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For sale: A nearly nonexistent insurance agency

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 1, 2014 at 3:27 am •  Published: August 1, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the country's largest overseers of troubled home loans, Nationstar Mortgage Holdings Inc., is quietly trying to sell a $100 million insurance agency that doesn't appear to exist.

Harwood Service Co. has no website, no independent offices and only a single registered agent. The switchboard operators at Nationstar's headquarters in Lewisville, Texas, haven't heard of Harwood. Call-center employees of Assurant Inc., the insurance carrier whose policies Harwood sells, say the company is just a name used to refer Nationstar business.

Only one thing justifies Harwood's nine-figure price tag: The ethereal company has long collected commissions on high-priced insurance that Nationstar compels otherwise-uninsured homeowners to buy. If homeowners can't pay for this "force-placed" coverage, Nationstar forecloses on their homes and sends the bill to mortgage bond investors.

New rules by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, investigations by state regulators and class-action settlements now prohibit servicers from collecting commissions on such insurance policies, and the country's biggest brand-name banks have renounced the practice.

But some large subprime-mortgage servicers appear to be trying to skirt those rules. They are selling or have sold the nearly nonexistent insurance agencies or have already made profitable business arrangements to try to comply with the new rules.

The multimillion-dollar deals illustrate how regulators are still wrestling with messy banking practices more than six years after the housing market's collapse. They also mean that newly sold insurance subsidiaries have an incentive to compel struggling homeowners to buy costly policies, to justify the high sales prices commanded when the insurance agencies were sold.

Harwood collected more than $40 million last year on more than $200 million worth of insurance billed to homeowners, according to two people familiar with Nationstar's confidential sales pitch for the business but who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

Force-placed insurance is a type of backup property insurance meant to protect mortgage investors' stake in uninsured properties. Standard mortgages require borrowers to maintain homeowners insurance and authorize the loan's servicer to buy coverage when borrowers don't. If the borrowers don't pay for the new insurance, servicers foreclose on their properties and stick the bill to mortgage investors.

Nationstar's first attempt to sell its affiliated insurance agency fell through early this month after The Associated Press raised questions about the deal, prompting New York's Department of Financial Services to take a look. Nationstar is still seeking to sell the insurance agency, said one person who is familiar with its efforts and requested anonymity to discuss its business affairs without authorization to do so publicly.

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