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Homeowners Say Banks Not Following Rules for Loan Modifications
Posted on Jan 14, 2010
By Paul Kiel, ProPublica
The Nine-Month Trial
Six months into a trial modification, Gary Fitz of California still doesn’t know whether or when his mortgage will be permanently modified, and he’s been told he’ll have to wait for a few more months.
Under the program’s design, the trial period was supposed to last three months, giving time for the servicers to collect and evaluate the homeowner’s financial information. At the end of the trial, if the homeowner fit the program’s criteria and had made all three modified payments, the servicer was supposed to promptly make the modification permanent.
Instead, trial modifications routinely last more than six months, homeowners and housing advocates say.
Square, Site wide
There are a number of adverse consequences of a trial period’s dragging on, said the consumer law center’s Thompson. Because a homeowner is not making a full payment, the balance of the mortgage grows during the trial period. The servicer reports the shortfall to credit reporting agencies, so the homeowner’s credit score can drop. And most importantly, says Thompson, the homeowner isn’t saving money in case the modification fails and the home is foreclosed. “Keeping someone in a trial modification really does not do them a favor,” she said.
Fitz’s case shows why some homeowners have remained in limbo so long.
He sought a loan modification in the spring of 2009 because his wife’s salary had been cut. Like millions of others, he applied soon after the administration announced the program last February. He was accepted for a trial modification and made his first payment in July.
Fitz was prepared for an uphill struggle. A Wells Fargo customer service representative told him early in the application process that he should make seven copies of his financial information — because Wells Fargo would likely lose it more than once. He says he’s sent the same paperwork in five times.
When the trial stage lasts so long, servicers commonly ask homeowners for updated financial information months into the trial period. Fitz, for example, submitted his paperwork for the first time last spring. But when Wells Fargo requested an updated package in December, it showed that he’d received a pay raise last June of about $80 per month.
Because of that, Wells Fargo started him over on a new trial period – even though his trial payments climbed just $27, from $1,733 to $1,760. His first payment on the new trial period is due Feb. 1, meaning that by the time he completes it, he will have been making trial payments for nine months.
Wells Fargo spokesman Kevin Waetke said the company does not comment on individual borrower’s cases. He did say, however, that “the federal guidelines require a final review of updated financial documents before moving any Home Affordable Modification from trial status to complete.”
That’s not true. In a Treasury guidance (PDF) to servicers issued in October, meant to streamline the review process, it says there is “no requirement” to “refresh” the homeowner’s documentation as long as it was up-to-date when it was originally received.
Wells Fargo also appears to have begun Fitz’s second trial period contrary to Treasury guidelines. A Treasury guidance (PDF) last April said that a servicer should not begin a new trial period if a homeowner has only a minor income change (defined as exceeding the “initial income information by 25 percent or less”). Guidelines issued later (PDF) are even more restrictive about starting a new trial period. The reason is clear: The purpose of the trial period for the homeowner is to demonstrate the ability to pay, and such a small change in income is unlikely to affect that.
Asked to respond, Waetke said that “given the complexity of the program, the volume of calls we receive and the number of modifications currently in process, there is the potential for a mistake to be made.” He added that Wells Fargo would continue to review the case.
Sometimes there seems to be no reason at all for a trial period to drag on.
Cynthia Mason of Texas, another homeowner with a Wells Fargo mortgage, also recently restarted her trial period after several months.
Last spring, she sought a loan modification because medical and other expenses had made it impossible for her to afford her mortgage payment on a fixed alimony income. She’d planned to supplement that income with a job, but has been unable to find anything. Like Fitz, she began the program in July.
In October, good news came with a phone call: She’d been accepted for a permanent modification. She waited for the final paperwork to arrive, but it never did. Instead, while speaking to a Wells Fargo employee about an unrelated issue six weeks later, she found out that she’d in fact been denied. When Mason inquired why, she says she was told some documentation was missing, but the employee could not tell her what it was. She also learned she owed late fees because she’d paid the modified payment, not the original, full payment, in November and December.
When she complained about the late fees (which were eventually canceled), she was passed to a different employee who told her she was being put back into a trial period. She didn’t understand why. Another representative finally told her that she’d been denied because of a negative “Net Present Value” test. The test is the calculation at the center of the Treasury Department’s program: It determines whether the loan’s owner (sometimes the lender, sometimes a mortgage-backed security’s investors) is likely to make more money modifying the loan or not. A negative result means the servicer has no obligation under the program to modify the loan and is a common reason for denial.
But in Mason’s case, a Wells Fargo employee told her she’d nevertheless been put back into the trial period in order to “buy time.”
Wells Fargo spokesman Waetke declined to speak about Mason’s case but did say that the bank sometimes extends the trial period “to allow customers time to get the documents so we can complete the review.” Mason says she doesn’t know of any documents that might be missing, and she’s not optimistic about receiving a permanent modification. By extending the trial, Mason told ProPublica, Wells Fargo is “just prolonging the inevitable” – denial.
ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
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