Complaints mounting over fees on mortgages Class-action suits call extra charges illegal

Nation's Housing

July 28, 1996|By Kenneth R. Harney

TO MICHIGAN attorney Robert Constan, the fees he is challenging are "symbolic of what's happening in the mortgage marketplace right now. Consumers aren't watching every line item on their [loan settlement documents]. They see little charges for $20, $30 or $50 and they just let them go. The fees just sort of sneak in there and nobody complains."

They're complaining now -- loudly. Constan's firm, Daguanno and Accetura, is one of several around the country who are taking on many of the biggest, best-known American mortgage companies over a series of seemingly trivial fees they routinely charge when they close out a home loan for a refinancing or to sell a house.

The companies under fire include Countrywide Home Loan Inc., Mellon Mortgage Co., Household Finance Corp., Advanta Mortgage Corp. and Citifed Bank Corp., among more than a dozen others. The fees in question carry designations like "reconveyance," "payoff statement," "document prep," or loan "satisfaction" when they appear on borrowers' settlement statements.

But Constan's suit against eight large lenders charges that those fees are illegal -- prohibited not only by the standard language of the mortgage documents themselves, but by state law, at least in Michigan. Lawyers in other states, including the O'Brien Law Firm in Nashua, N.H., Roddy & Grant in Boston, and Edelman & Combs in Chicago, have filed what one lender calls "a blizzard" of suits against industry leaders in the past two months, challenging loan payoff fees on federal and state legal grounds.

They argue that the fees amount to disguised illegal prepayment penalties against unsuspecting consumers.

At the core of virtually all the suits is this question: Should you as a mortgage borrower be required to pay any charge -- however small -- that is not sanctioned by your loan documents?

Consumer attorneys argue emphatically that the mortgage documents you sign are your complete, binding contract with the lender. If those documents prohibit or limit charges in connection with the payoff of the loan, other than charges to record the transaction at the county courthouse in most states, you shouldn't be forced to pay them.

Lenders' attorneys defend the fees as legitimate costs of doing business.

For example, in the case of the $20 to $30 "fax" charges routinely added to settlement statements, "we are passing on an expense for a service that is requested by the borrower's settlement agent or attorney," said an executive of one national lender, who asked not to be identified.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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