The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is proposing new rules to crack down on mortgage servicers' use of force-placed insurance, also called lender-placed insurance.
With this type of insurance, if a borrower doesn't maintain insurance on a property, mortgage servicers can buy it to protect the lender.
The problem is that these policies can have sky high premiums, offer little coverage, and, in some cases, end up drowning struggling borrowers into foreclosure.
Under the proposed rules, servicers would have to notify consumers in advance of charging them for insurance and terminate the insurance order within 15 days of receiving evidence that the borrower already has insurance. They would also be required to refund the consumer the amount overpaid. The move follows the state Attorneys General National Mortgage Settlement, which limits the ability of servicers to accept payments from service providers.
“Right now, people have too little protection under federal law if their mortgage servicer surprises them with costly fees or gives them the runaround,” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray said.
The financial crisis brought the practice to light as some mortgage servicers, squeezed by tight margins, tacked on high premium insurance fees to borrowers' payments. The practice, and allegations of self-dealing and kickbacks between lenders and insurers, are the subject of numerous lawsuits.
Companies that provide force-placed insurance say the higher premiums are needed because they assume higher risk. Lender policies are underwritten without the property being examined. Insurance is regulated by the states and regulators in New York, California, and Florida have already launched investigations of the forced-placed property insurance industry.
Seattle Attorney Melissa Huelsman has brought lawsuits against servicers and insurers involving force-placed insurance. In one case, the price of flood insurance, which is all purchased through the federal government, more than tripled.
“If anyone actually is interested in regulating these companies they would have strict compliance requirements," Huelsman said. "If a homeowner policy lapsed, the lender should have the right to reinstate that policy and not be permitted to mark up policies.”
“The flood insurance is the cleanest one to look at — there’s nothing they can say as to why it has to be marked up,” Huelsman said.
Guggenheim Washington Research Analyst Jaret Seiberg said the CFPB proposal creates “headline risk” for insurers like Assurant Specialty Property and QBE Insurance but since it doesn’t end the practice or set prices it “won’t be a game changer.”