Inside a loan service call center

A Bank of America billboard on a street corner in Times Square in New York City.


Tess Vigeland: Homeowners who are seriously underwater on their loans might still be able to grab onto the government's life raft. The Obama administration is expanding its mortgage-rescue efforts to include borrowers who owe up to 25% more than their home is worth.

So far, the Making Home Affordable program has received mixed reviews. People looking for help say they're subjected to a maze of automated messages and less-than-informed answers when they call their banks. Tamara Keith tells us what it's like on the other side of the line at the nation's largest loan servicer -- Bank of America.

TAMARA KEITH: Bank of America has 14 call centers around the country. This is one of the largest. It's in Simi Valley, Calif. Two stories with wall-to-wall cubicles as far as the eye can see. This building used to be part of Countrywide, a lender that became synonymous with subprime, predatory lending.

CALL CENTER: Thank you for calling the home retention division. My name is Matthew. Can I ask who I'm speaking with today.

Matthew Coryell is on the front lines at what is now called Bank of America Home Loans, which get about 80,000 calls a day. He answers about 20 of them. The callers are under a lot of stress. Sometimes they yell or they cry. But Coryell has gotten used to it.

MATTHEW CORYELL: If you treat them right and just keep like an even nice tone with them. What I've noticed are the ones that are so appreciative at the end of the calls, that are overly really thanking me, are the ones that were many times really upset with me when they first called in.

Here's the thing though, if you're having trouble paying your loan, Matthew Coryell isn't really the guy you want to talk to. He just gathers information, gives out fax numbers and transfers calls. The people on the "workout team" are the ones who can change the terms of a loan.

ZACH HARROD: My name is Zach Harrod. I've been with the company for, it's going to be six years in October.

Harrod is one of more than 7,000 people at Bank of America now working in the home-retention division. The department has nearly doubled its staff in the last eight months.

HARROD: Calling in regards to the modification on your loan, just kinda wanted to go over the terms with you.

Harrod is working the file of a man who lives in Las Vegas.

HARROD: Um, he's actually currently nine payments behind. So he is, he actually is in foreclosure which typically when we get the loan we'll put the foreclosure on hold during the review process to allow us time to see what we can do.

Modifying a loan isn't easy. Bank of America may collect the checks, but most of the loans have been packaged into securities and sold off to investors.

For a modification to work, it needs to be something the borrower can afford and the investor can tolerate. Information about the customer's income and expenses is plugged into a computer program called Home Saver. The software weighs things like how much the home is worth and what would happen to the loan if the interest rate is reduced.

Bank of America officials say most often changing the terms of the loan is a better deal for everyone than a foreclosure. Harrod sees it another way.

HARROD: It's more just finding the best deals for the homeowner, you know, really that is my goal.

This sounds like a whole lot of positive spin from a guy who worked for one of the most notorious subprime lenders. Before Countrywide was taken over by Bank of America it put thousands of people into loans that were destined to fail.

But when Harrod says he's here to help people, you want to believe him. He says things are different now. As the economy has gotten worse, the investors have gotten more receptive to cutting interest rates. Changing the loans so borrowers can actually pay them back.

HARROD: They're doing a lot more today, to be honest, than when I started doing this a year-and-a-half ago. A lot more.

And so the man from Las Vegas will see his payments cut dramatically. Harrod is moving him from a nearly 8-percent interest rate on a 30-year mortgage to a longer, 40-year loan with a lower rate.

HARROD: He's down to 2.25 for a year and then he steps up one percentage at a time each year up to 5.25.

Harrod has been working a lot of overtime and weekends, and his desk is never clear. But he says it's rewarding.

HARROD: Some owners will just send you an e-mail, thank you so much, my kids have a place to sleep at night, and I mean, that's good enough for me, you know.

When he's done with this file he'll move on to another. Odds are it will belong to someone who's been waiting months for an answer, and there's no guarantee Harrod will be able to help them keep their home.

In Simi Valley, I'm Tamara Keith for Marketplace.

Log in to post9 Comments

I agree; point of view from the homeowner\mortgagee would help to balance this story - otherwise it's nothing more than a PR blurb.

Do you actually research these stories, and the claims made by your subjects? Or do you simply cheerlead for business? It appears the latter is the case: BoA put on a nice dog-and-pony show for your reporter, that contradicts the experience of most of their customers by a wide margin.

But no one asked their customers anything. Just BoA.

My wife lost her disability insurance last year, prior to being approved for Social Security. I tried working with COuntrywide, then BoA to do exactly what was claimed to be done in this story. My experience was NOTHING like this.

I've been ready, willing, and able to settle for 7 months. But BoA refused to accept my payments since January, nor negotiate at all until they'd placed my home in foreclosure in April (I even had money to pay!). At no point was there ever a serious offer of modification. In fact, the first offer they gave me was $100/month HIGHER than my original loan, and the final settlement was identical to my original payment.

In the meantime, BoA charged me for 6 months worth of late fees, during a time when they simply wouldn't accept ANY payments from me. The new loan is thousands of dollars higher, and years longer. I called BEFORE there I'd ever missed a single payment, and was told they only help people after missing 3 payments. Not coincidentally, 3 payments lets them foreclose. This gives leverage, which the company wields like an axe against consumers. In my case, they made no offers or any attempt to modify my loan until they passed that milestone. Before that, a stone wall.

I understand you're a business show and take that perspective. But a bit of honest insight, research and critical fact check isn't too much to ask when you run a story on a company as poorly run and financially shaky as BoA.

Ari, all that info is clearly locked in the software, "Home Saver".

Ari, all that info is clearly locked in the software, "Home Saver".

I've read tens of articles about mortgage modifications and I still haven't had the important questions answered: I would like to know: 1) who's mortgages are successfully being modified and to what terms? what percentage of those modification requests are successfully changed? 2) who's mortgages are not being modified and why? 3) How do the lenders make this determination? 4) How do the lenders verify mortgager information and avoid the equivalent if the older 'liars loans' when applicants would claim high incomes without verification? (Only this time they are claiming low incomes) ?

The story concerning the Loan servicing operators really hit home with my husband and I as we drove our usually hour and a half commute. We also received a loan through Country Wide, and have never missed a payment. As the economy gets worse we are now over 20K under water on our home, and we are unable to get help lowering our payments. When we first moved into our home the area was affordable, more so than the larger community and gas was a $1.50 a gallon. Now we have had to supplement our budget with credit, and spend more and more of our paychecks paying back that debt which has in turn caused a horrible cycle. Our paychecks first go to the credit accounts, and then we use the money we paid on our credit accounts by using our credit cards to purchase necessities. What was disturbing is that I heard on your program people who were considerably behind on their mortgage receiving reduced interest rates (Ours is at 6.75%), and extensions on their mortgage periods. We have called both Country Wide, and Bank or America after the buyout and have been unable to negotiate anything different due to the fact we pay on time. Even the Government’s new loan modification process can’t help us. We were doing fine until the financial melt-down and now are in just enough debt that we can stay afloat, but just enough debt we can’t climb out.

I was surprised to hear that investors are being more flexible now with their debtors b/c the mortgages are still bundled up into a ball of investment instrument (or is it vehicle?) twine . Now I kind of want to know the mechanics of how they are able to do adjustments they could not do a year ago, given this proverbial ball of twine. And was there a cat involved....

I was surprised to hear that investors are being more flexible now with their debtors b/c the mortgages are still bundled up into a ball of investment instrument (or is it vehicle?) twine . Now I kind of want to know the mechanics of how they are able to do adjustments they could not do a year ago, given this proverbial ball of twine. And was there a cat involved....

Great story! But... please, please, please do a follow-up or two with same interviewees over the next year or so. Thanks!

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