you closed on a loan today, February 3rd, you wouldn't make your first payment on that loan until April first, and of course, they cannot count on you making your February payment right on the first. So they are going to figure that you will make payments on the first of every month April through January, ten months, before they have to pay your property taxes. Since they have to pay twelve months, and they get to keep two in reserve, that's fourteen months of payments they want to have on February first. Fourteen minus ten is four months that you will have to come up with in advance, or have rolled into the cost of your loan. On a $500k property, that's about $2000 for property taxes even in a basic tax zone, and if your insurance is $1200 per year, you'll have to come up with another $400 for that. $2400 into the impound account.

It gets better. Because the property taxes are due within two months of your purchase, you're going to have to come up with your pro-rated share right up front as well as paying for an entire year of insurance. Since California requires six months property taxes at a time, that adds almost another five months taxes and twelve months insurance up front. Total cost of this in the example given: $3700. Actually, this is due whether you have an impound account or not. Total you need just for property taxes and homeowner's insurance: $5900.

It can be worse. Suppose you were closing on a refinance in October. You originally bought in February. You are only going to make two payments (December and January)before the insurance is due, so your impound total for the insurance alone $1000 for insurance. You are going to have to come up with $3000 to pay the first half of your property taxes, plus because you only have two payments before the second half is due, another $3000, or six months payments for that. Total due, $7000.

There are really only two methods for coming up with the money for an impound account: Bring in the cash from somewhere else, or have the lender loan it to you, adding it to your loan balance. Except in rare circumstances where you are refinancing the same property with the same lender (and usually not even then), existing impound accounts cannot be used to "seed" the new account. This is because it's your money, held in trust. The rules for these accounts are rigid, and I'm not certain I understand well the rules about whether a bank even has the option of rolling one impound account into another.

This typically means that you have to come up with a good chunk of change out of your pocket for a short period, or add the additional amount into your loan, where you'll be paying for it as long as you have a loan on the property. Every situation is different, but most often I prefer to either come up with the money myself or not have an impound account. The extra charges may be sunk as opposed to refundable, but I'm not paying interest for thirty years on thousands of dollars.

Furthermore, if you are adding the money to create the new impound account to your loan balance, since it's going in before the computation of points, it can add another $50 to $100 to your costs of the loan per point you're paying. Minor in and of itself, but adding insult to injury if the loan has points involved. More to the point is that adding impound creation it to your loan balance means there may be a couple years before your balance gets as low as it was before the refinance, just from this. Indeed, the fact that it raises your loan balance is the worst thing about the impound account issue. On the other hand, unless you have a "first dollar" prepayment penalty, what you can do is turn around and put the check for the previous impound account when it arrives into paying down the new loan. It typically won't bring you even, and it won't reduce your contractual payments on the new loan (although that is usually a good thing), but it will ameliorate the damage to your loan balance.

Initial loan closing is not your only opportunity to start an impound account if you want one. If you don't have one to start with, the lenders will be very happy to let you start one later. I've literally never heard of a lender saying anything but "YES!" (usually with a pump of the fist) to a request for an impound account. Why? Because now they know that your taxes and insurance will be paid, and get to use your money, and after you paid a fee for no impounds. Oh, happy banker!

If you want to cancel an impound account, expecially within a year of whenever the loan was funded, you can expect to pay the "no impounds" fee, possibly prorated, but usually just the whole thing. Roll thousands of dollars into your loan balance where you'll be paying interest on it and then pay a lender's charge for no impounds? Ouch!

Can you force the bank not to do any of this? Not really. They don't have to lend you money. Yes, they are in the business of lending money, but if they don't loan it to you, they'll find other uses for it. Somebody else is always willing to accept the bank's terms. You try to violate guidelines that lenders have established in order to lend you the money, and you'll be told, "Sorry but you don't qualify." The golden rule of loans is that those with the money make the rules.

Furthermore, those lenders who didn't require this would be at a competitive disadvantage as regards rates, because their loan portfolio would be a significantly riskier one, and they would have to increase their rates to compensate for this. You could qualify for a better rate or lower closing costs somewhere else. Better to not argue. Assuming that I already have an impound account, all the extra I lose is a maximum of sixty days interest. Two months interest on $5000, even at ten percent, is $83. That's a lot cheaper than either of any of the alternatives.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on July 7, 2007 10:00 AM.

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