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An era, thankfully, about to end on mortgage transaction fees
By Ken Harney | Columnist
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Published: 11/6/2009 12:04 AM

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WASHINGTON - Remember the bad old days of 11th-hour mortgage settlement cost shocks and mystery junk-fee charges? Remember when the "good-faith estimates" your lender gave you upfront said closing costs would be about $2,000, but somehow they ballooned to $3,500 on the final settlement sheet?

Worse yet, you had to come up with the extra money to handle the surprise costs or the home purchase or refinancing could not proceed. Those days are still here - consumers continue to be unprotected from closing cost shocks or intentional lowballing of fees - but in about eight weeks the situation should change dramatically.

Though banks and mortgage lobbies are pushing hard for a delay, on Jan. 1 new federal rules adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are scheduled to take effect covering home real estate and mortgage transactions nationwide. The rules have a blunt message for lenders and others who lowball upfront estimates or lard on junk fees at settlement: Play games like that, and you - not your hapless customers - will have to eat the difference.

Here's what's about to happen: Starting Jan. 1, loan charges and settlement fees will be spelled out on a revised, more consumer-friendly version of the good-faith estimates (GFE) form that borrowers are supposed to receive within three days of their mortgage applications. Charges will fall into three broad categories on the form:

•Fees that cannot increase from upfront estimates to final closing.

•Fee estimates that come with wiggle room, and can increase by as much as 10 percent in the aggregate from upfront estimates.

•Fees that can increase without limit, mainly because the lender has no control over them or because the amount is difficult to predict weeks in advance.

Charges in the zero-increase category include the lender's or broker's mortgage origination, processing and underwriting charges, where junk fees sometimes sprout out of nowhere - or increase significantly - from upfront estimates to closing. Also in this category are the lender's or broker's loan discount charge or "points" based on the interest rate quoted to the borrower, and local transfer taxes.

Charges subject to a 10 percent aggregate increase include services required by the lender but where the lender chooses the providers, such as appraisals; expenses such as lender's title insurance and settlement services where the borrower chooses a firm on a list approved by the lender; owner's title insurance when the borrower chooses a company on the lender's approved list; and recordation charges by local governments.

Though any one of these items can increase more than 10 percent from the upfront estimate to closing, the combined total of all the fees in this category cannot jump by more than 10 percent. This is crucial, especially in title insurance and settlement charges, where some of the biggest surprises pop up at closing.

Charges that can increase without limit include lender-required services where the borrowers choose a title insurance, escrow or other settlement company that is not on the lender's list; the cost of homeowners' hazard insurance; daily interest charges on the loan; and the amount of the initial deposit by the borrower into an escrow account.

Besides getting rid of closing cost surprises, the new good-faith estimate encourages loan applicants to shop around before committing to a particular lender. The form includes space for comparing up to four competing lenders' GFEs on interest rates, rate locks, prepayment penalties or balloon payments, among other factors. The cost estimates you receive from each competitor are required to remain available for 10 business days. Interest rates can change unless locked by the lender and borrower.

Paired with the new GFE rules scheduled for Jan. 1 will be a new standard closing cost statement, the "HUD-1." Unlike the settlement statements in use today, the revised HUD-1 is hard-wired into the GFEs to allow consumers to directly compare what they were told upfront by the lender with what they're being asked to pay at closing. The final page of the new form itemizes the three categories of fees from the GFE and compares them directly - line by line - with the actual fees at closing.

Still another pro-consumer feature of the new HUD-1: For the first time ever, it requires disclosure of the widely misunderstood fee splits of title insurance premiums between the insurance underwriter - the company actually insuring the title - and the title agent, who is often the settlement agent. Consumers may be stunned to learn that in some markets, 80 percent to 90 percent or more of the premium they pay at closing actually goes to the agent - not to pay for the insurance itself.

• Write to Ken Harney at P.O. Box 15281, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 or via e-mail at

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group