Subprime Lender Countrywide Mails Checks to Cheated Homeowners

Check in the mailThe check's in the mail.

The money promised to homeowners in Florida and 39 other states -- part of a 2008 settlement with a mortgage lender that came to symbolize the worst practices in the realm of subprime lending -- began to flow last week.

Some 2,700 Florida residents who had lost their homes after Countrywide Financial Corp. foreclosed on their mortgages can look forward to checks totaling a little more than $6,000 each. Seems like chump change to someone who's lost their home. Yet, Florida homeowners may be faring better than most.In California payments are ranging form $2,500 to $3,000. Michigan residents that qualify are seeing checks for about $3,000. In Connecticut, checks are totaling $3,400. Further south in Pennsylvania, former Countrywide loan holders are seeing checks of about $4,300. The dollar amount going to affected homeowners depends on the number of borrowers that met the criteria set up by the lawsuit settlement.

Ken Thomas, a Miami real estate consultant and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, said compared to the tens of thousands of dollars many consumers lost when Countrywide foreclosed on mortgages they couldn't pay, a $6,000 settlement hardly seems worth the effort of filing out the paperwork required to qualify.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2008, alleged that Countrywide put consumers in mortgages they couldn't afford, or in loans with rates and penalties they didn't fully understand. And the company's deceptive marketing practices also glossed over the hidden costs or puntive terms on some of its mortgages.

The settlement with Countrywide, which was purchased by Bank of America one day after the lawsuit was filed, totaled $8.6 billion. It included home retention relief, requiring the company to modify loans, moving borrowers from adjustable-rate mortgages to fixed-rate loans they could afford as well as waiving late fees, penalties and other costs. The AGs have called on the bank to be responsive to homeowners who have run into economic trouble and are looking to modify their loans and save their homes from foreclosure.

In Florida, $4 million is being used to fund a foreclosure defense assistance program over the next two years that will provide free legal assistance to homeowners who are facing foreclosure proceedings and can't afford to hire an attorney.

Thomas contends that more regulation of mortgage company lending practice would have curbed some of the abuses we saw during the real estate boom. Countrywide was the largest lender in South Florida as the real estate boom peaked in 2006 and 2007.

Ironically, the payments began going out to former Countrywide loan customers during the same week that the Federal Housing Finance Authority has proposed new rules prohibiting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from using subprime mortgages to satisfy the government requirement to finance loans to low-income consumers.

The FHFA now believes the two companies had been relying too heavily on bonds backed by subprime mortgages and commercial mortgage-backed securities to meet its affordable housing goals.

If those new rules had been adopted, say six or seven years ago, some of the real estate problems we've seen in the past two years might have been avoided. And many homeowners in Florida and elsewhere might not have lost their homes.

But that's not the end of Countrywide's legal woes. A civil case against Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide's former CEO, is still pending in Broward County Court in Fort Lauderdale.
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