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Navigating The Mortgage Modification Maze

February 12, 2009

3Government-sanctioned counseling agencies, local community service agencies and private loan modification agencies concede they have been swamped by demand for loan modifications. The demand has opened the floodgates of loan modification services now offered by real estate agents, mortgage brokers, attorneys, government agencies, lenders, and other professionals.

The demand stems from a proliferation of federal, state and local foreclosure relief and bailout efforts from both government and the lending industry. Mortgage modifications have been around for years, but those recent efforts have raised the profile of the mortgage workouts as an alternative to foreclosures, short sales, auctions, and bankruptcy.

However, homeowners seeking mortgage modifications are at the mercy of lenders, because the workouts are voluntary and often without regulatory standards.

Caught in the lurch, homeowners are finding it tough to know when a modification will work and how to best obtain one.

What is a mortgage modification?

A home loan modification, granted only upon the existing lender’s approval, permanently reworks some of the terms of an existing mortgage in order to make the loan more affordable to the homeowner.

The strategy is typically designed for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage, not for those who can pay their mortgage or are eligible for a refinanced loan.

Modifications are generally lender fee-free and involve the lender or loan holder lowering the interest rate and or changing an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) to a fixed rate mortgage (FRM) with a 30-year term. Some form of mandated homeownership counseling generally comes with the deal.

Less common loan modifications include adding missed payments to the loan balance and extending the term of the loan. Least common is getting the lender to reduce the principal or wipe out any second mortgages.

A mortgage modification is not a refinanced mortgage — a brand new loan written to pay off the old home loan.

“A mortgage is one of the most complex transactions there is. A loan modification is also a gray area for a lot of people. So of course people need someone to walk them through the process to tell them this is what you need and this is what you don’t need,” said Ginna Green, spokeswoman for the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending in Oakland.

Is a loan modification for you?

A loan modification may not be viable if:

• The modified loan comes with payments you still can’t afford.

• Your current interest rate is already low and there’s no room for the lender to lower it further.

• You can make the new payments, but the mortgage balance is greater than the value of your home and you don’t plan on staying put long enough to reverse the loan-to-value imbalance.

• You have not already missed payments on your mortgage or can’t show financial hardship due, say, to job loss, pay decrease, illness or interest rate increase.

• You have other properties, investments or assets that could be liquidated to cover your mortgage debt.

 A short sale (The lender forgives a portion of the debt owed if you can find a buyer), bankruptcy, auction sale, refinance or other approach, short of a foreclosure, is a better option.

“You can do a loan modification and not be aware of where you stand. You can get a loan modification for a home you don’t want to be in,” said Pennington.

A financial, housing or credit counselor can help you determine your best option. Just be prepared to hold down the fort for the 60 to 90 days or more it could take to complete the modification, due to potential complications and document processing times.

The private loan modification route

Because both nonprofits and lenders have been inundated with calls for aid, it may be prudent to hire a private loan modification service to get a foot in the lender’s door. Consider the following useful tips if you hire a private loan modifier:

• Make sure your choice has a clean record. Consider legal and real estate professionals offering loan modification services only if they have current, unblemished licenses. Also check their record with the Better Business Bureau and their respective trade or professional group.

• Get performance-related service. Never pay an advance fee if your lender has already recorded a notice of default. You could be throwing good money after bad. It’s illegal in California for “foreclosure consultants” or any real estate licensee to collect a fee after a notice of default has been recorded.

• Check your state for similar regulations. Make sure to familiarize yourself with any other rules governing private loan modification services and state rules specific to lenders granting modifications. You won’t know if the modification service is adhering to the law if you don’t know the law.

Carefully examine any contract or terms of service before proceeding. If you don’t understand the terms or aren’t satisfied with what’s promised, don’t sign. Get help. That could mean reconsidering waiting for a HUD-certified counselor.

Pay particular attention to what the service will or won’t do with your information, especially when it comes to sharing it with third parties. When information

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