Scratch a real-estate agent and you'll find a wannabe mortgage broker. After finding you a house, agents want to be able to turn to a computer terminal and rustle you up a mortgage, too.
New government regulations -- or rather, deregulation -- will soon give this infant mortgage-making system a leg up -- although not quite as firm a leg as was originally proposed to Congress in September. For borrowers, instant mortgage commitments via real-estate agents are quick and easy, but they could be costly over the long run.
Current law prohibits real-estate agents from taking fees for referring buyers to specific mortgage lenders. Congress felt, correctly, that agents would be tempted to recommend lenders that paid the biggest kickbacks rather than the ones with the best consumer rates.
But blatant law violations still go unaddressed by the feds. Mortgage companies have offered agents $100 gift certificates, $1,000 for two completed referrals per month and trips to Hawaii. A Michigan court decision muddied the waters in 1984 by concluding that these payments were not criminal in nature. After that, any illusion of enforcement stopped (although kickbacks are prohibited in some states).
In 1986, Citicorp made an end run around the federal law with a system known as MortgagePower. Its full-dress, computerized version, installed in the office of a real-estate agent, not only displays Citicorp's mortgage products, it also lets the agent enter the data that will give the borrower an instant thumbs up or thumbs down on a mortgage application.
Citicorp doesn't pay for these loans. Instead, the agent charges the borrower for the loan application. The Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Citicorp a letter declaring that MortgagePower broke no federal rules. But when competitors asked for similar letters, "They were told that HUD wasn't giving more letters. Or else they were put on hold, which gave Citicorp an inside track," says HUD general counsel Frank Keating. He ascribed the lapse to "a previous administration."
MortgagePower has been hugely successful, even though its interest rates and fees may be higher than other lenders offer. Lazy or unknowledgeable home buyers take what the real-estate agent dishes up rather than finding a better loan.
Early next year, HUD expects to level the playing field, Keating says, by allowing competitors to Citicorp. However, the deal for consumers may not be as good as he outlined in his September testimony. Then, Keating said that any system accessible from a real-estate office would have to display loans from competing lenders. But Citicorp Mortgage Chairman Robert Horner is arguing, apparently successfully, that because Citicorp can't grant commitments for other lenders' mortgages, other mortgages shouldn't have to appear on Citi's screen.
Keating now envisions a regulation requiring real-estate agents merely to install the systems of competing lenders -- if other lenders happen to knock at their door. If not, Citicorp could retain its monopoly. The law against kickbacks would be clarified and enforced through a new HUD office.
The amount that a real-estate agent could charge you for loan origination would be capped at perhaps $250. Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, considers that far too high. His proposal: something in the $100-to-$150 range.
Here's the bottom line for consumers:
Although more lenders will be able to display their mortgages in real-estate offices, many agents will continue to show just one.
Agents will be required to disclose their fees and say that you can probably find better terms somewhere else.
You should shop around for the best terms. An extra quarter point might cost you $6,750 on a 30-year, $100,000 mortgage, and that ain't chicken feed.