Refinancing can be a long road

I stopped at Cohen's Hardware at Fifth Street and Passyunk Avenue recently.

While owner Mitchell Cohen was ringing up my hose washers, I remembered that he had e-mailed me a while back about a problem with refinancing his mortgage.

"Did you ever get the refi?" I asked.

He wondered how I knew, so I identified myself.

Cohen said he was, indeed, able to refinance his home loan, but it wasn't easy, even for an established businessman who pays loans, bills, and suppliers regularly and on time.

His is not an unusual experience. A few months back, I wrote about three other people with similar stories of hitting stone walls when they tried to refinance. Some were simply replying to offers from lenders, and still they had to jump through hoops.

"They were giving it away like candy 2 1/2 years ago," Cohen said. His fax machine would spit out offers from mortgage brokers regularly, saying all he had to do was call, and they could do the transaction on the phone.

Here's a guy who represents the third generation of his family in the hardware business. Everyone knows him. He'll watch your car parked in front of the store while you shop.

A small businessman, sure, but with a 750 credit score.

"It took a year to refinance, right?" he called out to his wife.

"Longer than that," she replied, and a ream of fax paper was consumed in the process.

It started when, after 13 years of living in a big house in Bella Vista, the Cohens decided to downsize to a smaller house they would build in Queen Village.

With considerable equity generated by rising neighborhood values and the fact that they had been paying their mortgage all those years, the Cohens took out a home-equity loan on the Bella Vista house from PNC to finance construction of the new place.

That made two loans on the Bella Vista house, the second with an interest rate of 8 percent. Since they would be selling the house when the new place was finished, it was just a temporary thing.

About mid-2008, Cohen thought he could get a better rate on the home-equity loan, so he contacted the current holder, Citimortgage.

"I figured since they had the loan now, it would be simple to cut about $550 a month in payments," he said. "I was wrong."

From the start, the lender began asking for paperwork - sometimes the same documents the Cohens had supplied already, other times new things - and many years' worth of tax returns.

"It was really aggravating," he said. "We'd have to find time during the day and after work to gather this paperwork together and then fax it or FedEx it, and then spend hours on the phone."

Cohen believes a lot of what he endured is because he's self-employed. "I think they're afraid of making mistakes," he said of the information-takers he's dealt with.

Several months went by. His refi application was rejected.

So Cohen started visiting banks - seven of them, all of which said no. He hired a mortgage broker to find a refi for him, but the broker came up empty, too.

"They say these boutique banks are willing to lend, but I didn't find that to be the case," Cohen said.

Then one day, a little more than a year after he first called Citimortgage, the lender said that a new 6 percent rate had been approved for the home-equity loan.

"We couldn't believe it," Cohen said, chuckling. No reason. Just an approval letter.

"I remember when brokers would show up at my door, business cards in hand, asking me if I needed anything," Cohen said.

He knows his refi situation isn't unique.

"You should hear my customers," he said. "One has been at it for more than a year and a half."

 


Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. "On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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