I’d like to preface this post with a disclaimer. I am not Milton Friedman. I do not hold advanced degrees in any academic discipline that might lend my suggestions here intellectual credibility. To say that my writings lack the philosophical rigor and insight into the nuances of governance demonstrated by those of Thomas Jefferson would be a gross understatement.
I am just a guy who has worked for years with Veterans helping them to finance VA home loan purchases, refinances and debt consolidations. I’ve assisted high-ranking VA homeowners working at The Pentagon as well as members of the Navy JAG core. I’ve worked with 20-year-old veterans returning from the Middle East – some of them deeply scarred and rendered disabled by the horrors of war- yet proud, and in possession of a nobility and stoicism that I will never fully grasp.
I’ve watched the VA lending environment expand and contract, watched VA guidelines tighten and loosen, watched veterans experience the singular joy of first-time home ownership and bore witness to the sobering reality of veterans facing foreclosure. Mine is an opinion forged in practical experience on the front lines of the VA loan guarantee program; working with veterans, hearing their frustrations, and (at times) lacking sufficient means to address them. What follows are three components of a Veteran Homeowners Mission Statement– philosophical rules to guide industry policy and practices that I believe will ultimately benefit all veteran homeowners. I invite all veterans, of both the military and mortgage industry alike, to sound off on what I write here so that we might evolve our collective understanding of the issues and form more practical and efficient solutions to address them.
#1 Less Is More
Throughout the loan process, veteran homeowners are flooded with loan disclosures. These disclosures were all created with a noble goal in mind- to ensure homeowners emerge from the home loan process better informed of their rights and made more aware of the details of the transaction. But with respect to the average homeowner there is an argument to be made that the collected loan disclosure documents often result in the opposite effect. Over time, these disclosures have been amended and supplemented by others, at the Federal and State levels. Whether they will admit it or not, there are many borrowers who find themselves confused and intimidated by the number of documents which require their signature, to say nothing of the verbiage within them. I firmly believe that regardless of the imperfections of the process, it is the responsibility of the loan originator not only to properly disclose to homeowners but to ensure that homeowners understand the documents they are presented with. An originators job is to guide borrowers through the loan process, represent their interests, and to ultimately provide them with sufficient knowledge by which to make a decision. But I believe there is a better way to deliver this knowledge. For example, any person who has ever entered a polling booth on election day knows that when they open the election guide they will find a list of the measures and candidates on the ballot accompanied by common sense breakdowns of each. Measures are summarized and supplemented by endorsements or criticisms offered by relevant parties on either side of the issue. Candidates up for election are described by their experience and political positions and are similarly endorsed or criticized by editorial commentary. Furthermore, there are links and references listed so that voters can learn more about the issues beyond the content contained in the booklets. This method allows voters to make reasoned judgments by translating their options and framing the impact of their choices. I would like to see the closing disclosure package for home loans treated in a similar fashion. By consolidating the number of disclosures and translating the relevant information into common language, homeowners will be able to better grasp the knowledge. I imagine a 1-3 document where rights associated with each disclosure are summarized in bullet points and organized by the relevant subject. They might include; Veteran Disclosures, State Federal Rights for all Homeowners, Transaction Specific Disclosures, etc. This document would require a signature by the homeowner acknowledging receipt of an accompanying pamphlet which would contain the full text of all the disclosures, greater analysis with examples, a glossary of related terms, and a procedural breakdown of the loan process.
#2 Give It To Them Straight
Numbers can be misleading. The Truth in Lending Disclosure mandated under the Truth in Lending Disclosure Act provides borrowers with amortization schedules, details the amount of interest that will be paid out over the life of the loan, loan specific terms and restrictions, and of course the APR, or Annual Percentage Rate. The APR calculation is provided to help borrowers determine how loan financing costs factor into their “effective” rate. The APR does not factor in title charges, appraisal costs, tax/insurance reserves or other “third party” charges, which could be underestimated to make a particular loan seem more attractive than another. But the issue with the APR,(especially on refinance transactions) is that it only functions as a means by which the borrower can compare offers between loan companies. The APR does not effectively help the borrower decide if they should refinance in the first place. An additional and more meaningful metric would be a “breakeven” analysis. The calculation would include the total settlement charges, adjusted for escrow refunds and interest added to their loan payoff, divided by the Principle & Interest savings on the loan. This number would then be adjusted to reflect the number of months it would take to cover the cost of the closing charges and any principle reduction the borrower would have seen without refinancing over that time. The “breakeven” or “recoup” number would better frame the short AND long term benefit of the loan. Borrowers could measure this number against the number of months they intend to keep the mortgage. Too often borrowers will chase rates blindly, simply because they are lower than what they have, despite the fact that the recoup time eats into the advantage of the loan.
#3 Get Behind The Numbers
While a borrowers recoup time might at first appear disadvantageous, a borrower might choose to refinance in an attempt to redirecting mortgage payment savings to pay off higher interest rate debts. I believe that most borrowers intentions with regard to mortgage transactions are implied but not clarified. A “cash out” transaction, or “debt consolidation loan” might appear specific enough on paper, but requiring the borrower to clarify their intentions with worksheet/questionnaire helps the underwriter get a better sense of the net benefit of the loan and the credit worthiness of a borrower. The questionnaire/worksheet would clarify why the borrower decided on a particular rate/fee/loan program combination over alternatives, how long they intend to stay in the property and how the borrower plans to handle the resulting loan savings. This information may strike some as irrelevant and invasive. But this idea helps an underwriter keep both the borrower and the loan officer accountable. By completing the questionnaire/worksheet the borrower is framing the reason why they are applying for credit. It is widely accepted that recording ones goals or intentions often results in a higher probability that they will see them through. This helps involve the borrower into the loan process, and establishes a kind of ethical accountability that goes deeper than simply signing ones name. It gives both the borrower and the underwriter a chance to evaluate how well the loan originator guided the borrower to an appropriate loan. Lenders would enjoy the disclosure simply because it would be a specific declaration of intention and purpose by the borrower, one that could later be referenced should an allegation arise that the borrowers were misled.
This is all I have come with for now. I hope you see the value in these philosophical guideposts. If you as a reader finds these ideas lacking or ill conceived, I want to hear your feedback. My goal is to evolve these ideas with your help. What else have you found frustrating/helpful in your experiences as an originator, underwriter, or veteran homeowner?