mortgage

Closing costs: are you paying too much?

Not all lenders will play ball, though, and those who do usually have "approved provider" lists. A customer would have to make sure an appraiser is on the list, for instance, before paying $300 for the person's services.

"The title insurance, as a consumer, that's your call," says Mark Ulmer, senior vice president of home loans field operations for Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc.

"Typically, what happens when you're going to buy a house and you're going through a Realtor, they know what title insurance companies do the best in the market and they want to control that. But you as the buyer, you're paying that and it's between you and the seller in some cases. You can go out and shop around title companies."

With appraisals, "It's up to the lender as far as determining the value that they should be using to make their loan. You could go down the block and find Joe the Appraiser and he'll do it for $100, but Joe doesn't know anything," he says.

"We have approved appraisers that we will accept appraisals from. We're not doing appraisals for the buyer. We're not doing it for the seller. We're doing it for us. We need to make sure we're protected."

Government fees final
Information about charges that fall into the government category and the fourth closing-cost group -- escrow/interest fees (otherwise known as "prepaid items" or "prepaid amounts") -- isn't as helpful.

State laws, the time of month the loan closes and the due date of taxes and insurance, among other things, determine those charges. That means lenders and private-market, third-party providers have no say in the matter and can't be convinced to lower those prices.

When trying to negotiate fees that can be changed, however, some borrowers will likely find they have more pull. A perfect-credit customer in the same job for many years who wants to buy a cookie-cutter suburban home, for example, has a good shot at getting lower processing and appraisal fees.

That's because the lender can do much of the application processing electronically and the appraiser may just be able to perform a "drive by" appraisal. A shopper with subprime credit who is self-employed and looking to buy a dome house in the Colorado mountains, however, requires much more hand-holding and lender man-hours.

The hard truth
No matter what, consumers have to be realistic. Lenders, appraisers, credit reporting agencies and other parties to a mortgage transaction have to make a certain amount of money to cover their cost of doing business and turn a profit. Some fees simply can't be avoided, and customers who won't accept that may be told to take a hike.

"When a bank is making a loan, often times a bank sells the loan to another institution. They may incur a fee, maybe $100 or $200. They also incur wiring fees. If you go to a mortgage banker for a loan and they use a line of credit, they're going to incur fees," says Schnall. "As far as courier fees, most lenders will charge one and it's because when you're processing a loan, a lot of things have to be shipped from here to there.

"All lenders have these fees," he adds. "They're not necessarily profit centers for these lenders, they're just ways for lenders to cover the cost of these processes. You can only go so far and there's a point at which somebody's not willing to do a loan."

Still, consumer experts say borrowers shouldn't be afraid to ask for reasonable closing cost breaks. And no matter what, don't accept a lender's "that's just the way it is" answer when asking why your good faith estimate shows $5,000 in assorted fees for a $100,000 mortgage.

"Question all the fees. Ask about it: 'Is it required? What is it?'" says Harper, the San Francisco housing counselor. "We're talking big bucks, and it's easy for someone to slip in $300 for this or $400 for that."

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