Single File Mortgage Insurance: An Advance?

June 6, 2005 Revised October 5, 2005, December 3, 2007

Single File Mortgage Insurance is lender-pay rather than borrower-pay mortgage insurance. It is a third option for borrowers who cannot put 20% down, the other one being a second ("piggyback") mortgage. Any one of them might be best for any particular borrower, but a system based on lender-pay mortgage insurance would work best for borrowers over the long-run.

"I recently was told about single file mortgage insurance, which is supposedly superior to piggyback arrangements. Is it?"

Single File Mortgage Insurance is Lender-Pay

Home purchasers who cannot make a down payment of 20% today have three ways to go: traditional borrower-pay mortgage insurance; second or "piggyback" mortgages; and lender-pay mortgage insurance. Single File is MGIC’s name for its lender-pay program.

From a system perspective, lender-pay mortgage insurance is the best option, and I look for it to prosper. That does not necessarily mean, however, that a particular borrower might not find a better deal with one of the other options, as I’ll explain below.

Drawbacks of Traditional Mortgage Insurance

Under traditional mortgage insurance, the borrower purchases the policy and pays the premiums, but the lender selects the insurer. This is an odious arrangement, since it gives the lender referral power and a preference for higher rather than lower premiums. Higher premiums permit larger kickbacks to the lenders for the referral of business to the insurers.

While direct kickbacks are illegal under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), there are numerous ways to legitimize them. One that has become common among large lenders is to establish a reinsurance affiliate that shares the premiums on insurance sold to the lender’s customers. This is kosher under RESPA, since the affiliate also shares the risk. The reality, however, is that reinsurance deals are disguised (and costly) kickbacks.

Traditional mortgage insurance has another unholy feature -- the insurance runs on well past the time that it is really needed. Since the insurance protects the lender but the borrower pays for it, the lender has no incentive to terminate the policy when the risk becomes minimal. In 1999, Congress finally decided to do something about this, establishing mandatory termination rules. The rules, however, are extremely complex and difficult for borrowers to navigate. See Cancelling Private Mortgage Insurance 1 and Cancelling Private Mortgage Insurance 2.

Piggybacks as a Substitute For Mortgage Insurance

Fortunately, there are a lot of lenders in our system, and some of them have little stake in the traditional mortgage insurance system. When they discovered a few years ago that they could obtain a competitive advantage by offering combination first and second mortgages instead, they jumped at it. For example, to the borrower who could only put 5% down, they offered an 80% first mortgage plus a 15% second, in lieu of a 95% first mortgage with mortgage insurance.

These came to be called "piggybacks". While the second mortgage has a higher rate than the first, the higher rate is paid only on the second mortgage and the interest is deductible. Premiums on traditional mortgage insurance are paid on the entire first mortgage, and were not deductible until 2007, when they were made deductible for that year only.

Within just a few years, piggybacks became established as a major alternative to traditional mortgage insurance. With their traditional business shrinking at an alarming rate, the insurers have been under enormous pressure to develop counter-measures. Lender-pay insurance is the best of them.

Advantages of Lender-Pay Mortgage Insurance

Under lender-pay insurance, the lender pays the premium and charges the borrower for it in the rate. This is better than traditional mortgage insurance because lenders have an incentive to pay as little as possible for the insurance, rather than to benefit as much as possible from their referral power. Since lenders must compete in terms of interest rate, the borrower ultimately will get the benefit of lower insurance premiums.

The rate increment lasts as long as the mortgage, but that is also true of the second mortgage part of piggyback arrangements. In addition, lender-pay insurance is simpler: one loan, one rate. Piggybacks usually involve an incremental upfront fee, and the second mortgage can be a different type of instrument than the first mortgage. Frequently, it is an adjustable rate mortgage of some type, which makes the package more difficult for borrowers to assess.

In my view, a system based on lender-pay insurance will work better than one using traditional insurance or piggybacks. This does not imply, however, that in our existing system that offers all three choices, borrowers will always do better with lender-pay insurance. Any particular borrower might do better with borrower-pay insurance, as noted in Pros and Cons: Mortgage Insurance Versus Higher Rate, or with a piggyback, as noted in Piggyback Loans: Two Mortgages Cost Less Than One?

Using Calculators

Most loan providers charge what the market will bear, which means that you can easily overpay for any of the options. Contrary to what you may hear from a loan provider, there is no general answer to the question of which approach is less costly to the borrower. There are only specific answers to individual deals, and the answer can vary from deal to deal.

To help with this problem, I developed three calculators. Calculator 13a compares the costs of a piggyback deal and lender-pay insurance. Calculator 14a compares the costs of traditional (borrower-pay) insurance and lender-pay insurance. Calculator 14b compares the costs of all three. Calculators are an excellent defense against high-powered sales pitches.

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