It is by far the most common consumer complaint to the federal government involving the home-buying process: uncertainty about the bottom-line costs of obtaining and closing the mortgage.
Unlike with other major purchases, most home buyers cannot be absolutely sure what fees they will be expected to pay at settlement to their lender, title company and other service providers connected with the transaction. Though buyers routinely receive "good-faith estimates" of their expenses, there's a gaping hole in the law that allows those costs to balloon -- sometimes dramatically -- between the time of the estimate and settlement. Federal law does not require any service provider to make good on the estimates.
For example, if an unscrupulous lender tacks on $600 in junk fees at settlement that were never mentioned upfront in the good-faith estimates, that's your financial problem to deal with, not the lender's. If the title charges were understated by half and total $2,400 on the settlement sheet, not the estimated $1,200, that extra cost is on you, not the title company.
But that game of real estate gotcha may be on the way out. Major mortgage lending and brokerage groups themselves are either recommending or actively considering reforms that would "harden" buyers' good-faith estimates into guarantees.
The National Association of Mortgage Brokers, the principal lobby for the country's 60,000-plus loan brokers, now favors mandatory "redisclosure" by lenders and brokers whenever a buyer's closing fees are 10 percent higher than the original good-faith estimate. It also favors giving consumers the right to sue the lender or broker if fees exceed 10 percent of the original estimate and no redisclosure is made before settlement.
The National Association of Independent Mortgage Bankers goes one step further. It supports ironclad, upfront guarantees on all charges that are under the direct control of the lender. These include appraisals, underwriting, application fees, underwriting fees, processing, credit reports, flood zone certifications and tax service fees, among others. The same group also wants similar guarantees on all loan origination charges and points once the mortgage rate is locked. It also demands that title insurance costs -- often the source of the biggest surprises at settlement -- be guaranteed to the home purchaser once the title company confirms a specific charge to the lender or broker.
Still another influential group, the Consumer Mortgage Coalition, which represents some of the largest banks and mortgage companies in the country, supports mandatory guarantees on lender settlement costs. It has drafted a plan that would spell out and guarantee all lender fees, lender title insurance, and taxes and other expenses upfront, at the time of the rate quote. The offer to the consumer would disclose exactly which charges are not guaranteed and beyond the lender's control, such as homeowner's insurance, optional owner's title insurance, flood insurance, daily interest charges and escrows.
All of the recent flurry of proposals has been stimulated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development's ongoing campaign to persuade the key participants in the home purchase and lending process to come up with and support pro-consumer reforms on settlement-cost uncertainties. So far, the mortgage industry's emerging emphasis on guaranteeing -- or at least hardening -- the good-faith estimates appears to be the most promising direction for change.
But heads-up consumers don't have to wait for any of these proposals to become widespread. A small but growing number of lenders already offer fixed-price package deals. These provide you a rate quote along with an absolute guarantee on most, if not all, associated fees. Shop around for such deals because not all lenders advertise them, and some national lenders are trying them out in select locations only.
Besides these, however, you can harden your good-faith estimates on your own and avoid costly eleventh-hour settlement-fee shocks. As you shop for a mortgage, ask whether the broker or lender is willing to guarantee all estimates of its own fees and charges. Ask if the broker or lender will stipulate to that in writing. If the answer is no, you may want to ask yourself: What sort of company is unwilling to guarantee its own charges -- fees that it should know with certainty upfront?
Then ask for guarantees of all title-related charges -- either from the title company you choose on your own or from the lender, if the lender recommends the title company you use. Again, if a company won't stand behind its own estimates, do you really want to do business with it on the biggest purchase of your life?
Kenneth R. Harney's e-mail address is KenHarney@earthlink.net.