Roseann Ippoliti of Cherry Hill has learned that, in today's financial morass, no good deed goes unpunished.
Her education began when her daughter and son-in-law, living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., concluded a couple of years back that they'd be better off owning a house closer to his job in West Palm Beach.
They bought "a beautiful house in a foreclosure sale," Ippoliti said. Because her daughter's finances had been affected by a divorce and her son-in-law's only established credit was a truck payment, Ippoliti added, she agreed to cosign the home loan from Wachovia Bank (now a part of Wells Fargo).
"My credit was impeccable and my son-in-law completely trustworthy," she said.
Rather than leave her in a potentially vulnerable financial situation, Ippoliti said, her son-in-law decided to refinance the mortgage to put the house in his name.
He contacted Wachovia and was told to apply for a mortgage modification instead. He did, it was approved, and his payments dropped to $1,100 a month from $2,159.
But if the goal was to get Ippoliti's name off the mortgage and the note, modification was the wrong route. Mortgage experts I consulted said modifying a home loan doesn't change the recorded document, so both Ippoliti and her son-in-law's names remain on the mortgage, and probably the note.
"To get someone's name off, you need to refinance," said Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick.
If the son-in-law was current on the loan and was not having any trouble continuing on-time payments, why did Wachovia recommend a modification instead?
There are a lot of reasons for not going along with a refi, my experts said, including a high loan-to-value ratio, an unappraisable property, undocumentable income or no income, low credit scores, or high closing costs that would mean the refi was not worth it.
Glick said he "sometimes gets calls from people who have a rate that is only one-quarter of a percentage point higher than the market rates," and refinancing ends up costing too much for the savings that will be realized.
The son-in-law should have simply said, "No, thanks," and waited for better times.
Because Ippoliti's name remained on the modified mortgage, she needed to sign the modification document. But, she said, her son-in-law was told her signature was unnecessary - that his signature, as occupant of the property, was enough.
In November, Ippoliti received a letter from Bank of America notifying her of a routine periodic review, "to ensure that they feature the most appropriate credit line" on her credit card.
That review resulted in a drop in her credit line to $3,400 from $13,000 "because I had a major derogatory record on my credit file," which Bank of America identified as "a mortgage being delinquent." (Ippoliti has mortgages on houses in Cherry Hill and Cape May, and both are current.)
It was then her daughter and son-in-law told her about the mortgage modification, explaining they didn't do so before because they weren't delinquent and Wachovia said it didn't need her signature.
They had no idea how the words mortgage modification are viewed by creditors.
Ippoliti's son-in-law contacted Wachovia's successor, Wells Fargo, which acknowledged that "it was an error on their part, that the mortgage was not delinquent, and it should never have been reported to the credit agencies that it was," she said.
That is, however, not true. Modifying a mortgage does affect a credit score detrimentally, and Ippoliti is very much a part of that mortgage.
The lesson is if you are happy with your mortgage and you can afford to pay it on time, leave well enough alone. And if your loan needs fixing, make sure the cure isn't even worse.