N.C. tightening down on mortgage industry

North Carolina is about to make it more difficult to work in the mortgage industry.

A series of new rules – designed to help consumers – add several requirements before someone could be licensed as a loan officer or as a mortgage banker or broker. First proposed a year ago, the changes come at a time of increased scrutiny for the industry.

Among the rules: Someone applying to become a loan officer must have a credit score of 600 or greater, and show no outstanding tax liens. No such requirements exist now.

“People who have had bad credit problems may not be the best people to advise (others) on what may be the most important financial decision of people's lives,” said Mark Pearce, North Carolina's deputy banking commissioner.

The changes are expected to take effect shortly after the General Assembly adjourns, likely in the next few weeks.

Foreclosure rates have leapt nationwide. In North Carolina, foreclosure filings were up almost 24 percent in May compared with a year ago. Legislators in Raleigh and Washington are debating a variety of measures to keep the credit crisis from worsening or happening again.

After raising some initial objections, industry representatives have agreed not to challenge the rules.

“Anything that would improve the quality of the mortgage industry, we would view as beneficial,” said Jennifer Salemson of the N.C. Association of Mortgage Professionals, a trade group with about 800 members.

Salemson, who runs a Chapel Hill-based mortgage company, said she remains concerned about a requirement that mortgage bankers and brokers use a certified public accountant to certify their net worth. She worries that some smaller mortgage companies could not afford the extra expense – if they can even find an accountant willing to do the work.

“The amount of time it would take them would not be worth it to the auditors,” she said.

Mortgage bankers, who underwrite loans, would need to demonstrate a net worth of at least $100,000. Mortgage brokers, who arrange loans, would need to demonstrate a net worth of at least $25,000. The idea is to ensure that they have standing in the community, a financial record of their own, and at least some resources behind their business.

Potential loan officers face other changes, too. They will need 24 hours of professional course work, up from a requirement of eight hours now.

“It increases the knowledge base of those that are entering this business,” said Hank Cunningham of the Mortgage Bankers Association of the Carolinas, which supports the changes.

Such requirements vary widely from state to state. At the high end, for example, Maryland requires that loan officers complete 40 hours of training.

Other rules took effect in April, including one that requires mortgage companies to carry more comprehensive surety bonds.

One of the challenges that regulators continue to face is the increase in the number of mortgage brokers, said Chris Kukla, senior counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer group in Durham.

He said brokers arranged about 70 percent of mortgages at one point last year, up from about 10 percent in 2001, when the state last overhauled its mortgage laws.

“The world has changed a little bit since that law was passed,” Kukla said. Next year, he added, “the legislature may want to take a look at whether the statute is keeping up with the changes in the industry.”

A series in the Observer last year detailed how one broker, Beazer Mortgage, aggressively arranged larger loans than some buyers could afford. The inevitable result – at least in one Cabarrus County development – was a high rate of foreclosure.