Beginner's Information: January 2008 Archives

Somebody asked, "What are my legal options when there's a change on a good faith estimate."

Short answer: Sign the documents or don't. Same thing with a Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement here in California. Neither one means anything binding; that's why they call the one an estimate. Nonetheless, because there is a perception that they mean something, that people think the lenders are trying to disclose everything fully. The fact is that some are while others aren't, and there is no correlation with size of the lender, how well known they are, or even what the loan officer at the next desk over is doing.

The fact is that if the loan officer cannot persuade you to sign up, there is a guarantee that neither they nor their company will make anything. This creates an incentive to tell you whatever it takes to get you to sign up. Once signed up, most folks consider themselves committed or bound to that lender, and stop looking around.

But the only documents that mean anything, legally, all come at the end of the loan process. Note, Trust Deed, HUD-1. So you can see the motivation exists to pull a bait and switch, or more often just not to tell the whole truth. Nor will they point out the differences at closing from what you signed up for. That would get you upset to no good purpose, from their point of view. The fact is that a majority doesn't take the time to spot the difference, and of those who do, some just don't understand how to spot the difference. Of those who do take the time, and do spot the difference, most will cave in and sign just to be done with the process, and of course there are those who are trying to purchase who won't get it and will lose the deposit if they don't sign.

The fact is that these forms are estimates. They may or may not be accurate estimates. In some cases, the loan provider tells you about every single dollar you're going to need up front, in others they might as well be telling you the loan is going to be done for free at a rate two percent below any real loan out there. If they can't get you to sign up, they don't make anything, so the incentives are for them to over-promise and under-deliver. In other words, tell you about something better than what you'll end up with. Now the loan officers know what it's going to take to get the loan done - or they should know, anyway. But they often tell you a fairy tale that might as well begin "Once upon a time..." to make it seem like their loan is better than the competition, because if they can't get you to sign up, they don't make anything.

Now, the fact is that the vast majority of people out there go out shopping for loans in the wrong fashion. They find someone they think they can trust, because they are family, because they are the scoutmaster, or because they go to church with them. Exactly what type of loan will they deliver, and at what rate? With what costs? It is always a trade-off between rate and cost on any given loan type.

Even less likely to get a good rate at a decent cost are the people who do shop around, but won't give loan officers a chance to figure out what's really the best loan for them. The first group of people might stumble onto someone trustworthy who gives them a good loan at a reasonable rate for a reasonable cost; these people are going to fall for the biggest lie, because a loan officer can always tell you about a better loan than really exists and they are motivated to get you to sign up. They call around asking about the lowest rate or the lowest payment, and don't want to hear anything else out of the loan officer.

The fact is that it's going to take a good, in depth conversation about your situation for a loan officer to figure out the best loan for you, and you want to have that conversation with at least three or four loan officers. Why? Because the first one could have told you exactly what they thought you wanted to hear. Ditto the second. Keep going until you hear a couple of different suggestions. Furthermore, once they've given you their suggestions, ask about the other suggestions you heard in the past. Don't shop by lowest payment; that's a good way to get stuck with an abomination like the so-called Option ARM or another loan type that you don't want. Don't shop by interest rate alone, because you'll get stuck with a loan that has six points and you'll never save enough money on the payments to recover those sunk costs. Shop by the trade-off between rate and cost, because there always is one.

Now at the end of the process, the lender has all the power. You need or want this loan, and they're the ones with it ready to go. In the case of a purchase, you've got a deposit you're going to lose and a home you wanted that you won't get if you don't sign the loan documents. If you sign the documents, you are stuck with the loan, that probably isn't on the terms you were originally told about. I pointedly did not say "promised" because the earlier forms are not promises unless somehow guaranteed, and very few loan providers guarantee their quotes. Chances are, if they won't guarantee their quotes, they are not telling the entire truth about the loan they are telling you about.

The most important question on this page of Questions You Should Ask Prospective Loan Providers is "If I say I want this right now, will you personally guarantee this rate with those closing costs, and will you cover the difference (if any) between the quote and the actual final cost?" You won't get a flat "Yes." If you do get a flat "yes", they're making a promise on something that is not under their control, and I wouldn't trust it as far as I can throw an aircraft carrier. What you're hoping for is something like "Subject to full underwriting approval, yes we will guarantee this quote as to rate, type of loan, and total cost." This is a simple sentence that makes a specific guarantee subject to a reasonable condition, as loan officers never know if a prospective borrower is intentionally hiding or shading something at loan sign up. If you get a response full of nonsense about how long they have been in business, how they honor their commitments, or any such equivalent claptrap, then they are trying to buffalo you. None of the stuff when you initially inquire about the loan is a loan commitment in any way, shape or form. I'd rather have a higher quote that was guaranteed than a lower one that wasn't, and I strongly suggest you adopt that attitude as well. For an illustration as to why: If the quote is guaranteed, there's no incentive to stick you with a rate an eighth of a percent higher so they can make a little more money - they're going to have to make it good. There's no incentive to pad the closing costs with junk, because they've got to turn right around and give it back to you. If I offered you a choice between two envelopes, one transparent where you can see the $100 bill (guaranteed), and the other one opaque where I told you there might be anywere up to $110 in it (not guaranteed), which envelope would you choose? The same thing applies to whether the loan is at 6.5 percent with no points and no more than $3400 of closing costs guaranteed, or 6.375% with no points and no more than $3000 of closing cost, but not guaranteed. From my experience, the first quote intends to deliver a better loan than the second quote.

So (if you can't find someone who guarantees their quotes) how do you force the loan provider to deliver the loan they told you about in the first place? You can't. But you can give them a better reason to do so, if you have more than one loan ready to go. This gives you a third option. Your options are not limited to signing the first set of loan documents they put in front of you. You can sign the others. More to the point, because there is another loan ready to go, you can use that fact to negotiate a better deal - one that more closely adheres to what you were told about in the first place. If provider A won't do it, provider B will. If one of the two providers won't move, then the other one is likely to get your business. If the other provider gets your business, the first provider makes nothing. If they will give you the better loan, that's what you want, right? Keep in mind that if either provider actually provides the loan they talked about in the first place, you are miles ahead of the game. But this puts the power to control the transaction where it belongs, with you.

Now the loan provider is going to make money, or they won't do your loan. Judge loans by the benefits and costs to you, not by how much they loan provider is making, or whether they even have to disclose it (brokers do, direct lenders do not). The important thing to you is that you were delivered a thirty year fixed rate loan at 6.5 percent without paying any points, as opposed to 6.625% with one point and higher costs, not that loan provider had to tell you they made $4000 by doing it while loan provider B doesn't have to tell you anything. Sounds obvious, but I have seen people who chose the higher rate at more cost for the same loan, even stuck themselves with a prepayment penalty where my loan had none, because they thought I was making too much. In point of fact, I would have made a fraction of what the other guy did make, and therefore, by the only universal measure, I performed work work considerably more valuable to my client. So don't shoot yourself in the foot like that.

Now expect to spend a little bit extra (about a $100 retyping fee, if you're the one who orders the appraisal and therefore controls it) on the second loan. That $100, together with the extra time you spend getting the other loan through, is the best, cheapest, most cost-effective insurance policy you can buy anywhere for any financial purpose. It will not indemnify you for your losses, but the odds are overwhelming that it will certainly keep you from losing several times as much, by giving the loan providers a concrete incentive to deliver the best loan they really can deliver. From my experience, and that of my clients who have brought me more horror stories than most folks believe, I would judge it unlikely that either loan quote will be as good as the loan the loan provider originally talked about, unless one company or the other guaranteed their quote, but with another loan ready to go, chances are you'll get something a lot closer to what they talked about in the first place. Even if you can find a loan provider who will guarantee their quote, a backup loan is a really good idea, because going to court to force them to deliver is costly and time consuming, and you need that loan now. The existence of the other loan is an excellent reason to actually produce that loan they talked about way back on day one, with the initial Good Faith Estimate or Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement.

Caveat Emptor

With Rates having dropped again, many people are looking at refinancing their properties.

With the state of financial education in this country, many people will shop for loans by payment, figuring the lowest payment is the best loan. As counter-evidence to that idea, let us consider the negative amortization loan. I've seen them with minimum payments computed based upon a nominal rate of zero point five percent on forty year amortization. This gives a minimum payment of $1150 for a $500,000 loan - but the actual rate on that loan is eight point two percent, meaning if you were just going to pay the interest, that would be $3417 per month. If you made that minimum payment, you'd owe over $2200 more next month - and you'd be paying interest on it as well. By comparison, principal and interest on a six percent thirty year fixed rate jumbo loan is only $2998 - and there's no prepayment penalty either.

Don't get distracted by payment. Look at the real cost of the money - what you're paying now in interest, versus what any new loan will cost, plus what you'll be paying in interest on it. You do have to be able to make the payment, but once that's covered, look at the real cost of any new loan, both in up-front costs and in interest paid per month. Those are the important numbers.

Let's suppose you were one of those folks who had to settle for a subprime loan a couple of years ago. You had something bad happen, but now you're past it. You've been diligent and careful with your credit these last couple years, so you're now able to qualify "A paper". On the other hand, your current loan has now adjusted to nine percent, and your prepayment penalty has expired, while there are now thirty year fixed rate loans in the mid five percent range. I'm writing this on a Sunday, but as of Friday I could have moved you or anyone else able to qualify A paper into a thirty year fixed rate loan at about 6% for literally zero cost, meaning there is no possible (financial) reason not to do such refinance.

The only real question in such a situation is this: "Is it worth the extra money it takes to get a better rate?", because there is always a tradeoff between rate and cost. For instance, to look at the differences for someone who currently has a $300,000 loan, on Friday two of the choices were six percent for zero cost or five point five for about half a point. Both are thirty year fixed rate loans.

The six percent loan has a balance of $300,000, same as your old balance, and payments of $1798.65. The five point five percent loan carries an initial balance of $304,325, and payments of $1727.90. Lest you not understand, that 5.5% loan cost you $4325 to get done, as opposed to literally zero for the six percent loan. This isn't a matter of "keep searching for the provider who gives you the lower rate for the same cost", as this tradeoff is built into the entire financial structure. Some providers may have higher or lower tradeoffs, but the concept of the tradeoff isn't changing for anything less than a complete and radical rebuild of the financial markets. Not. Gonna. Happen.

However, for spending that money all in a lump sum, you get a lowered cost of interest. You save $105.19 that first month in interest, and this number actually increases for the first few years of the loan. In month 21, you've theoretically broken even, even though your loan balance is still almost $3600 higher, you've gotten the extra money you've paid to get the lower rate back. However, because you still owe $3600 more, if you refinance at this point, you're still going to end up behind as that $3600 you still owe translates to $216 per year at 6%, assuming that's the interest rate on your next loan. Maybe you sold the property and bought something else, maybe you refinanced for cash out. In either case. you owe $3600 more than you would have, which means you're paying interest on it when you get your next loan. But something like thirty percent of all borrowers have sold or refinanced by this point, and when they do, those benefits you paid for stop. Nor do you get any of the money you paid in the first place back.

It isn't until you've kept the loan 124 months - over ten years into the loan - before you are unambiguously better off with the lower rate but more expensive loan. That's how long it takes until the balances are even on the two loans. Of course, by then you have saved about $13,000 in interest - if you actually keep the loan that long. Less than one borrower in 200 does.

Real break-even is likely to be somewhere in year four in this case. After three years, you've saved about $3800 in interest, and if your balance is still that almost much higher with the expensive loan than the cheap one, we're getting to the point where time value of money will keep things in favor of the more expensive upfront costs. Of course, last time I checked Statistical Abstract, decidedly less than half of all borrowers kept their new loans this long. Something to think about, because you don't get the money you spent to get the loan in the first place back. By the end of year four, assuming we keep the loan that long, we've saved $5000 in interest, while the balance is only $2600 higher for the 5.5% loan than for the 6% loan. Even without time value of money and with a ten percent assumed rate of return, that's additional twenty years before the costs of the higher balance catches up with the benefits you've already gotten through lower interest. Considering time value of money, it's really never going to catch up.

So when you're looking at refinancing, don't just consider rate and payment. Consider what it's going to cost you in order to get that new loan, and remember what the costs are of doing nothing (i.e. you've already paid for the costs of that loan). Many people refinance every two years, spending much more than $3400 every time they do, because they'll spend two or three points to get the lowest rate. This, as you can see now, is a recipe for disaster.

Caveat Emptor

Got a search for "mortgage closing documents do not sign changes."

Unfortunately for this person, the documents you get at closing are what legal folks call a contract of adhesion. This means you can either accept it, sign, and adhere to all the terms as presented, or you can walk away. Basically your choice is to take it or leave it, in exactly the form presented.

Now on those rare occasions someone actually has the intelligence and good sense to walk away from a situation where the terms have been changed, the prospective loan provider does have the option of offering you a better deal as incentive to do business with them. Like, say, the loan they originally talked about to get you to sign up with them. Mind you, they don't have to, and the costs of that other loan may mean that they would rather do no loan than that loan.

Now I'm not a lawyer, but the way contracts of adhesion were explained to me is that if there is any legal ambiguity, it will be interpreted in your favor. This doesn't mean you can claim you thought it meant something different than the average person would understand; this means that if there is a legally ambiguous wording that could legitimately be interpreted two different ways, and you and your lender disagree as to the meaning, the courts will generally rule in your favor. Once again, the law is different from place to place and the courts have the final say; check with your lawyer.

Now in the loan world, it is much more common than not to be offered a loan contract at final signing which differs in some material form from the loan terms that were described to you in the beginning. The loan provider will generally offer you a loan of the same type, and usually at the same rate, but most often the costs to get that rate will be significantly higher than were listed on the Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (Equivalent to the Good Faith Estimate for the other 49 states). Neither one of these forms is in any way, shape or form a legal commitment, nor are any of the other forms you get at the beginning of the loan process, such as the Truth In Lending Advisory.

The only thing that means anything is the loan contract, or Note, that you are offered at the end of the process, together with the HUD-1 form, which is the only accounting of the loan required to be correct and complete.

Now the difference between the initial teaser loan they talked about and loan contract they actually got approved is one of the reasons why the less than ethical providers out there often want a cash deposit for the loan, particularly if their rates are not particularly competitive and they know it. If they're nervous someone will come along behind them and offer you a better deal, they want a cash deposit so that they still get something if you pull out, and many folks obsess about the cash deposit to the point where I could offer them a deal that saves them several times the cash deposit, and they still wouldn't switch. This isn't to say not to pay the twenty dollars or whatever it costs them for the credit report, this is to say don't deposit the appraisal fee (several hundred dollars, which should be paid at point of service) or even part of a point "to be refunded if the loan funds" within a certain amount of time. Chances are the loan isn't that great, particularly not the real loan they are really going to offer, and that's why they want to lock you in by having something to hold over you if you don't sign on the dotted line at the end of the process.

Caveat Emptor

What is Loan Amortization?

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I keep getting hits for this, so people must want it explained. Loan Amortization is nothing more than the process of paying the loan off by regular payments over time. Leave it to the experts to come up with a fancy word for an everyday process, eh?

A loan which is fully amortized (or fully amortizing) is one which the required payments will pay it off in full by the end of the term of the loan. Fixed rate loans are the classic example of this. A thirty year fixed rate loan has 360 payments of equal amount, at the end of which the loan will be paid off, assuming you have made all the payments on time. The last payment may be somewhat smaller due to the fact that they may round the payment up to the next penny, and over thirty years it makes a difference.

However, most hybrid ARMs are also fully amortizing loans. The difference between these and the fixed rate loan is that the rate, and therefore the payment, is fixed only for the first few years, and after that the rate varies based upon an underlying index. Nonetheless, the loans are still calculated to pay off the entire balance by the end of the loan. You are welcome to keep them after the fixed period if you want to, but few people do.

Balloon loans are partially amortized. Their payments are calculated as if they were a longer loan than they are. Because they amortize based upon a longer loan period, the regular payments do not pay the loan off in its entirety by the end of the loan. Unlike the hybrid ARM, these loans are over in a shorter period of time, and you do not have the option of keeping them. You must either pay the loan off, whether by paying it or by refinancing, or sell the property.

I don't see it in a federally approved list of loan terms, but I have heard interest only loans called delayed amortization. These loans, whether fixed rate or hybrid ARM, have interest only payments for a given time, and then amortize over the remainder of the loan. For instance, a five year interest only loan is then paid off (amortized) over the remaining twenty five years of the loan. Note that when they start to amortize, they will then have payments that are higher than the equivalent fully amortized loan, because the balance is paid off over a shorter period. They will also typically carry a higher interest rate (most subprime lenders charge 1/4 percent higher interest rate for an interest only loan, and there are additional limitations on availability).

If there were such a thing as an interest only loan that stays interest only until you refinance, it would be an unamortized loan. Years ago, I was invited by a company to take a seminar because they offered these to financial planners clients. Fortunately, when I checked NASD regulations, I found out that what they were trying to sell was prohibited. The interest rates they were talking about were very high as well. The reason I said "fortunately" about finding out NASD regulations prohibited what they were doing is that I later found out that they were a scam and shut down by the regulators. I might have found out had I done all my due diligence, or it's possible I might not have. Either way, I'm glad I didn't have any clients with them.

Finally, there is the negative amortization loan, where if you make the minimum payment your loan balance actually increases, effectively digging yourself deeper into whatever hole it was that motivated you to do it. There are circumstances where they are the best thing to do given the situation, but in my opinion, (at least for owner occupied property) it should be a temporary solution of last resort.

Caveat Emptor

It's the same reason the phone company doesn't want to compete, General Motors doesn't want to compete, Wal-Mart doesn't want to compete, Disney doesn't want to compete, and Microsoft will do everything in its power to appear as if it doesn't have to compete. They make less money when they have to compete, and they have to provide a better quality of product.

But people know that all of the above have competitive alternatives. If you don't like one brand of automobile, there are dozens of competing alternatives. Ditto retail outlets. "Kid safe entertainment" is a bit more of a niche market, but there are competitors if you'll look. Finally, we should all be aware that computer OS's are one of the biggest Drazi Wars there are. But there is competition.

But many agents and loan officers make their living by pretending there is no competition, or by actively manipulating consumer choices to preclude the possibility of competition. This takes many forms, from requiring large deposits for loan officers through exclusive agreements with agents. There's nothing fundamentally evil about this - everyone needs to make a living. But there's nothing that says any particular consumer - by which I mean you - has to put up with it. Furthermore, the agent or loan officer who is confident enough to work without these devices is likely to be a better, stronger practitioner. Ask yourself who you'd more easily believe has more on the ball: Someone who tries to keep you from considering the competition, or someone who's happy to compete? If you were interviewing two applicants who want to work for you, who'd be more likely to get the job: The person who walks out as soon as they find out you're considering someone else as well, or the person who gets their act together and out-competes the other applicant? If you were interviewing with two companies who wanted to hire you, which offer would you be inclined towards: The one where you have to hide the other interview, or the one who's willing to compete head-on for your services?

Nobody's going facilitate competition for the job they want. Nonetheless, it is to your advantage to force them to compete. If you don't understand why, consider that for all the griping about various phone companies, the situation is far superior to what it was when there was only one. Here's a particularly poignant reminder of that era.

Here's the facts of the situation: If you're only going to talk to one provider, they can quote you anything they want. There is no check upon the situation. If I were the only loan provider in California, I could charge anything I wanted. I'd auction my services to the highest bidder, work a couple hours, one day a week, make as much money as I wanted and go on to spend the rest of the time having fun with my family. If anybody didn't like the level of service, that would be their problem. But that's not the case. In fact, the further it is from being the case, the harder I have to work, the less money I make per transaction, and the better the service I need to provide. It's also the case on the voluntary level, which is to say if you voluntarily restrict yourself to one potential provider, as well as the involuntary. It doesn't matter how many loan providers and real estate agents there are, what matters is how many you talk to.

People in the real estate business get told all the time that the way to success is to avoid competing, especially to avoid competing based upon price. If ever a week has gone by without some clown wanting to charge me a thousand dollars to learn how to avoid competing on price, or avoid competing, period, I certainly can't remember it. They work, by and large, on two levels - pretending you're the prospect's friend while engendering fear of the competition. "You know I'm your friend, George. You know there are sharks and cutthroats out there who will take your money and leave you high and dry, but you know I won't do that, George." And there are sharks and cutthroats out there. The guy talking to his friend George here is one of them. This is the way he talks George out of checking up on him, comparing his services and prices to either objective standards or to any other provider's. Nor are women any superior - in fact, I've had a report of one of the worst sharks I'm aware of preaching a "female solidarity" line of attack to cut out her competition. Other sharks attack via ethnic or religious solidarity, or even political similarities. What these have in common is that none of them have anything to do with competence at real estate, and they may not have anything to do with conscience. I've seen people preaching the gospel about taking care of your fellow man while extorting thousands of dollars from their client's pockets. Newsflash: The sale of Indulgences went out with the Reformation, and for good reason, too. I'm certain it happens with other religions, as well, it's just that there's fewer members of those religions around.

One of the ways I constantly see this abused is even people who should know better advising their readers to "ask someone you trust for a referral." Well, referrals are great - if the person making the referral knows what they're talking about. If they don't, it's just another goat lined up for sacrifice, willingly led in by the previous victim, If not worse. Here's an article from just a couple days ago (HT:, who always has a relevant example of bad behavior handy). No matter how trusted the source, it still needs to be fully vetted - you need to do your own due diligence, and part of that is comparing them to some other potential service providers.

There just isn't any valid advantage from the consumer's point of view to forking over a large deposit or the originals of any documents to a loan provider. They don't need originals, and the only thing that large deposit does is give them some money to hang onto if you find a better loan. All of the better loan providers I'm aware of work on the basis of "fees at point of service," not requiring a deposit in advance. In fact, a cash deposit can induce people to accept loans that are many times the amount of the cash deposit worse than other, available loans. People understand that check they wrote out of their account is real money, where most of them are a little bit hazy about loan costs paid by rolling them into the loan balance. I saw someone pass by a loan I had that was four thousand dollars cheaper up-front and would have saved them $1000 per year they kept it because another lender already had a $1500 deposit from them. Here are a few more pointers on shopping for a real estate loan.

Admittedly, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that it is in the consumer's interest to list their property for sale via an Exclusive Right to Sell. However, this doesn't mean you're not going to shop extensively. This only means that you're going to make that commitment to one agent once you have done that research. Failing to do so risks locking your property up with an incompetent agent. When you ask "what's so bad about that?" ask yourself if you'd be happy taking ten to twenty percent less for the property (or worse!), after you keep paying the mortgage six more months? Around my area, with the median sale being $423,000 last month, and assuming a loan at six percent on eighty percent of value, not only does signing up with someone who can't get the job done cost you $42,000 on the sale, it'll cost you about $2200 cash for every month that property doesn't sell! Realize it or not, you're risking a lot of money on an agent, and just because you're not writing a check to them directly at sign up in no way changes this. However, I don't advise going with the agent who asks for a short term listing, either. That's an appeal to cowardice - decide by theoretically not deciding, and make no mistake, you are deciding when you sign a listing agreement for any period of time. This isn't to say you can't bargain the time for commitment down if you're willing to take a chance on a less experienced agent - it's just saying don't decide by pretending not to make a decision. That way lies disaster. Here are a few more tips about Shopping for a listing agent.

For buyer's agents, there really isn't a reason for an Exclusive Agency Agreement, except to allow an agent to wrap up your business for whatever period of time. There isn't hardly an excuse. The only place I can see it being an effective alternative for the consumer is if they're working the foreclosure market, and that agent is spending the money for all of the "quick notification" services so that the client doesn't need to. But the vast majority of the time, agents are locking in people who simply don't know any better with an exclusive agency agreement. I've seen listing agents who wouldn't show a property without an exclusive buyer's agency agreement - a clear violation of fiduciary duty to the seller, not to mention a huge Conflict of Interest if they actually want to put an offer in on that property. Non-Exclusive Agency Agreements protect the buyer's agent just fine, but they also give you the right to fire non-performers by just not wasting any more of your time. You can also use them to separate the wheat from the chaff among buyer's agents. Sign any number of Non-Exclusive agreements you want. The good agent will still do their work; while the lesser agents will select themselves out. While we're at it, here's a few more tricks to finding a good buyer's agent.

Agents and Loan Officers don't like this. It means they might not get the business when they're exposed for the buffoons that some of them are, and it means they might not make as much money for the time they put in. Nor is exercising your choices as an informed consumer simple - far from it. You also need to consider what agent services are worth how much to you. But considering the average price of real estate around here, and the cost of the loans that most people need in order to buy, doing proper diligence beforehand will save most people more money than they make in a month - perhaps more than they make in a year, possibly more. When you consider the differences in that light, the hourly pay for doing your due diligence about agents and loan officers and forcing them to compete is absurdly high.

Caveat Emptor

Dissecting the "Lending Game"

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(This was written some time ago, when rates were higher, but the principles involved are the same)

Right now X is offering me a loan that looks something like this:

80/20 No down payment
On the /80: 6.5% FIXED interest for 30 years, interest-only payment option for 15 years
On the /20: 8.75% FIXED interest for 25 years (amortized to 30) 6-month lock for 1-point ($3800) refundable fee with float-down option

My response:

Devil is in the details.

Is there a pre-payment penalty?

They want 1 point to lock for 6 months? Cash, I presume? Quite frankly, the usual cost for locking in six months out is about three points. Nor is X usually that cheap on the lock (they have some excellent rates, but what they're quoting you is a market current quote for a 30 day lock. Long term rates are expected to rise, and long lock periods aren't free. There's something they are not telling you.)

What are the discount/origination on the underlying loan? How much are they going to charge in closing costs to get it done?

Will they guarantee their quoted costs (as in they eat the difference if there is one, not you)? You might want to ask them all of the questions here

A developer's condo sell out is not the most difficult loan, but it's a long way from the easiest, as well. There are a lot of lenders that will not do them. Furthermore, what's being presented to you looks much cheaper than is likely to be true. If you insist on going with it, call me thirty days before the place will be done, and I'll do a back up loan, because I don't think what they're offering you is real.

he did get back to me as to what lender X's response was:

Is there any pre-payment penalty on this loan? NO.....

What is the total refundable cost for the 6-month lock? YOU PAY 1% UP FRONT AND IT IS REFUNDABLE IF YOU CLOSE WITHIN 6 MONTHS (emphasis mine)

How much will the closing costs be to get this loan done? I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOUR ESCROW AND TITLE COSTS WILL BE. YOUR LENDERS COSTS WILL BE APPROXIMATELY $1,200. (emphasis mine)

Is the rate being quoted based upon full documentation, stated income, NINA or EZ Doc? 100% FINANCING IS FULL DOC....

Do I have to pay any discount points, points of origination, or any other points to get the quoted rates? NO POINTS NOR ORIGINATION FEE (ONLY THE 1% LOCK IN FEE OF WHICH WE SPOKE) (I prefer no points)

Regarding third party costs, can you tell me, or will the papers you send me make clear, the following third party costs:

- Total title charges: ??????????

- Escrow fee: ???????????

The builder has already assigned an escrow and title company for the property — may I use this company with the Wells Fargo loan? YES!

How much, total, will I be expected to pay X upfront, out of my pocket, to get this loan? THE $400 FOR THE APPRAISAL AND THE 1% TO LOCK IN....

How much, total, if any, will be added to my mortgage balance on top of what is quoted? ????????????????? NOTHING IS ADDED TO YOUR MORTGAGE.

If I agree to this loan after reviewing the papers, are the rate and closing costs guaranteed, and will X cover the difference (if any) between the quote and the actual final cost? WE'VE BEEN IN BUSINESS SINCE X. WE CONTINUE TO STAND BY OUR COMMITMENTS. (emphasis mine)

Now for the emphasis points, last first

-This question of is the rate guaranteed requires a simple yes/no response. This evasive reply tells you the answer is no, but that they don't want to admit it. If this answer is not yes, none of the other stuff is written in anything more permanent than beach sand somewhere below the high tide line. It's funny they mention commitments. Neither a Good Faith Estimate nor a Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (the California equivalent) is a loan commitment, or any kind of commitment at all. Regulations leave so much room for the unethical to manouever without running afoul of the law that either one of those forms is nothing more than the loan officer or company wants it to be. A few are right on, and those companies will typically guarantee their quote. More are somewhere in the ballpark, amazingly enough usually noticeably on the low side. And quite a large fraction are nothing more than an exercise in creative writing. He didn't guarantee his quote. Tell me this: Two companies are bidding on doing building work for you. Both are large firms. The first company asks you all sorts of questions about specifications, and guarantees they'll get it done for $5000, and if there's a problem on their end, they will fix it for no additional money. The second says they think they can do it for $4500. Which would you feel more comfortable with? If you know anything about building contractors, the latter is a joke compared to the former. Lenders and estimates on the initial paperwork to get you to sign up are, if anything, worse.

-I do business with this lender. Their costs are $1295 not including the appraisal to brokers, who perform some of the services they charge their clients for performing. By the time you've added escrow and title, you're roughly at the $3400 mark.

-It's easy to talk a good game to most folks who aren't experienced with how the game is played. The point of this particular game is trying to lock you in with that 1 percent cash upfront payment, so that when clients discover that he's not going to be able to deliver what he's talking about, they'll be thinking about recovering/losing that money, rather than focusing your attention on getting the best loan. This is called creating a distraction, and is in accordance with the tell you anything to get you to sign up school of thought.

When it comes time to close, he'd be licking his chops due to the fact that the client paid $3500 (or whatever one point comes to) cash upfront, and when he delivered something different, the client believes they have no choice but to agree in order to save their money. I've offered people in that situation a loan that was more than 1 point better, and they still went with the guy who had rooked them out of the 1% upfront, because they're worried about that cash when they should be worried about the rate/cost tradeoff.

He also went to the builder's lender

If I'm interested in getting my monthly payments down lower and I consider getting a 5/1 ARM loan to do so, is that a completely horrible idea, or could I refinance into another 5/1 ARM after the first five years to continue getting a pretty good rate, if for example the 30-year fixed rates have gone up a bunch in 5 years?

That's precisely what I've been doing for the past fifteen years. On the other hand, with the difference in rate/cost tradeoff being so narrow right now between a thirty fixed and a 5/1 (roughly a quarter of a percent interest rate wise), there's a strong argument to be made for the loan you never have to wonder about. Where I thought I would never have a thirty year fixed rate mortgage, I'd consider it if I were going to buy or refi right now. Don't know if I'd do it, but I'd think about it.

80/20 No-down 5/1 ARM No pre-payment penalty Total loan amount: $379,900

80%, $303,000: 5.25% fixed & interest-only for 5 years, payment: $1329.65
20%, $78,000: 9.5% fixed for 5 years, interest-only for 15 years, payment: $601.50

Total monthly payment: $1931.15

Aside from the fact that the putative loans total $381,000, which is likely picking nits, I don't believe that loan exists, as 5/1 ARMS are running up around 6.25% at "par" right now. I couldn't find a lender that is even offering 5.25, no matter how many points you paid, and that's wholesale. He attached some GFEs which show $4180 in points charges (plus $875 in pure junk fees and about $150 in well padded costs on the first loan and shorted the likely interest, in addition to all the real stuff), adds $5000 that he's evidently already paid to the closing costs, requires another $3200 plus at closing, and still comes up with final first loan of $303,920.

On the second, the loan required another $1140 in fees but a loan amount of only $75980, thereby balancing the 80/20 requirement correctly, at least, thereby negating the nitpick in the previous paragraph.

(I'd also shoot his agent for not negotiating any givebacks, given the current market, except I'm prepared to bet he didn't have one. I've covered some of these issues, precisely as they relate to this particular situation, at the end of this article), of which which I'll reproduce the relevant section here

Unfortunately, you've already (probably) put a deposit down and you said in subsequent email that the home has appreciated while it was being built, so the developer has incentive to throw roadblocks in your path. Your transaction falls through and not only do they get to keep your deposit but they can turn around and sell the home for more. Preventing this kind of nonsense is what buyer's agents are for (it also gives you someone easy to sue if something goes wrong!). Unfortunately, most developers will not cooperate by paying a commission to buyer's agents for precisely this reason, which means that the average buyer will decline to pay an agent out of their own pocket and try to do the transaction on their own, which leads to situations like this.

Now the market is falling, but it looks like to me the guy paid full asking price (since he's local to me, I can look), and the market is incredibly squishy on prices.

Now getting back to the loans, this is how lenders Play The Game of getting you to sign up. They are looking for you to build what salesfolk call commitment to a loan before they tell you the whole truth - usually by springing it on you at closing. They make it look better than it is for a while. They can do this because the only form that has to have correct accounting is the HUD 1, which comes at the very end of the process (It's usually prepared by the escrow officer. You should get a provisional when you sign loan documents and a final within 30 days of the end of the transaction). In the case of a purchase, this is usually at the last possible instant, which means that if you haven't prepared a back-up loan there is no time to get one before the deal goes south, which means your choices are limited to sign or lose the property, the deposit, and all that time and aggravation. This is providing that you even notice. Industry statistics say that somewhere around half the folks won't, and even on refinancing, where people can almost always just keep the loan they have without bad consequences, eighty-five percent or so of those who do notice will cave in and sign.

Caveat Emptor

Most days I get loan wholesalers coming into my office. I'm always happy to talk with them, providing they want to talk about what I want to talk about. They usually want to talk about this gimmick and that gimmick and the other gimmick. They feed me lines about service and fast turn around and quick approvals and loan commitments. Ladies and gentlemen, these are all things that every lender should be capable of, and if someone hoses one of my clients, I'm no longer interested in doing business with them. Now, everybody makes mistakes, it's how they deal with mistakes that I am interested in. I'm very forgiving if they make their mistake good, completely unforgiving if they do not.

What I want to talk about is two things. The first is loan programs nobody else has, or that nobody else has in that category. Suppose a lender has a program to deal with people in default just like everyone else with only a small penalty. I'm all ears, and I make certain that goes into my database. I expect the rates for the underlying program to be higher, but that's cool. I'll price loans with them anyway, and if they're the best I can do for the client, I'll use them. Next time I have somebody in default, though, they get my first call, because they've got something nobody else does, or very few do.

The second thing I want to talk about is price. A loan with given terms is the same loan no matter who is carrying it. So long as they are both legal, my client sees no difference between National Well-Known Megabank and Unknown Lender from Nowhere. The loan is the same. If the rate is the same, what's important to my client is how much they have to pay in order to get it. This comes back to The Trade-off Between Rate and Cost. If one lender's par pricing is a little bit lower, I can either get the client the same rate cheaper, or I can get the client a lower rate for the same price. There is otherwise no difference between standard loan terms for the standard loan types. I can get the client a lower rate if they'll accept a prepayment penalty. If they want a true zero cost loan, the rate will be higher. How much higher or lower? That varies with time and the lender involved. But except for the rate printed on the contract and the cost to get that rate, these loans are the same.

Now wholesalers don't want to talk about price, and they don't want to compete on price. If they're competing on price, they're making less money in the secondary market. Less money for the same work. I can't blame them. Suppose I walked into your office and proposed cutting your pay by somewhere between twenty and fifty percent? Somehow, I don't think most of you would appreciate it. But now turn that around, because you're in my office now, shopping for a loan, and you want the loan with the terms you want at the best price possible. If I get a lower price from the lender, I can pass it on to you. I can maybe even make a little more money while still saving you some money. Aren't you entitled to a bonus when you make money for your company or their clients? Ask yourself this: If I saved you $1000 and $20 per month over the next best quote, would it break your heart if I made an extra couple hundred? When I'm out shopping, it doesn't bother me at all. By delivering the item on better terms to me, that company has earned whatever money they make.

This doesn't mean I necessarily look for the lowest price. Many times I'll buy something that is close to the top of the line? Why? Because it has something worth more than extra money to me. What is worth extra money in real estate? Getting you a better bargain. You spend three percent instead of one, but your $500,000 home sells for $25,000 more, or it sells when it perhaps would not sell under a less aggressive marketing plan. $25,000 minus 2% of $500k ($10,000) is $15,000 in your pocket because your agent can afford to market and negotiate more aggressively on your behalf, never mind the difference between selling and not selling. Can a full service agent guarantee a better result? No. But I can tell you through personal experience that I find it much easier to get a better bargain for my clients who are buyers from someone who listed with a discount brokerage or flat fee place, and my clients are probably going to think I'm superman before the deal is done. But note that the difference in price does have to be justified. A loan is a loan is a loan, as long as it's on the same terms.

A couple days ago, I got an email calling my attention to someone calling me an "alarmist", and furthering that with an accusation that I was trying to paint everyone else as a crook. Nope. There are a large number of basically honest practitioners out there, and a significant number of scrupulously honest ones. But there are also a fair number of people out there who, like my loan wholesalers, don't want to compete on price. Do I blame them? In most cases, no. As I said the day I launched, this is the way they were trained and they don't know a better way is possible. Plus they want a larger amount of money for the same work rather than a smaller. Many of them resist changes for the better for the consumer because it means they will make less money for the same work. Seems like every day there's a seminar advertising that they'll teach agents and loan officers how to attract clients without competing on price.

Well, suppose someone makes enough money per transaction to be happy, even though they are competing on price? Then what they want to do is attract more business, which is a part of what I'm trying to do here. More importantly, I'm trying to give you, my readers, the tools necessary to get yourself the best possible bargain. Nor am I trying to tell you that I'm purer than the driven snow, and I don't think I ever have. That is for you to judge with the tools I put out, and there's no way to know for sure unless and until I do a transaction for you.

How far you want to go with these tools is up to you. Real Estate transactions are the biggest transactions most folks undertake in their lives, and as a consequence, small percentages tend to be a lot of money by the standards of lesser transactions. If you only want to do a few easy things, they should save you some money. If you want to do the work for the whole nine yards, they should save you a lot more. But when you have the tools, you are better armed consumers, more likely to get bargains that are better for you, given your situation. Like all tools, they are to be evaluated on the basis of how well they do the job. If they are used properly and nonetheless fail you, you are right to fault them. If there are tools that do a better job, you are right to use those instead. But to say, essentially, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" is not the optimal response to the issue. Through issues clients and potential clients have brought me, I have encountered every single issue I raise here. There not only is a man behind the curtain, you need to keep your eyes on him and you need to learn how best to deal with him. That is what this site is about.

Caveat Emptor

Over the course of the last few months, I've gotten mass messages from basically every lender I do business with, saying it's time to "get back to basics". About a week ago, my favorite A paper lender became the last to do so. This is a company that to the best of my knowledge, never offered a negative amortization loan, never had a stated income loan for 100% of value, and was steadfast about avoiding all the problem loans that the rest of the industry dived headfirst into. As a result, not only could they offer beautifully clean underwriting and rates that varied from pretty darned good to absolutely unbeatable, but they're sitting pretty today, their loss rate being not significantly higher than it was five years ago, and what little difference there is being attributable to declining values that are a background to the industry rather than loose loan practices.

My response to each and every one of these messages, however, has been, "What do you mean, back to basics?"

The dynamics of how to create a happy customer never changed. Oh, you can make them happy right now by getting them into the beautiful McMansion they have no prayer of really affording. But debt to income ratio isn't just for the lender's protection. If you use one of the many tricks available to circumvent it, you can video-record them jumping up and down with excitement and crying for joy on move-in day, but they'll also remember you all through the long process of losing the property, and by the time it comes to move-out day, they'll know that you failed to do your real job. What do you think the prospects of referrals and repeat business are? Well, maybe referrals to attorneys and repeat business from the FBI fraud unit, but those aren't things most of us want.

Many people, sometimes surprisingly sophisticated people who should have known better, were ignoring critical factors about personal finance and economics because after six to ten years of the housing markets going crazy, it must have seemed as if the laws of economics had been somehow repealed. Nope. Not ever going to happen. They're a bit more complex than physics such as gravity, and they are subject to distortion through mass psychology in the short run, but the bottom of that canyon is still waiting, no matter when Wile E. Coyote looks down. You'd think people would learn something through experience after a few repetitions.

Yes, most people want the huge mansion on 64,000 acres. People want hot and cold running servants and manna from heaven, too, but very few people get it. But there are reasons things like that are beyond the means of the average person, particularly in high demand urban areas where all the jobs are. Most of us have budgets that won't stretch to any of the above, and we're better off understanding this fact from the get go. As real estate agents and loan officers, it's part of that fiduciary duty we learn about getting licensed to make them aware of these facts as they pertain to real estate and mortgage loans, not encourage them to stretch beyond their means for a property and a loan they can't really afford.

During the era of make-believe loans, it became possible to pretend that somebody could afford a bigger, more expensive home than they really could. Many alleged professionals, both agent and loan officer, became aware that they could make the easy sale and a much higher commission check by fudging a number here and a key fact there. They made quite a good living by doing so, rationalizing that if they didn't, somebody else would. Those agents and loan officers who stayed on the right side of things lost a lot of business to people who didn't. And it's always possible to talk a bigger better deal, and the last few years have taught those of us who don't how to deal with those miscreants. But whether you believe in karma or not, stuff like that will come back around to bite you. It's one of those laws of economics that can't be repealed by the legislature. One way or another, their time of reckoning is coming. We all know what happens to those hogs at the trough.

So it's not "back to basics." Basics have always been there. Basics has always been the way to make the clients happy, not only on move-in day, but for the rest of their lives - long after the neighbor who didn't pay attention to basics has lost their home and their financial future to the foreclosure process. Basics, and explaining how they benefit the client, is how you build a real book of business, instead of one-time scores that are going to have you fighting lawsuits from jail. This has never changed, and it never will. Basics are the world we all live in, and when you understand them, you understand why.

Caveat Emptor

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This page is a archive of entries in the Beginner's Information category from January 2008.

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