Banks warned on equity loan cutbacks

Published9/10/2008 12:06 AM

WASHINGTON -- An increase in consumer complaints over the cancellation or reduction of home equity lines of credit has prompted one federal banking regulator to remind financial institutions about the laws governing this type of loan.

The Office of Thrift Supervision, which supervises savings associations and their holding companies, has warned institutions that if they curtail or terminate a home equity line of credit, the action must comply with federal laws and rules designed to protect customers, including regulations covered in the Truth in Lending Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and the OTS nondiscrimination rule.


"We just wanted to give our institutions a heads up that our examiners will be focusing on how the institutions are handling cutbacks in home equity lines of credit," said OTS spokesman William Ruberry.

For example, with limited exceptions, Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act prohibits creditors from terminating a home equity line of credit and then accelerating repayment of the outstanding balance. Exceptions include situations in which the borrower fraudulently got the loan or failed to repay according to the terms of the loan.

Additionally, under Regulation Z, a lender can't just reduce or suspend access to a line of credit without cause, said Montrice Godard Yakimov, managing director for compliance and consumer protection for the OTS.

A suspension or reduction of a home equity line must be based on an assessment of the value of "the dwelling that secures the plan," the OTS said in its letter of guidance to the institutions. Consequently, a financial institution would violate the law if it attempted to yank credit limits of all home equity credit line accounts in a geographic area where real estate values are generally declining.

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"There are clearly rules that apply when an institution wants to suspend or reduce an equity line of credit," Godard Yakimov said. "Our goal in issuing the guidance was to bring all those rules together in one place."

As the value for many homes throughout the country remains in a free fall, many lenders have snatched or significantly reduced customers' home equity lines of credit. In its first quarter earnings release, Wachovia reported a home equity lending decline of 41 percent, "reflecting implementation of tightened credit standards."

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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