Mortgage Modifications
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MARS' loan modification protections extend to short sales, other foreclosure relief

(5/18/2011) - Rules protecting consumers from being taken by modification services also extend to short sale services and other forms of mortgage assistance, including some assistance offered by real estate agents.

Effective Jan. 31, 2011 modification assistance firms have been banned from collecting fees until a home owner agrees with a written foreclosure or modification plan approved by their lender or loan servicer.

The ban and other related disclosure and regulatory provisions are part of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) "Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule", designed to curb fraud, scams and rip-offs in the distressed mortgage services industry.

While MARS news has been focused largely on the cottage industry of private companies offering modification services to consumers, the rule impacts all mortgage assistance relief services including those offering short sale services and other assistance.

Some real estate agents must comply

Laurie Janik, National Association of Realtors' general counsel, recently reviewed the new rule at a forum during the Realtors 2011 Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C. and put on notice, real estate agents who provide short sale services, according to a recent DSNews report.

"As the leading advocate for homeownership, NAR supports efforts to ensure that mortgage assistance relief services truly benefit consumers. Nevertheless, NAR has some concerns about the rule and its application to real estate professionals involved in short sales transactions," Janik told DSNews.

But it's not just short sales. The official Federal Register Vol. 75, No. 230 rendition of the rule is pretty clear, as federal regulations go.

"The Rule is intended to regulate for-profit providers of mortgage assistance relief services...defined as 'any service, plan, or program, offered or provided to the consumer in exchange for consideration, that is represented, expressly or by implication, to assist or attempt to assist the consumer' in negotiating a modification of a dwelling loan…stopping, preventing, or postponing a foreclosure or repossession; or obtaining one of several other types of relief to avoid delinquency or foreclosure... (including) a forbearance or repayment plan; an extension of time to cure default, reinstate a loan, or redeem a property; a waiver of an acceleration clause or balloon payment; and a short sale, deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, or any other disposition of the property except a sale to a third-party that is not the loan holder."

One question is obvious: If a company doesn't charge for mortgage relief services, does the MARS rule apply?

"Most of the local short sale specialists advertise this as a free service to our sellers and understand that the cost of the professional negotiations will be paid out of the hired Realtor's commission," said Julie Larsen Wyss, broker associate, Intero Real Estate Services, Los Gatos , CA.

Janik acknowledged to DSNews that real estate agents who do offer fee-based services must not take upfront fees, as the law requires, but she also voiced concern that other MARS rules could also apply to real estate agents helping with short sales, including rules that touch on disclosures, advertising, communicating with clients, negotiating a short sale or arranging for a short sale negotiation.

"NAR is discussing with the FTC some language in the second and third disclosures as well as some other requirements found in the MARS rule," Janik said, according to DSNews.

"The FTC is considering possible options to help make the rule more applicable to a real estate brokerage…when they are performing traditional real estate functions in a short sale transaction," she added.

A history of fraud

Too many foreclosure rescue and loan modification services became a festering outgrowth of the mortgage market meltdown that left many home owners underwater with a mortgage balance greater than the value of the home.

The operations often promised to be a go-between and negotiate with the lender to obtain a modification, short sale or some other relief from foreclosure. Some also duped home owners into believing they were affiliated with real government assistance programs.

Now, without up front fees, many fly-by-night operations don't have the capital to resume operations.

MARS does allow licensed attorneys to charge advance fees, provided the fees are held in an escrow (trust) account and provided the attorney complies with state laws and regulations related to the federal rule.

MARS rules are disclosure heavy. The rules say mortgage assistance relief services must disclose:

• The proposed cost of the service.

• That consumers have a right to reject any offer from the service or the lender without charge and can stop doing business with the service company at any time.

• That the service is not affiliated or associated with nor approved by any government entity.

• That the lender can reject any change to the home owner's loan.

• That home owners could lose their home and damage their credit rating if they follow a service's advice to stop paying their mortgage.

If services are offered or negotiated in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalong or Vietnamese, the disclosures must also be provided in the same language.

Foreclosure rescue and loan modification services are also prohibited from making any false or misleading claims about their services, including claims about results, government affiliation; the consumer's financial obligations; refund and cancellation policies; legal representation and the amount of savings a consumer can expect, among others.

Home owners should also check with their state rules for the services. Some states have stronger regulations than the federal MARS rule.

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