Save Thousands on Closing Costs

ByABC News via logo
March 9, 2006, 9:35 AM

March 9, 2006— -- Author's note: Thursday I did a story about real estate closing costs on "Good Morning America." As I walked off the set at the end, the crew gathered around me and started peppering me with further questions about the topic. I realized I had struck a nerve!

After all, often I can give advice that saves you tens or hundreds of dollars, but this is a chance to save THOUSANDS! So I decided to continue the conversation about closing costs in my weekly column.

Every year, Americans spend $110 billion buying houses. I'm not talking about how much the homes themselves cost. I'm talking about how much the loans cost. American home buyers routinely pay abusive closing costs. There are two kinds: real fees that are inflated and junk fees that are just plain made up. It doesn't have to be that way. If you know what you're doing, you can save thousands of dollars when you go to the settlement table.

Here's the problem: when you apply for a loan, the mortgage company gives you a list of the fees you can expect. It's called a good faith estimate. What a joke! All too often these estimates aren't given "in good faith" at all. You see, there's no law requiring the mortgage company to stick to its good faith estimate. So when you go to closing a month later, often you'll find the fees have risen sharply or new fees have been added. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been fighting to prevent lenders, brokers and title agents from padding closing costs. But the current law is weak, so courts keep siding with the mortgage industry. Until Congress passes a better law, it's up to you to protect yourself.

Years ago, when I closed on my first home, the fees were a whopping $2,000 more than I had expected -- even though the mortgage company manager knew I was an investigative reporter. I can only imagine how that company treats customers who don't have a title like mine to fling around. Of course, I questioned every single line item, found several junk fees, and got the company to knock several hundred dollars off my closing costs. Let me fill you in on several ways the mortgage industry tries to get you.

Cleo S. wanted to refinance her home. The lender charged her $50 for a so-called "funding fee." That's a euphemism for a simple wire transfer. First of all, wire transfers don't cost that much. Second, getting the money to the borrower is the lender's job and shouldn't cost extra. The lender also charged Cleo $150 for a survey, but when you refinance, normally a survey isn't required. The title company took advantage of Cleo too. It charged her $125 to record her deed with the county. But the county where Cleo lives only charges $25 for that service. The fee was heavily padded -- pure profit for the title company!

There are a couple of proposals that could reform abusive closing costs like these. One idea is for groups of lenders, title agents, surveyors and appraisers to band together and offer package deals. The packages would be guaranteed, so consumers could shop and compare. These package deals are already starting to be a reality. The other possibility is a law requiring lenders to stick to their original good faith estimates, or not stray by more than 10 percent. Even the mortgage industry supports this proposal. That would eliminate the bait-and-switch tactics so common today.

For now, the best thing you can do is learn the lingo and be ready to fight. Here's a breakdown of the typical fees you will see on your closing cost bill, called a "HUD-1 settlement statement." I explain what the fees are actually for and how much they typically cost in the Washington, D.C., area, where I live. Keep in mind these are rough estimates. Lots of factors can make these fees higher or lower (like where you live, whether you're a first-time home buyer, and if you have poor credit). Understanding what the fees are for will help you bargain them down.

Loan Origination Fee: 1 percent of the purchase price
This is simply a way for the lender to make a bit of money up front. If you deal directly with a mortgage company, rather than with a mortgage broker, this is how the loan officer makes his money. The loan origination fee is another name for a "point" and it is tax deductible.

Loan Discount
The "loan discount" refers to the "points" you pay to buy down your interest rate. If you choose to pay points, each point will be 1 percent of the loan amount. Take out a loan for $100,000 and one point will equal $1,000. As a general rule of thumb, for each point you pay, you buy down the interest rate by 0.25 percent. So, for example, you could pay zero points and get a 7.75 percent interest rate. Or you could pay three points and get a 7 percent interest rate. If you don't plan to keep the home long, points can be expensive for you. If you plan to stay put a long time, points begin to pay for themselves. If you are purchasing a house, points are tax deductible the year you take out the loan. If you are refinancing your house, you have to deduct the points over the life of the loan.

Underwriting Fee: $150-$325
Some lenders charge a fee to weigh the risk of doing business with you. Critics say this fee shouldn't exist, because underwriting is an integral part of what a lender does. It would be like a carpenter charging an extra fee for carrying his tools into your house. But lenders now routinely charge back-end fees like this so they can keep their interest rates low, which is how they attract customers. You may be able to negotiate a lower underwriting fee.