Mortgage Closing Costs: What is Real and What is Junk?

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The easy, general rule is that legitimate expenses all have easily understood explanations in plain english, they are all for specific services, and if they are performed by third parties, there are associated invoices or receipts that you can see.

Let's haul out the Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement (California) or Good Faith Estimate (elsewhere), and go right down them line by line. Now, to be certain, it's the HUD 1 form that's really definitive, but if it's not on the earlier form it shouldn't be on the HUD 1.

Origination is not a junk fee. It can be excessive, but it is a real fee to pay a real service. Relating to this is Yield Spread on the HUD 1, which is what the lender will pay the broker for a loan on given terms. Origination plus yield spread plus line 808 (Mortgage Broker Commission) is what the loan provider makes if they are a broker. If they're a lender, they make a lot more, and they can hide it more easily. Yield Spread and Origination and Broker's Commission are disclosed on the HUD 1, while the price on the secondary market is not disclosed anywhere, and if you're talking to a direct lender, they don't have to disclose Origination or Yield Spread because there may not be any; they can decide to be paid entirely off the premium the loan sells for in the secondary market - and then they tell you you're buying it down from there with discount points. This is why I keep telling people to shop for loans based upon the terms to you. If you evaluate it on the basis of loan provider's compensation, a broker who has to disclose compensation of $4000 is going to look like a worse bargain that the direct lender who does not apparently make anything but turns around and sells your loan for a $25,000 premium. In this example, the broker's loan is likely to be about a point and a half to two points cheaper to you, but if you evaluate it on the basis of who has to tell you how much they make, you lose.

This has gotten an order of magnitude worse this year as the new 2010 Good Faith Estimate treats Yield Spread (for brokers) as a cost and requires it be included in the computation of costs. It isn't a cost at all - it's now money that actually reduces your cost. But bankers used political contributions and connections to require it to be done that way, thereby making a direct lender loan appear more attractive than it is when compared to a broker originated loan by someone who doesn't understand this - which is to say the vast majority of the American population. Nor do direct lenders have to so much as disclose how much they are going to make selling the loan on the secondary market. The politicians have deliberately obscured actual cost to the consumer in favor of aiding one class of loan provider over another. I'm planning an article that directly compares the exact same loan done on a correspondent or direct lending basis versus a broker originated loan.

Loan Discount Fee is the fee you pay in order to get an interest rate lower than you would otherwise be offered. It is not junk, but you probably don't want to pay it, as most folks never recover the money they pay to get the lower rate via the lower payments and interest rate charges. Note that you are actually getting something for your money - lowered cost of interest over the life of the loan. It's just that it takes longer than most people realize to recover the money you spend upfront. I never pay discount points for anything except a 30 year fixed rate loan that I'm going to keep at least ten years.

Appraisal Fee is not junk. There is an appraiser who needs to get paid for doing the appraisal. Before this year, many times this got marked PFC on the MLDS/GFE, to make it look like a given loan provider was cheaper than they were. Make no mistake, there's going to be a figure in the range of $400 associated with it eventually, but because it's performed by a third party, the loan provider could (and usually did) pretend it doesn't exist as part of the charges until you have to pay it.

Credit Report is not junk. It's not free to run credit, you know.

Lender's Inspection Fee is usually (not always) junk. You're paying the appraiser. If you're smart, you're paying a building inspector before you buy, and the lender often makes you do it even if you don't want to. Every once in a while, there's a home with a documented pest or structural problem that the owner wants to refinance, and that's where this comes in as non-junk.

Mortgage Broker Commission/Fee: Is all a part of how the broker gets paid. Around here it's origination and yield spread, but this could be part of what a broker gets paid. Origination plus Yield Spread plus this line is the total of what they get paid. If these are larger at closing than when you signed up, that's par for the course most places, unless they guaranteed their fees up front in writing. I do it. I know one other company that does it. Those who are members of Upfront Mortgage Brokers guarantee the total of the items that are their fees, but not the rest of the form. For anyone else, they can and most will change the numbers on these forms within very broad limits (and to illustrate with an example someone recently brought into my office, the difference between one quarter of a point and three points on a $450,000 loan is over $12,000).

Tax Service Fee is not junk, unfortunately.

Processing fee is not junk but it may be negotiable. When it's imposed by the lender, it's not. When it's imposed by the broker, it's to pay the loan processor, which may be negotiated sometimes. Often, some places pretend they're not charging it, while adding a larger margin to origination or discount. It is a real fee, however.

Underwriting fee is real. Lenders charge it to cover paying the underwriters.

Wire Transfer Fee is real, because it costs money to wire money. If you don't need it, don't get it.

Prepaid Interest (line 901) is definitely not junk. This is interest, exactly the same as you're going to pay every month of your loan.

Mortgage Insurance Premium is not junk but may be avoidable.

Hazard Insurance premiums are not junk, either. This money is to put a policy of homeowner's insurance (or renew an existing policy) on the property. Lenders having been burned a few times in the distant past, the insurance policy needs to be in effect from the exact instant they commit their money - half a microsecond later is not good enough for them.

County property taxes are not junk, either (darn!). If you buy during certain periods of the year (e.g. April through June in California), you'll need to reimburse your seller for property taxes they already paid.

VA Funding fee is charged by the VA on VA loans only. Not junk, but if it's not VA, it doesn't have this. As I remember, if you're 10% or more disabled this can get waived.

Reserves deposited with lender are not junk, either. They will be used to pay your fees as they become due. It isn't the lender who owes property taxes and homeowner's insurance. It's you. They're just holding the money.

Title charges: Settlement or Closing Escrow Fee is a real charge to pay the escrow company. Like Appraisal fee, this is often marked PFC, but something like $500 plus $1 per thousand dollars is common.

Document Preparation Fee is mostly real, and actually the lenders do most of it these days. When the title or escrow company need to do it, they will charge fairly steep rates (I've seen $200 for a single sheet document), but you are a captive audience unless you discuss it beforehand.

Notary Fee is to pay the Notary. It's real. It often fell into the PFC trap, previously discussed for Appraisals and Escrow, but you really do need certain documents notarized. Sometimes you can save some money by finding a less expensive notary, but this can bring up other issues, like getting everyone to the same place at the same time.

Title Insurance is real. If it's a purchase, there will actually be two policies of title insurance purchased, one for the new owner and one for the lender. This insures against unknown defects in the title of your property, and yes, title claims happen every day. Lenders won't lend without one. Title insurance is another one of those third party fees that got marked PFC so that less scrupulous loan officers could appear to be less expensive than their competition.

I'm going to mention subescrow fees here, even though they aren't preset onto the form, and are not only junk but also avoidable if your agent did their job. The title company charges them because they are usually asked to do work that is, properly speaking, the realm of the escrow company. But if you choose a title company and escrow firm with common ownership, they will likely be waived.

Government Recording and Transfer Charges are not junk. They are charged by the county, and they are not avoidable, nor should you want to. Recording fees and tax stamps (if applicable) are just part of the cost of doing business. Beware of one provider pretending it doesn't exist while another honestly discloses it.

Additional Settlement Charges. Pest Inspection is the only one on the form, and it is not junk. You want a pest inspection if you're buying the property. The lender can require it in some circumstances upon refinance.

Now, you'll notice that of the permanently etched items on the form, there's not a lot of junk, but everybody keeps talking about high junk fees. What are these, and where are they?

Well, most of the things that people talk about as junk fees aren't junk fees. These are fees like Appraisal fee, escrow, credit report, notary, etcetera. These are, incidentally, half or more of the closing costs for most loans. They may have been hidden from you on the initial form, but they're not junk. They are essential parts of the process, and if you don't see explicit dollar values associated with them, somebody is trying to lie about their fees by not telling you about all of them. It's not like you're going to somehow not pay them. They're just pretending you're not in order to get you to sign up with them.

This has diminished significantly this year with the advent of the 2010 Good Faith Estimate. The regulators may be intentionally deceiving consumers about the costs of broker loans versus the cost of direct lender loans, but they did one thing to the benefit of the consumer - if it's not on the Good Faith Estimate, there are now fewer circumstances where the lender is permitted to raise what they disclose, so there is less pretending a loan is going to be all but free and then socking people for $12,000 in closing costs.

Nonetheless things that really are junk fees are a real problem, but the reason they're not among those listed on the form is that the items listed on the form are mostly real. It's the extra stuff that gets written into the extra lines that you've got to watch out for. It was fine and legitimate for a loan officer to write "Total of lenders fees $995" or however much it was, although the new 2010 Good Faith Estimate no longer permits this. On the HUD 1, these should be broken out into separate charges, but this way the loan officer only has to remember one number. As long as they add up correctly, no harm and no foul, and it doesn't make any difference to you whether it's underwriting and document generation or spa visits for their senior management, it's part of doing business with that lender. What is probably not legitimate is to start writing all kinds of other fees. Miscellaneous fees. Packaging fees. Marketing fees. Legitimate Messenger fees should be something you know about because you need them at the time they happen. But the majority of messenger fees are the title/escrow company trying to get you to pay for daily courier runs that happen anyway. If you choose the right title/escrow combination, you should be able to avoid them in most cases.

It is also a common misconception that all junk fees are lenders junk fees. I don't impose junk fees on my clients, and I do my best to keep title and escrow from doing so. However, coming into situations other loan officers have left behind where it's best to simply go with what's already in place, title companies and escrow companies, in general, appear to impose about an equal amount in junk fees with most loan providers. This is also changing now with the new Good Faith Estimate which makes lenders and loan officers liable for the extra fees - as a result of which title and escrow companies who don't want to lose business are cleaning up their act. I have told more than one title and escrow representative that the first time I end up paying their extra fees out of my pocket will be the last dime their company sees from my clients. Multiply this by the number of loan officers in the country, and you can see that they've suddenly gotten a powerful incentive to treat broker clients, at least, honestly.

Caveat Emptor

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3 Comments




Thank you for this post. It always fries my brain to here REAL transaction costs referred to as junk. You have done a great service to consumers.
Chris Braden said:

Can a mortgage lender you are paying off who is
providing loan payoff information in the form of
a fax to the new lender charge whatever they want
to fax this information to the new lender? Recently, I refinanced a mortgage I had with Wells-Fargo Bank. My new lender, a federal credit union, requested a pay-off statement from
Wells-Fargo. Wells-Fargo faxed over six sheets
and charged me what I consider to be an outrageous $10 per sheet, or $60. I could find no document in my original mortgage paperwork with Wells-Fargo that provided for such a seemingly high fee. Can you tell me if you think
I can make them refund most of this money and perhaps lower the fax fee to say, $2 per sheet?
This may sound a little trivial, but to me this is also a matter of what's fair and what's a rip-off. Any response you can give will be appreciated. Thank You, Chris Braden

Dan Melson Author Profile Page said:

Chris,

It's likely in there with some term like "reasonable and customary" but $10 per sheet is on the high side. I thought better of that lender, especially as it's all automated anyway.

Please be civil. Avoid profanity - I will delete the vast majority of it, usually by deleting the entire comment. To avoid comment spam, a comments account is required. They are freely available, and you can post comments immediately. Alternatively, you may use your Type Key registration, or sign up for one (They work at most Movable Type sites) All comments made are licensed to the site, but the fact that a comment has been allowed to remain should not be taken as an endorsement from me or the site. There is no point in attempting to foster discussion if only my own viewpoint is to be permitted. If you believe you see something damaging to you or some third party, I will most likely delete it upon request.
Logical failures (straw man, ad hominem, red herring, etcetera) will be pointed out - and I hope you'll point out any such errors I make as well. If there's something you don't understand, ask.
Nonetheless, the idea of comments should be constructive. Aim them at the issue, not the individual. Consider it a challenge to make your criticism constructive. Try to be respectful. Those who make a habit of trollish behavior will be banned.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 25, 2013 7:00 AM.

Magical Thinking About Mortgage Loans was the previous entry in this blog.

FSBO Horror and Failure to Disclose Property Defects is the next entry in this blog.

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