MIAMI, FLORIDA - Lenders who allow their home insurance to lapse will often get stuck with a bill for much more expensive coverage, courtesy of their mortgage holders.
Called force-placed or lender-placed insurance, these policies protect banks’ interests when borrowers fail to follow through on the standard loan requirement that they maintain continuous coverage on their home.
The use of these policies soared during the recession, as homeowners who fell behind on their mortgages effectively stopped paying their insurance as well, since premiums are typically included in the monthly payment. From 2006 to 2011, direct earned premiums for lender-placed insurance more than tripled, to $3.1 billion from $954 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute. “It’s a privately run, high-risk market of last resort,” said Robert P. Hartwig, the institute’s president.
But state and federal regulators have begun to question whether mortgage servicers have been too quick to slap these high-priced policies into place, possibly because of financial incentives. At hearings held this spring by the New York State Department of Financial Services, a representative for American Home Mortgage Servicing acknowledged that a company affiliate receives 15 percent commissions from QBE First, a major provider of lender-placed insurance, for policies placed on its loans.
Because the premiums for lender-placed policies are 2 to 10 times as expensive as standard homeowner policies, these policies impose a considerable burden on already distressed homeowners, said Alexis, a research and policy analyst for New York’s Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. In some cases, the cost more or less ensures foreclosure for a household on the brink; it can also hurt a borrower’s chances for a loan modification.
Fannie Mae has adopted new mortgage servicer guidelines aimed at reducing the likelihood that borrowers will get stuck with a high-priced policy unnecessarily. The guidelines require the servicer to keep the borrower’s own homeowner policy in force if at all possible, even if that means advancing money to cover the past-due premium.
The servicer is required to contact the borrower by letter at least twice before putting a lender policy in place. Such disclosures must explain that lender-placed insurance costs more, and that it covers only the structure of a house, not its contents.
Once a lender policy is in place, homeowners can still buy their own insurance and ask to have the lender policy canceled. Fannie Mae wants servicers to refund the premiums on canceled policies within 15 days of receiving evidence of other coverage.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed similar guidelines, as part of the mortgage servicer rules it is writing to implement the Dodd-Frank Act.
“The new rules would require the servicer to continue advancing the money to keep the homeowner’s policy in effect rather than letting it lapse, so the forced-place insurance would never even come up,” said Andrew Pizor, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
Consumer advocates like Mr. Pizor are concerned that, under the bureau’s proposal, the requirement does not apply if a borrower doesn’t have an escrow account. The bureau is accepting public comment on the rules through Oct. 9; comments may be registered on its Web site.
Mr. Hartwig of the insurance institute defends the rates as a reflection of the risk of insuring the homes on a lender’s books in bulk, “sight unseen, irrespective of their condition.”
But Birny Birnbaum, a former insurance regulator and the executive director of the Center for Economic Justice in Texas, says losses on lender-placed policies amount to less than on standard policies. “The responsibility comes down to regulators to do their job and say rates need to be reasonable and not excessive,” he said.