A home is the most expensive investment most people will ever own. For cash-strapped homeowners a home equity loan is a temptingly easy way to get cash. However, some home equity lenders are dishonest, and gullible consumers are at risk of losing their biggest asset. Borrowers should be wary of unscrupulous lenders and their scams to avoid losing their homes.
Financially unsophisticated homeowners, such as the elderly, members of minority groups and people with poor credit ratings, are often targeted by unscrupulous lenders using unethical lending practices.
One tactic used is called “equity stripping”. In this instance, cash-strapped prospective borrowers who the lender knows cannot meet the monthly payments are encouraged to exaggerate their income on the application form to help get the loan approved. As soon as the borrower fails to meet the monthly payment, the lender forecloses, stripping the borrower of all the equity in the home. Low-income homeowners should beware of lenders who encourage them to accept loans which they cannot afford to repay.
Another tactic is the balloon payment. A borrower who is falling behind in mortgage payments is offered mortgage refinancing at a lower monthly payment. However, the payments are lower because they cover only the loan interest. At the end of the loan term, the principal – that is, the entire amount of the loan – is due in one lump sum called a balloon payment. If the borrowers cannot make the balloon payment or refinance, the home is foreclosed.
Loan flipping is another deceptive practice. The company holding a homeowner’s mortgage offers to refinance in order to give the homeowner extra cash, but charges high points and fees for doing so. The extra cash received may be less than the additional costs and fees charged for the refinancing; moreover, interest must be paid on the extra charges.
Home improvement scams are very common. A contractor offers to install a new roof or remodel a kitchen at a price that sounds reasonable, and offers financing through a lender he knows. Sometimes the contractor even attempts to get the homeowner to sign blank contract forms with the promise they will be filled in later when the contractor is “less busy”. Often, the rates offered are not competitive, and as soon as the contractor has been paid by the lender, he has no interest in completing the job to the homeowner’s satisfaction. The homeowner is left with unfinished or shoddy work and a large loan to pay off.
Credit insurance packing is the charging of extra fees at the closing of a mortgage. A homeowner and a lender come to an agreement on a mortgage, but at closing, the lender tacks on charges for credit insurance or other “benefits” that the borrower did not ask for and did not discuss. The lender hopes the borrower won’t notice this, and just sign the loan papers with the extra charges included. If the borrower questions the last minute charges, the lender may state that the charges are standard policy for all loans, and if objections continue, the lender will claim that it will take several days to draw up a new contract, or that the bank manager may reconsider the loan altogether. Due to these last-minute pressure tactics, the loan may wind up costing considerably more than initially stated. Borrowers who agree to buy the insurance are paying extra for a product they may not want or need.
Mortgage servicing abuses occur after the mortgage has been closed. Borrowers get bills from mortgage companies for payments such as escrow for taxes and insurance even though the homeowner agreed beforehand with the lender to pay those items themselves. Bills arrive for late fees, even though payments were made on time. Or a message may arrive saying that the homeowner failed to maintain required property insurance and the lender is buying more costly insurance at the homeowner’s expense. Other unexplained charges such as legal fees are added to the amount owing, increasing the monthly payments or the amount owing at the end of the loan term. The lender does not provide an accurate or complete account of these charges. When homeowners get tired of these tactics and ask for a payoff statement in order to refinance with another lender, they receive inaccurate or incomplete statements. The lender makes it almost impossible to determine how much has been paid and how much is still owing on the loan.
Homeowners should avoid signing over the deed to their properties to lenders under any circumstances. If a borrower is in danger of foreclosure, a second “lender” may offer to help prevent the loss of the home, if only the homeowner will sign over the property as a “temporary” measure. The promised refinancing never arrives, and the lender now owns the property. Once the lender has the deed to your property, he can treat it as his own. He may borrow against it or even sell it to someone else. The borrower no longer owns the home, and will receive no money when it is sold. The lender can treat the borrower as a tenant and the mortgage payments as rent. If the “rent” payments are late, the borrower can be evicted.
To protect against unethical lending practices, homeowners should never agree to loans beyond the means of their monthly income; sign any documents before reading the fine print; or let any lender pressure them into signing immediately. Never allow the promise of extra cash or lower monthly payments get in the way of good financial judgment. If a loan sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Always ask specifically if credit insurance is required as a condition of the loan. If the added security of credit insurance is desired, shop around for the best rates. Keep careful records of all payments, including billing statements. Challenge any inaccurate charges; many companies hope that borrowers will simply not be bothered.
Hire contractors only after checking their references, and get more than one estimate for any job.
Borrowers who are financially inexperienced should consider consulting with an accountant or a solicitor before signing a loan.