CHARLOTTE — A year ago, a $25 billion settlement ordered banks to do a better job helping troubled homeowners, and to end the stories of borrowers trapped in a confusing web of mortgage negotiations leading to foreclosure.
The stories, however, keep coming, even as banks take their required steps to improve how they handle homeowners in distress.
One of the most widely criticized practices was “dual-tracking,” in which banks pressed ahead with foreclosure proceedings while borrowers scrambled to get their loans modified.
The settlement was supposed to change that. The architects of the deal with Bank of America, Wells Fargo and three other major banks said the agreement would give troubled borrowers “every opportunity” to modify their loans before facing foreclosure.
But the rules spelled out in the settlement give banks the latitude in many cases to move toward a foreclosure sale even as they work with borrowers trying to save their homes.
Banks can send foreclosure notices and schedule court hearings and eviction dates – all while a homeowner is filing paperwork for a loan modification.
The settlement did force some improvements: Banks can’t actually sell the home while a modification is pending. And they can’t start foreclosures against borrowers who seek help soon after becoming delinquent.
Still, the rules mean homeowners around the country can end up planning for foreclosure hearings while trying to work with their banks. Advocates and lawyers tell of borrowers having to juggle legal notices, loan modification applications and a search for a new place to live at the same time.
“They think their loan is going to be modified. They’re told not to worry about the pending foreclosure action,” said Mal Maynard of the Financial Protection Law Center of Wilmington, N.C. “At the last possible minute, they learn that they will not get a modification and are thrown off the cliff into foreclosure.
“The thought behind the provision is to give a borrower full and fair consideration for a loan modification before beginning the foreclosure proceeding. They are often deprived of that opportunity.”
Banks following rules
Both Bank of America and Wells Fargo say they are doing everything the settlement requires. Executives at both banks say their mortgage servicers repeatedly try to reach out to delinquent borrowers before referring a loan to foreclosure.
Randy Bockenstedt, senior vice president in customer contact and collections at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said he still believes borrowers have every opportunity to get a loan modification before facing foreclosure. He said many complaints about dual-tracking come from confusion about what the settlement requires and does not.
“We don’t stop working with a borrower just because they’ve been referred to foreclosure,” he said.
Janet Menetrier was surprised to be served a foreclosure notice on her Charlotte home in early December, just three months after Bank of America promised her a loan modification over the phone. The next month, she found three letters from the Charlotte bank in her mailbox.
The first said she was being considered for a loan modification on the home she’d been battling to save from foreclosure for nearly six months. The second said the bank needed more information to process her application. The third said she’d been denied for all loan modifications.
Each letter bore the same date, Jan. 12. And her foreclosure hearing had already been set for just three weeks away.
“I thought they were supposed to make things better and easier,” Menetrier said as she spread reams of paperwork across her kitchen table. “What they’re doing is just wrong.”
Better … or not
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, one of the chief negotiators of the settlement, said complaints to his office on servicing standards have gone down in the past year, but his office was unable to provide specific numbers.
“We think things are significantly better, and it makes sense that they are,” he said in an interview.
But he said he was surprised to hear of some of the complaints The Charlotte Observer had received, such as Menetrier receiving three conflicting letters from Bank of America on the same day.
“If that is going on, that is a real problem,” Cooper said.
Hundreds of complaints on the topic have been funneled to Joseph Smith, the former North Carolina bank commissioner who now serves as the settlement’s monitor. He confirmed to the Observer that the lingering examples of dual-tracking have been an area of discussion between him and the five banks in the settlement but declined to elaborate.
“I have heard from the consumers and consumer professionals who are concerned about dual-tracking,” he said in an emailed statement. “I will use the enforcement powers I have under the settlement to address those concerns.”
Smith has received more than 6,300 complaints on all aspects of the settlement in the year since the accord was announced. That’s just a fraction of the roughly 3 million delinquent mortgages potentially covered under the settlement.
But as of the end of 2012, complaints had come from all 50 states, and between November and February, the volume of complaints increased from 550 per month to 830 per month.