With millions of Americans losing their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and organizations across the country to shutter, lawmakers, regulators, and lenders worked quickly to set up mortgage forbearance programs that allowed struggling homeowners to temporarily skip payments. At the height of these programs, the New York Federal Reserve estimates, 9.3 million mortgages were in forbearance.
Eighteen months later, approximately 1.7 million homeowners still remain in some type of mortgage forbearance plan, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s latest estimate. But for over half of those households, about 900,000 Americans, those plans are set to expire in the next two months.
While many high-income households benefited from these forbearance programs, those left in forbearance are now more financially vulnerable, according to the New York Federal Reserve’s data. A significant portion of those left in forbearance, about 39%, have credit scores of less than 620. Those with scores under this threshold are considered to have “fair” credit or “poor” credit if they fall below 570, according to Experian.
Yet for those trying to exit mortgage forbearance, poor credit is only one potential hurdle. Problems with miscommunication and long customer service wait times persist. In fact, more than 2,000 consumer complaints about mortgage forbearance have been filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since the start of the pandemic.
That may only get worse as a wave of homeowners is set to face the end of forbearance protections this fall. “There’s going to be quite a surge of folks exiting forbearance,” says Mark McArdle, assistant director of the CFPB’s mortgage markets division. He adds that an estimated 18,000 homeowners in forbearance will be evaluated every business day during September and October.
Options available when exiting mortgage forbearance
For those who are exiting forbearance, there are typically several repayment options available across federally backed and privately held mortgages.
The first, and perhaps most straightforward, is to pay back the full amount deferred all at once, also known as lump-sum repayment. The second option is usually a repayment plan, through which homeowners repay the forbearance amount over a set period of time. For example, if the homeowner skipped three months of $1,000 monthly mortgage payments, they may be offered the option to pay back an extra $250 a month on top of their mortgage payment for the next year.
The third option—and the most commonly used—is called a deferral, or a partial claim, whereby the servicer essentially takes all the missed payments and moves that amount to the end of the loan. So when a homeowner refinances, pays off, or sells their house, that’s when the forbearance amount is paid off. In some cases, deferring the forbearance amount might extend your mortgage a little longer.
For homeowners who have taken a permanent pay cut, a loan modification may be the best option. In this case, lenders will review a homeowner’s financials and determine if payment can be reduced to an affordable amount, rolling the missed payments into the total amount still owed on the mortgage. In these cases, if approved, the homeowner’s monthly payments could be lower, but the process could extend the mortgage time frame. Homeowners’ credit scores may be affected if they are seeking a loan modification.
If there’s no chance that a homeowner can resume making mortgage payments, then selling is a consideration.
What consumers should expect
It’s worth noting that while a few homeowners have run into issues exiting forbearance, so far, the process has been largely effective. “The good news is that the forbearance process to date has worked fairly well getting folks into forbearance, but the trickier part will be making sure folks leave forbearance and have some sort of exit solution,” McArdle says.
Homeowners who are in a forbearance program that’s set to expire should expect to hear from their loan servicer about 30 days before their payments are set to resume. The communication from a servicer should indicate what repayment options are available and what steps homeowners need to take next.
One of the biggest potential pain points for consumers could be around escrow issues. Typically, for homeowners with an escrow account, a portion of their monthly payment goes toward paying property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. “For the most part, if you’ve not been making your monthly payment due to forbearance, you haven’t been paying into your escrow account,” McArdle says.
Yet those skipped escrow payments may need to be paid sooner than the missed mortgage principal and interest payments. Bottom line: It could leave many homeowners with higher monthly mortgage payments when exiting forbearance, even if they opt to defer the missed payments to the end of the mortgage term.
Another major issue: communication. Up until this point, many homeowners could actually get into forbearance and extend their forbearance completely online—they didn’t even have to talk to anybody. But in most cases they’re going to have to talk with their loan servicer to exit forbearance. “Folks sometimes think this will take care of itself,” McArdle says. But generally it won’t. “It’s important to talk to your servicer or not just assume it’s going to magically happen,” he says.
At the end of the day, McArdle says, it’s important for consumers to be aware of their rights and responsibilities. For example, loan servicers can’t proceed with foreclosures unless they have evaluated homeowners for all repayment options, or if the homeowner is nonresponsive for at least 90 days.
The CFPB has a helpful website with information on exiting forbearance, and homeowners can also reach out to free housing counselors that can help. Keep in mind that this counseling is free, and homeowners should be wary of scams that ask for upfront payments to keep lenders from foreclosing on their homes.
“Consumers should arm themselves with knowledge,” McArdle says. “Talk to a housing counselor, look at the CFPB’s website, understand what your options are before you go in, and that way, you’ll understand that conversation with the servicer better.”
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