The Housing Scene

Uncle Sam may or may not be watching you. But if you have a mortgage, your lender could be.

Black Knight Financial Services is an analytical and data firm that has deals with 23 of the top 25 loan originators, and all of the top 25 mortgage servicers. The company recently introduced new software that can reveal any number of things about your personal situation.

If you put your home up for sale, for example, the program can flag your account with your lender or servicer. That way, Black Knight officials said at a recent press briefing, you can be contacted and offered a new loan on your new place -- before you even find it. Or maybe they can allow you to carry your old loan with you to help cover the cost of the new residence.

Another possibility: If you stop paying your recurring monthly bills such as cable, cellphone or utilities, the software will mark your account for the lender, who can call and ask what the company can do to help you out. Lenders know that pretty soon, in such cases, you'll start getting behind on your mortgage; perhaps an offer of help to manage your finances -- say, reworking your mortgage so your monthly payment is lower -- can protect them from losing you to foreclosure.

And how about this: The software will tell lenders and servicers if you place subsequent liens on your property. That way, they'll know if your debt-to-income ratio has exceeded their particular benchmark. If it does, they can start to watch your account very carefully.

Black Knight says it tracks postings 24/7 from 3,000 courthouses nationwide to collect the data to support this scenario.

"If such a program was in place a decade ago, when people took out an 80 percent first mortgage, a 20 percent second mortgage and a 25 percent home equity loan -- all with different lenders who didn't know of the others -- there may not have been a housing recession," a Black Knight spokesman told me.

OVERALL, HOMEOWNERS SITTING PRETTY

While some people always struggle to get into homeownership, folks on the other side of that "velvet rope" have it made, according to Ben Graboske of Black Knight Financial Services.

"If you are a homeowner today, life is good," says Graboske.

As an indication that current owners are in "really good shape," take note that home equity in the last year has grown by $1 trillion nationally, bringing the total to $7.6 trillion. Of that, says Graboske, $4.5 trillion is sitting there ready to be tapped, even with today's super-tight lending standards.

And that's just for the people who have one of today's 30 million active mortgages. There's no telling how much equity mortgage-free owners are sitting on.

According to Graboske, owners are tapping into their equity at great numbers these days. But if that sounds like people are pulling too much money out of their homes, as they did in the run-up to the housing recession that brought the economy to its knees, have no fear.

The average home equity loan taken out by owners is $67,000. But even after that, the average borrower still has 32 percent of their equity left.

Another sign of the strength of the house market: Put the typical primary mortgage and home equity loan together, and the total loan-to-value ratio is a mere 68 percent -- a ratio almost every lender can live with. Better yet, the average credit score of a home equity borrower these days is 782, the "highest on record," says Graboske.

DON'T FALL FOR LATEST DOOR-TO-DOOR SCAM

Your home alarm system may alert you and the authorities about a would-be burglar scratching at your rear window. But it will do nothing to protect you from the latest scam making the rounds these days. In fact, the criminals are taking advantage of alarm systems to get into homes, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

How's that work, you ask? Simple, really. A fake sales agent knocks on your door, claiming he's there to upgrade your system. If you are gullible enough to allow him in -- and many people are, it seems -- he yanks out your system and installs a completely new one. Then he asks you to sign a document, which just happens to be a new contract.

Most people don't know they've been scammed until they get a call from the original home security company -- or until they start receiving bills from two outfits.

If you think you've been had, here's what the consumer watchdog agency says to do:

-- If the salesperson says he works for your current company and that he wants to upgrade your system, or he claims your company has gone out of business and that his firm has taken over their accounts, check his ID. Call your current company using the phone number on the paperwork you already have.

-- It's always safer to say no to salespeople before they enter the house than to ask them to leave once they are inside. So do your due diligence at the door, not in the hall or kitchen. And if they won't leave, call the cops.

-- Always beware of limited-time offers: "today only," for example, or "Act now to protect yourself from crime sprees in your neighborhood." Report such high-pressure tactics directly to the FTC at ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

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