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20 signs of a bad loan

If your credit is damaged but you need cash, you might be tempted to accept a loan without worrying too much about the terms. But some conditions and clauses should make you reconsider your options.

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"There are some extremely abusive, one-sided contract terms consumers sign because they think that's what they have to do to get the money," says Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. But often you can find a better deal if you shop around.

Here are some loan conditions that should make you think twice:

1. Money upfront. "Money upfront is a really bad sign," says Fritz Elmendorf, vice president of communications for the Consumer Bankers Association, a financial services trade group. "Possibly even of fraud." One nominal application fee is fine, he says. But the point of a loan is that they are supposed to be giving you money, not the other way around.

2. Changing interest rate. An adjustable-rate mortgage can be a good thing for some borrowers. But it should be a trade-off. In return for accepting a little uncertainty, the borrower gets favorable terms, like a lower rate. Too many times in the subprime market, borrowers are saddled with adjustable-rate mortgages simply as the cost of getting a loan, says Michael Stegman, professor of public policy and director of the Center for Community Capitalism at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If you have a rate that can change, you have to ask some questions. "You want to know what is the worst-case scenario, not best," says Norma Garcia, senior attorney with Consumers Union. "What's the worst this can get? Will that be OK?"

Realize that a changing rate makes the loan a much riskier proposition for you. In a recent study of subprime mortgage refinance loans, ARM features boosted the chances of foreclosure by 49 percent, Stegman says.

3. Balloon payment. "The ideal is: Don't have any balloon payments," says John Taylor, president and CEO of National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a trade association of community groups. The worst scenario: The balloon is due early in the loan. "It makes a huge amount of money due right away, and most people in the subprime market really can't afford to do that. So for a lot of people, they end up losing everything."

In subprime mortgage refinance loans, borrowers with a balloon payment have a 46 percent greater chance of foreclosure, says Stegman.

4. Too much money. More is not always better. So raise the red flag if a lender is trying to talk you into a larger loan. Two red flags if your home is the collateral. If you have to borrow, take the least amount for the shortest time period with the lowest APR.

5. Excessive fees. "Some fees are truly legitimate," says Garcia. "Some are backdoor fees that don't appear in the disclosure." What you want to watch out for is excessive or hidden fees. Add everything up yourself. The sum of the terms you shopped should equal what's in the loan documents. If it doesn't, you need to ask some questions.

Next: Even if your credit is bad, shop around
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