Business
6:26 am
Mon October 15, 2012

BofA Gets Praise From Housing Counselors

When Bank of America announces quarterly earnings this week, foreclosures and defaulting loans will once again be a key part of the equation.

The Charlotte bank has spent four years wading through a sea of troubled mortgages it took on with the 2008 acquisition of Countrywide. Along the way it's become a favorite target of vitriol - often landing on lists of "most hated institutions" in America. 

But recently, WFAE's Julie Rose discovered some of the people on the front lines of the foreclosure crisis are softening toward Bank of America. 

Down in the trenches of this battle to keep people in their homes is a group of nonprofit housing counselors. They hold the hands of desperate homeowners navigating bank bureaucracy.

Lost documents, ignored phone calls - stories like that are a dime a dozen when housing counselors get together. So when they gathered at a conference a few weeks back in Charlotte, I frankly expected to hear a lot of criticism aimed at Bank of America.

But what I heard from Sheryl Merritt of Consumer Education Services in Raleigh was that Bank of America " is trying to be proactive, trying to make it easier for counselors and agencies to provide the documentation through one system."

"Proactive?" "Making it easier for counselors?" And Merritt wasn't the only housing counselor who talked like that about Bank of America.

"One of the things that Bank of America did do that has helped our agency is they set up a hotline essentially for our housing counselors, so we do have more direct access than we did early on in the mortgage crisis," said Celeste Collins of On Track Financial Education and Counseling in Asheville.

I left that conference still skeptical, so I phoned some other housing counselors around the state to ask which mortgage servicer they think is doing the best job.

"I think Bank of America probably is - probably the one that's stepped forward the most," answered Steve Obendorf at Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Gaston County.

Bruce Hamlett at CommunityLink in Charlotte agrees.

"I think also that - look back over the last 12, 24 months - I mean it seems like every week there's been another disparaging article come out on Bank of America, so I think they have worked the hardest to try to clean up their image," added Hamlett.

Many of the improvements North Carolina housing counselors praise are actually mandated by a settlement Bank of America and four other big mortgage servicers made with states over botched foreclosure practices.

Whatever the bank's motivation, Hamlett says he's actually relieved these days when a client comes to him with a mortgage from BofA.

"I think, 'Okay, phew!'" says Hamlett. "As long as the client works with us and gives us everything we need from them to put together a full package, I know we can get it submitted and pushed through the pipeline fairly quickly."

There's no more faxing and "We never got it" claims from the bank, thanks to a web portal Bank of America set up for submitting loan documents. And when I ask about other improvements, Hamlett points to this guy Bank of America's Customer Assistance Center in a nondescript two-story office building in Northeast Charlotte.

"We have three underwriters and seven specialists here who actually work with customers directly to help them avoid foreclosure and save their homes," explains Audie Cashion, who manages the Customer Assistance Center.

At the Customer Assistance Center, you can meet with someone face-to-face about your pending foreclosure. And that same person will be the only person you deal with during the process. No more bouncing from one department to the next.

Offering a "single point of contact" is another requirement in the mortgage settlement.

Bank of America has another of these centers in Raleigh and dozens more in hard hit housing markets across the country. Wells Fargo has them, too, though none here in North Carolina.

Since 2008, Bank of America has increased staffing ten-fold to help distressed borrowers. Saleena Whitley started off two years ago modifying BofA mortgages over the phone - then switched to the Customer Assistance Center because she likes "being able to see speak with a person face to face."

"They can look at you and tell in your reactions how you're empathizing with their situation and not just have an understanding that 'Oh, I'm just a number over the phone,'" explains Whitley.

Housing counselors say that kind of human touch is precisely the thing big banks have lacked during this foreclosure crisis. While they see improvements now, they say nightmare experiences still happen.

And Bank of America's no angel. It's still the cause for the vast majority of complaints that have come in to the office overseeing the national mortgage settlement.

CommunityLink's Bruce Hamlett says it's a numbers thing: Bank of America has, far and away, the most troubled mortgages on its books.

"Bank of America is Snow White and the rest of them are the Seven Dwarves when it comes to volume," says Hamlett. "They probably had the biggest mess to clean up."

And they have the most at stake if they don't.