The Nation's Housing

Kenneth R. Harney: An IRS Form to Take Seriously

By Kenneth R. Harney
Saturday, October 10, 2009

You might assume it's just another boring-looking piece of the paper blitz you're hit with when applying for a home loan. But given the new prominence of IRS Form 4506-Ts in the fraud-shocked mortgage market, it's much more than just another document to sign.

The form authorizes a loan officer or mortgage investor to get electronic transcripts from the Internal Revenue Service covering multiple years of your federal income tax filings. Though the IRS has supplied private tax-return information to lenders for years, the data typically were requested only at settlement, and mainly for self-employed applicants or those with unusual income patterns.

But Fannie Mae recently directed lenders to obtain two sets of electronic transcripts for all borrowers, regardless of their income sources. One copy is pulled upfront at application, and another is pulled before closing. Fannie told lenders that the move was part of its efforts to spot fraudulent income claims and limit loan losses.

During the height of the housing boom, many lenders went soft on borrowers, allowing millions of them to "state" their incomes rather than supply copies of actual tax returns filed with the IRS. These no-documentation loans, as they are called, often turned out to be "liar loans," with puffed-up incomes enabling borrowers to obtain larger amounts of mortgage money than they could justify -- or afford -- based on their actual incomes.

When lenders didn't verify stated-income claims, liar loans frequently turned into foreclosure bombs. Their remains are visible in neighborhoods across the country, where foreclosures have soared to record levels.

Now, not only Fannie Mae but also most major lenders are tightening standards, double-checking everything. When it comes to what you say is your annual income, they want to verify it twice -- even if you submitted stacks of IRS returns.

The IRS is helping out by lowering the cost of those multiple verifications. As a result of higher-than-expected revenue generated by skyrocketing demands for 4506-Ts, the IRS -- which is not permitted to make a profit on services such as income verification checks -- has cut the price of transcripts from $4.50 to $2.25, according to industry sources.

Curtis Knuth, vice president of NCS of New Jersey, one of the largest vendors of Form 4506-Ts to the mortgage industry, says, "The timing of the cost reduction couldn't be better for lenders looking to return to more prudent underwriting." Most lenders, he said, do not charge loan applicants separately for income verifications but roll the costs into their origination or processing fees.

The much-more intensive use of Form 4506-T is also focusing new light on what consumers should -- and shouldn't -- do when confronted with a lender's or settlement agent's request that they fill one out.

Here's a quick overview:

-- Take Form 4506-T seriously. It's a powerful tool, and it potentially exposes otherwise confidential personal financial information to unknown and uncontrollable numbers of people. It is not just another part of the paper blizzard.

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