Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages

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Are they still the most logical choice for all buyers?

Is the mortgage industry due for a facelift?

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I recently saw an interesting article from MReport via American Land Title’s Newsletter dated February 26, entitled, “A Mortgage Best Fit; Lenders are bypassing the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in favor of loans that are tailored to specific borrower niches”. I recommend that all dirt lawyers read this article to understand that the mortgages you may be closing in the future may not be the same as the mortgages you closed in the past. You can read the article in its entirety here.

My husband and I built a house and closed a mortgage loan in 2011, and, although we told the lender and real estate agent we intended to pay the loan off quickly, both insisted on the old-fashioned 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a twenty-percent down payment. The lender didn’t even offer alternatives. In 2011, the housing market was just returning from the financial debacle that began in 2007, so everyone was being extremely careful. (I remember being questioned about why our income tax picture had changed in the years leading up to 2011 and having to write a letter explaining that children grow up and leave home.) I’m not sure we would be approached in the same way today, based on this article.

First-time buyers often choose 30-year mortgages because no one explains other options and because it’s the product their parents understand and recommend. The traditional mortgage is generally the safest option because of its reliable, consistent monthly payment. Interest rates have been low for many years now, and this fact also supports the wide-spread use of the traditional mortgage. Why risk a variable rate when the fixed rate is low?

This article suggests, however, that millennials and other first-time buyers may now be more inclined to select shorter-term and adjustable-rate options. Someone who is just entering into the housing market may envision living in their starter home for only a few years and may prefer an adjustable rate mortgage to take advantage of the low interest rate up front. This article suggests that millennials may be saddled with student debt and may be a more transient group, so they don’t want to commit to anything that lasts thirty years. Few envision themselves working for a single company for any length of time. They believe they must change jobs to increase their incomes. This article also suggests that millennials may not be loyal to a geographic area.

In addition to variable rate mortgages, this article suggests the concept of the equity-sharing mortgage, where an investor shares in the appreciation in the home value in exchange for down payment assistance or lower payments. These new-fangled products may enable low- and moderate- income borrowers to enter the housing market.

Some lenders are recognizing that these trends mean that the entire underwriting process needs to be reexamined to accommodate the millennial market. And they also recognize that veterans may have difficulty getting the service and products they need to buy homes because VA loans are a little more expensive for lenders to close. More education for veterans and training for loan officers may be needed to accommodate the veteran population. Online and mobile-friendly mortgages are also likely to change the face of the mortgage industry in the future.

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Fake news? No, a fake homeowners’ association!

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The schemes fraudsters use to dupe property owners out of their hard earned money seem to get stranger and creepier! On February 8, a television station in Kansas City, Missouri, FOX4, reported on a homeowners’ association scam involving a quiet neighborhood in Northland Missouri.

The station reported that for years, people living in the Summerfield subdivision ignored the invoices that arrived in the mail demanding payment to a homeowners’ association. Summerfield has no owners’ association! “Summerfield Homeowners’ Association” has no board and provides no services, but someone in its behalf mailed invoices and later filed liens against the neighborhood homes.

One homeowner reported that when he moved into the neighborhood in late 2017, he was told that there was no owners’ association and no monthly assessments. But just before Christmas, a $445 lien was filed against his home as well as thirty other homes in the neighborhood.

The liens made reference to a telephone number for a company that manages the association, Column’s Park, LLC, but the man who answered the telephone at that number, according to the news report, was “some random guy” who said the number had belonged to him for five years and had nothing to do with Summerfield subdivision. The man purported told callers to let everyone in the subdivision know that he had not caused the problem, and that he was convinced it was a scam. He was apparently weary of fielding the telephone calls of the frustrated homeowners.

Unable to resolve the conundrum themselves, the neighbors called FOX4 Problem Solvers for help. The television station traced the liens to two individuals, one residing in a federal prison, convicted on an earlier charge of mortgage fraud. This convict apparently came up with a new idea for duping consumers out of money. The other individual said she believed the subdivision should have an owners’ association to pay for the upkeep of a neighborhood drainage basin. The connection between the two individuals was unclear.

The owners finally took action by hiring an attorney to assist them in eradicating the liens.  What a story! Hopefully, we won’t see this one in South Carolina.

You learn something new every day!

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Question gives insight into IRS collection procedures against JTROS properties

In August of last year, an excellent South Carolina real estate lawyer raised this issue with Underwriting Counsel in our office:

The property owners are Sally Seller and Samuel Seller, as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Sally Seller died January 7, 2017. A federal tax lien was filed against Sally Single, Mrs. Seller’s maiden name, March 3, 2014. Mr. and Mrs. Seller were married in April 20, 2015. Please confirm that we should either pay off this lien at closing or obtain a release from the IRS.

Title insurance underwriting is all about pre-closing risk prevention and risk management, and I always joke that underwriting is more of an art than a science. This is true, in part, because few issues in the law are black and white. Most lawyers will confirm that a fair amount of gray area exists in most legal questions. But I digress.

The truth is that when a trusted, intelligent real estate lawyer calls her friendly South Carolina title insurance underwriter and says, in effect, “I should deal with this title problem at closing, shouldn’t I?”… that is an easy answer! Unless the Underwriter knows of a magic solution to eliminate the title issue, the friendly title insurance Underwriter will almost always respond, “Yes, please take care of that issue at closing.”  That’s exactly what our Underwriter did in this case last August.

Around Halloween, a follow-up question was raised:

The sellers’ attorney has been working on obtaining a satisfaction for the IRS lien, but the IRS has told him that the lien will not be released or satisfied because the taxpayer is deceased. IRS Agent Arnold Adams (IRS ID#10000797284)* referred me to Notice 2003-60. The IRS agent further said it will not file a release of lien for the convenience of title insurance companies and mortgage lenders**, but that the tax lien upon the death of a joint tenant is extinguished and not collectable on the basis of U.S. vs. Craft*** and its application.

The IRS notice linked above is entitled “Collection Issues Related to Entireties Property”. Every South Carolina dirt lawyer knows that we do not have a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership in South Carolina. If we don’t have that form of ownership, then does this IRS Notice have any application in South Carolina?

Married couples in South Carolina can own properties as tenants in common, joint tenants with right of survivorship or joint tenants with an indestructible right of survivorship under Smith v. Cutler.****

Several years ago, my friend and fellow South Carolina dirt lawyer, Paul Dillingham, called me to twist my arm to write an article with him for the Bar’s South Carolina Lawyer magazine, linked here, about a couple of deed drafting traps that were troubling him. In that article, we questioned whether Smith v. Cutler had created, in effect, a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership. That case dealt with property owned by couple pursuant to a deed with this language:

“for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple”

The case held that property owned pursuant to the quoted language cannot be partitioned. If the property cannot be partitioned by the creditor of one owner, then the IRS Notice would have application in South Carolina. Apparently the IRS agent who was questioned for this closing believes the notice does apply in the Palmetto State, but please note that the question before the IRS agent didn’t deal with the Smith v. Cutler form of ownership. It dealt with a standard joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.

Did the IRS Agent give our South Carolina good advice? Would all IRS agents give the same advice? Can we ignore this IRS lien for the purposes of closing? What do you think?

This is fictitious name and number. Don’t try to contact this IRS agent!

** That wasn’t very friendly!

*** 545 U.S. 274 (2002)

**** 366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

Constitutionality of CFPB upheld

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cfpb-logoThe D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a case decided last week. This decision reverses the October 11, 2016 holding of a three-judge panel which ruled unanimously that the structure of the CFPB allowed its director to wield too much power.

The highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by former CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but former Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because the Director has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB’s structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much power been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argued that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and that the agency is distanced from Congress’s power to refuse funding by allowing for funding directly from the Federal Reserve.

The lower Court agreed, writing, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.” The lower Court removed the restriction that the Director can only be removed for cause, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. The lower Court also reversed former Director Cordray’s retroactive applicability of fines.

The Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the CFPB, preserving the single-director leadership and the independence of the agency. The ruling indicates the President can only fire the Director for cause and allows the current five-year terms to remain in place. Five-year terms will, of course, mean that directors of the agency may remain in place after the termination of the term of the president who appointed him or her.

The CFPB is largely the brain child of the Democratic Party, and Acting Director Mulvaney has taken steps to rein in its power since he was appointed by President Trump. The Court of Appeals ruling was mostly decided on ideological lines. One Republican appointee joined the Democratic appointed judges in upholding the CFPB’s structure.

The Court did rule in favor of PHH by rejecting the large penalty imposed by former Director Cordray. The decision requires that the penalty be reviewed again by the CFPB.

Federal class action seeks to invalidate non-condo HOA foreclosures

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Is there authority for these foreclosures under SC law…or not?

On January 9, a lawsuit was filed in the Federal Court in Charleston seeking to certify a class of plaintiffs who have faced foreclosure in situations where the Horizontal Property Regime Act was not involved. In other words, the properties are not condominiums and are not subject to the statutory scheme that establishes lien and foreclosure rights in owners’ associations. The power to foreclose these properties is supported only by restrictive covenants, that is, only by contract.

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The complaint refers to a good faith estimate that one-third of all South Carolinians own property subject to restrictive covenants establishing owners’ associations, and those associations manage more than $100 billion in assets. Many of the properties are separate lots of land in contrast to “slices of air” in condominium projects.

The defendants in this class action suit include five homeowners’ associations in various counties in South Carolina, four law firms who represent the associations in their foreclosure actions, and five management companies who manage the business of the associations in various counties in South Carolina. All are said to be representative of the associations, law firms and management companies who do business across the state.

The class intends to exclude all associations governed by the Horizontal Property Regime Act. It also excludes employees, owners, officers, partners and management of the law firm and management defendants. The law firm and management defendants are alleged to be agents of the owners’ associations.

The main issue in the suit is whether non-condominium associations have the right to file liens and prosecute foreclosures for unpaid property assessments under South Carolina law. Underlying issues include whether the defendants have violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, whether they have interfered with the plaintiffs’ contracts with their mortgage holders, and whether they have the power to lawfully evict homeowners for unpaid assessments.

The owners’ associations are typically established as non-profit corporations, and the suit questions whether non-profit corporations have the power to create liens for unpaid dues or assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments.

The suit accuses the defendants of seeking to use the equitable remedy of foreclosure in actions that seek monetary damages for contractual breaches. The inability to use equitable remedies to collect money damages is well established in South Carolina law, according to the complaint. The complaint further states that the remedy of foreclosure is used to frighten the plaintiffs to settle their claims to avoid losing their homes.

The law firm defendants were accused of violating Professional Conduct Rule 3.3 by making deceitful arguments to courts. The law firms were also accused of demanding fees that are not proportionate to the hours devoted to the files in violation of Rule 1.5.

Threatening communications and pressure tactics are allegedly used to settle claims, typically without the advice of counsel because the amounts in controversy are often so small that the homeowners are unable to obtain legal counsel on a cost-effective basis. Typically, according to the complaint, holders of first mortgages are not named in the HOA foreclosures. The homeowners continue to be obligated to make their mortgage payments despite being evicted from their homes by their owners’ associations.

The first cause of action is violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act on the theory that there is no right to use pre-suit liens or the equitable remedy of foreclosure by owners’ associations to collect damages in the form of past due assessments. The use of unjustified liens and foreclosures is alleged to constitute false, deceptive or misleading representations to collect debts.

The second cause of actions seeks a declaratory judgment that the activities of the defendants are unlawful. One point raised in this cause of action is that the homeowners are denied their statutory homestead exemption rights by the defendants’ actions.

The third cause of action is for intentional interference with the contractual relationship with the homeowners’ mortgage companies. The mortgage holders have a right to be named in actions that attempt to impair their interests in the subject properties, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks actual, compensatory and consequential damages, in addition to punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. I can’t wait to see what happens with this one!