Local Politics

New Laws Protect Homebuyers From Unethical Lending

Posted August 16, 2007 1:43 p.m. EDT
Updated August 16, 2007 6:55 p.m. EDT

— Homeowners facing foreclosure in North Carolina obtained some new safeguards Thursday, as Gov. Mike Easley signed three consumer-protection bills into law.

The three new laws are designed to rein in abusive lending practices, provide consumers with more information and protect unsuspecting homebuyers and tenants from unfair fees and penalties.

"A home purchase is the biggest and most important investment most people will ever make, and it's not one where you can afford to make a mistake and certainly not one you can afford to be tricked," Easley said.

Lenders foreclose on about 80 homes in Wake County each week, and default rates on home loans have soared by 250 percent since 1998, officials said.

Brian Endicott of Youngsville, for example, found his family buried in foreclosure when his daughter's sudden illness put him behind on payments. He said the lender deceived him with endless hidden penalty fees.

"The fees just continue to add up. It just buries you deeper and deeper. There's really no way out of it," Endicott said. "They get somebody in a situation. (The consumers) get over a barrel, (and) they don't know what else to do."

Attorney Carlene McNulty of the North Carolina Justice Center, who works to help foreclosed buyers, said mortgage brokers play a role in many questionable loans.

"They get their money up front, so it doesn't matter whether the person is able to pay it back," McNulty said. "(Consumers are) told that their payment will be one thing, and it turns out not to be true."

Easley said laws need to be continually updated as lenders find new, often unfair, fees that they can charge borrowers.

"We're having to outlaw more and more as we go along," he said. "North Carolina has the best predatory lending (law) in the country, but what we're missing is national legislation."

The new laws require more disclosure by lenders and allow the state Banking Commission to void a mortgage loan if authorities determine borrowers weren't given accurate information upfront. The legislation also prevents loans to consumers based on low, teaser interest rates and makes fraudulent lending practices a felony offense.

"What they're doing to some of the people taking out these loans, causing them to lose their houses, they ought to be in jail," Easley said. "We're going to enforce this vigorously."

The laws also make it easier for borrowers to sue for illegal lending practices.

But McNulty and other consumer advocates said the laws can go only so far. Borrowers need to better understand what they can afford and the pitfalls of interest-only and adjustable-rate mortgages, they said.