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Know Before You Owe: Just one example of our approach to policy-making

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As the mortgage disclosure team said last week, we based Know Before You Owe on the idea that disclosure information is clearer when the people who will have to use those disclosures participate in designing them. We got feedback from many sources in many ways:

  • In-person testing of the forms in cities across the country from consumers and from people in the mortgage industry, both before proposing the new disclosures and after;
  • Online publication of various iterations of prototypes of the forms as we tested them and getting more than 27,000 clicks and comments to tell us what worked (and what didn’t);
  • Quantitative validation study with about 850 consumers of how well consumers understand the new disclosures compared to the ones currently in use (we’ll talk more about the results of that study in the days to come); and
  • Ongoing dialogue with industry groups, financial institutions, consumer advocates, policymakers from across government, and designers throughout the design process.

This testing and iteration process occurred alongside legally required feedback such as a Small Business Review Panel before we issued the proposed rule, and the public comment period for the proposed rule.

We started this prototyping and research even before the Bureau began regulating consumer financial products and services. In the process, we established a pattern of public inclusion in what we create. We have since taken on additional projects that rely on this pattern to succeed. In each case, we believe it has made us better at our work and will continue to do so.

Consumer tools

In April 2012, we introduced a beta version of a tool to help students compare the costs of college. Based on the feedback we got, we made improvements and re-released it along with a number of other tools to help students understand paying for college.

Now we’re working on similar tools to help people interested in owning a home. In each case, we continue to take feedback. We don’t believe that products to help consumers understand their options are ever complete. When we make new consumer tools, we commit to analyzing how people use them. The tools should change as we understand more about what’s useful or necessary, and what’s not.

Making information more accessible

We maintain a regularly updated public database of consumer complaints we receive. We also maintain an API that lets people build on top of that data.

A few months ago, we created a new platform to publish home mortgage data. Not every good idea for using consumer financial market data is ours; these platforms give the public access to data about their own experiences.

Last month, we launched a prototype tool to make regulations easier to read, understand, and use. After a series of user interviews and a number of prototype usability tests, we’ve piloted eRegulations with one regulation. Before making any decisions on what to do with it next, we’re asking people who need to understand changes to Regulation E to use it and let us know how it works for them.

Prototyping better disclosures

The prototyping efforts of Know Before You Owe laid the groundwork for another initiative. Federal consumer finance regulations should protect consumers, not hinder innovations that help them. Through Project Catalyst, we work with innovators to do just that. Someone who spots a way to make regulations more innovation-friendly can work with us to design experiments. Someone who thinks there’s a way to make disclosures clearer can work with us to start a trial that tests how well their idea works.

Open source software

Source code written by our staff is public domain by default. Anyone can use and build on it as long as it meets a few standards. And we are committed to publishing it in an online source code community. CFPB Open Tech gives the public easy access to free, open source software they can use as the basis for their own new tools and approaches. In turn, we get to review ideas from other developers and decide whether to use them to make our software better.

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In short, we value building things with public participation. It comes back to the same basic point: if you know people are going to have to use something, you should work with them to figure out what makes it useful. It’s an idea we have espoused since the start of Know Before You Owe, one we’re going to continue to build on.

Know Before You Owe: preparing to finalize the new mortgage disclosure forms

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Two and a half years ago, we began a line of work we call Know Before You Owe. The work that we did as part of that project helped lead us to the TILA-RESPA final rule we issued Wednesday. Among other things, that rule requires new mortgage disclosures: a Loan Estimate the consumer gets when applying for a mortgage, and a Closing Disclosure when the consumer is ready to close on the mortgage. Today we’re looking back at the project that helped get us here.

What is Know Before You Owe?

When you buy a financial product or service, you should understand the terms you’re offered before you sign on the dotted line. You should be able to compare different products effectively and make the right choices for yourself and your family. And the information you use to make those decisions should be clear and easy to understand.

This information is usually presented in writing, in forms like disclosures, contracts, and offer letters. We believe that the best way to make sure this information is clear is for the people who actually have to use the information to help us design them. So that’s exactly what we asked people to do. We call this project Know Before You Owe.

How does it apply to mortgages?

We started Know Before You Owe in May 2011 with mortgage disclosures. In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress directed us to combine the existing disclosures you get when you apply for and close on a mortgage: the Truth in Lending disclosures, the Good Faith Estimate, and the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. These disclosures contain some of the basic facts about home loans, and they should help you pick the right mortgage product for you. But they have overlapping information and complicated terms, and they can be just plain difficult to understand.

The idea is to create a single, simpler set of forms so that when you shop for a mortgage, and then again when you close on one, you can understand the basic information you need to pick the right mortgage loan for you.

Over the course of about a year, we qualitatively tested the forms with consumers, lenders, and settlement agents across the country to see how people would use the forms. We saw how they understood different types of mortgages, different terms, and different versions of the forms. We supplemented this this qualitative testing by posting the forms here on consumerfinance.gov and asking people to weigh in. Over the course of the project, we received more than 27,000 comments that helped us improve the disclosures we proposed.

What’s the final rule all about?

In July of last year, we proposed the rule that would require the new forms. As expected, we got a lot more comments: more than 2,800 of them. Since the proposal, we’ve been reviewing these comments to improve the rule. We’ve also conducted a quantitative validation study with about 850 consumers in 20 locations across the country. The study compared our new forms against the existing forms. We conducted additional qualitative testing. And we reviewed what information you told us we should add to the rule to make compliance easier.

The last big milestone in getting to a final rule was … issuing the rule, which we did last Thursday. The rule we submitted to the Federal Register had a lot of information and instruction about the new disclosures: what needs to be in them; what kinds of loans and which lenders need to use them; when to start using the new forms; and more. Along with the new rule, the notice contains information about the testing, analysis, and other work we did to develop the rule. And we posted a number of other things to help people understand the rule: what it means for consumers and for industry, additional testing results, and more.

Explainer: How the final TILA-RESPA rule differs from the proposal

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When we first proposed the TILA-RESPA disclosure rule, we got a lot of questions about the length of the document containing the rule. We synthesized those questions into one representative question and wrote a post to give you some answers. Now that we’re finalizing the rule, we wanted to do it again to talk about what’s changed in the last sixteen months.

So, what’s different?

Sure. Directness is probably the best approach. But let’s back up.

We received more than 27,000 individual comments and emails on the disclosure prototypes we posted throughout the supplemental Know Before You Owe project for mortgage disclosure. That’s on top of all the in-person testing we did with dozens of consumers. We also tested them with industry to make sure they could understand and use the disclosures in their business. That was all before we issued the proposal.

Once we proposed the rule, we received almost 3,000 comments, including comments received during the public comment period and additional information submitted to the record. That didn’t surprise us; this is a significant rule that affects two major federal regulations, consumers’ experience in shopping for and closing on mortgages, and almost the entire residential real estate industry. We spent a lot of time analyzing the comments and figuring out the best way to respond to them.

Did they lead to any changes to the rule?

We made a few significant changes. First, the proposal had two provisions we didn’t include in the final rule:

  • We aren’t including the “all-in APR,” as some referred to it. This provision in the proposal would have changed the definition of the finance charge, which is used to calculate the annual percentage rate, or APR. The change might have cost industry a lot and might have affected the types of loans available to consumers. A number of other mortgage rules are about to go into effect that might make these effects even bigger.

    We’re going to keep looking at this. The Dodd-Frank Act requires us to report on this rule five years after its effective date, and we’ll study this issue as part of that.

  • The proposal required machine-readable record retention. However, we heard that the data standard we were proposing wasn’t specific enough. In principle, we still think this is a good idea, but we’re going to do additional study and spend more time discussing with stakeholders before requiring any particular standard.

We also changed a couple other requirements you should be aware of.

  • The rule requires a three-day waiting period after issuing the Closing Disclosure before closing the mortgage. In the proposed rule, we said lenders should reissue that disclosure any time there are more than minor changes, followed by a new three-day waiting period. Comments suggested this might lead to frequent delays in closing mortgages. That’s clearly not good. But also not good: consumers not having time to think through significant changes. So we kept the consumers’ reviewing time in mind as we more narrowly defined the requirements.

    The new waiting period now comes only if there are substantial changes to the APR, the loan product itself changes (like a fixed rate loan becomes an adjustable rate or interest only mortgage), or the lender adds a prepayment penalty. And just to be sure, the rule guarantees consumers the right to examine the Closing Disclosure on request on the day before closing even without substantial changes.

  • The rule also requires lenders to issue the initial Loan Estimate within three days of a consumer applying for a mortgage. In the proposed rule, we included Saturdays in that three-day period. Smaller businesses like community banks and credit unions told us they’re usually closed Saturdays and this would force them to be open. That seemed like a pretty significant burden, one we didn’t want to impose, so the three-day period now includes only days the lender is actually open. If you’re open on Saturday, Saturday counts; if you’re not, it doesn’t.

Does that significantly lengthen the rule?

At least for the regulatory language, it actually isn’t much longer. The proposed amendments to regulations were 209 pages. For the final rule, that’s 279 pages.

So why does the document you sent the Federal Register seem a lot bigger than before?

It is. The preamble provides context for the proposed forms and regulatory changes. The mortgage market is big, and mortgage disclosure regulation has 43 years of history. Also, before writing the rule, we spent a lot of time talking to industry and consumers and analyzing costs and benefits. That’s a lot of context, and that means a long preamble.

If that paragraph looks familiar, it should. We wrote it when we proposed the rule. We just copied and pasted it here. (Hey, it’s still accurate, except 43 years is now 44.) This time, the preamble contains even more information. We have a responsibility to acknowledge and explain our reactions to the comments we received in the public comment period. Again, there were almost 3,000 of them. Some of them asked us to study something or to provide evidence or more explanation for things we had decided. As you’ll see in the table below, this accounts for the bulk of the increase.

Finally, based on these public comments, we modified some of the guidance and interpretations that accompany the rule. We had to explain what we were changing and why. That also made it longer, but it also clarifies a number of things that we heard weren’t clear in the proposal. We believe that in the long run, this clarity will make compliance easier for industry.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s in the document:

Content Pages
Preamble
1364
Proposed amendments to regulations
279
Proposed guidance regarding compliance with the amended regulations
244
Signature page
1
TOTAL
1,888

Okay, bottom-line this. What does the new rule do?

This rule is about improving the way consumers get loan information when they apply for and close on a mortgage. Most of the requirements are about two disclosure documents, the Loan Estimate and the Closing Disclosure. There are also some key provisions about timing. Yesterday’s post describes the basic requirements, and it details why the new disclosures improve the experience of getting a mortgage.

How long does industry have to comply with this?

The rule generally is effective for any loan applications that a lender receives on or after August 1, 2015. Some provisions become applicable right on August 1, 2015, because they apply to things that can happen before an application is received. For industry, that probably seems fast. For consumers, it may seem like a long time. Our goal was to give industry enough time to make system changes, devise new business practices, and train staff. Consumers will be better off if industry has the time and support it needs to understand and comply with the rule. To that end, in the next few months we’ll start an implementation support program for mortgage providers and servicers who will have to comply.

Can I hear from you as you release more information about the rule?

Yes! If you want to hear from us about the implementation support efforts, sign up here. [put an email signup form to the right] We’re also creating tools to help consumers interested in owning a home. Sign up on our Owning a Home page to be one of the first to know as we release them.

A final rule that makes mortgage disclosure better for consumers

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Today, we’re issuing the TILA-RESPA final rule. This rule improves the way consumers receive information about mortgage loans, both when they apply and when they’re getting ready to close. Alongside the rule, we’re publishing information to help industry understand what the requirements are, such as how to fill out the disclosure forms. Helping with that understanding will be an ongoing process. We’re also publishing information about the project that got us here and what the new rule means for consumers.

We want it to be easier for consumers to shop effectively for mortgages and to make the decisions that work for them. We want consumers who are confident in the information they receive, the lenders they work with, and their ability to make good comparisons. This rule is a key part of that effort, so we’ve spent a lot of time testing the new disclosures with consumers who will them as well as industry who will have to explain them to consumers. The results of that testing show that our new disclosures make information clearer and easier to use.

What does the rule do?

The final rule contains new rules and forms for two disclosure forms consumers receive in the process of getting a mortgage loan: the Loan Estimate, which comes three business days after application, and the Closing Disclosure, which comes three business days before closing on the loan. These disclosures are required by the Truth in Lending Act and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. The new forms integrate existing disclosures and implement some new disclosure requirements from the Dodd-Frank Act.

The rule also offers some more protections for consumers. For example, consumers must receive their Closing Disclosure three business days before closing on the loan so they have time to review it. The final rule also limits the circumstances in which consumers will have to pay more for settlement services than the estimate they received.

These disclosures and requirements will be effective August 1, 2015.

What’s new about the disclosures?

For most homebuyers, a home is the biggest purchase they’ll ever make. It’s also the most complicated financially, with a lot of paperwork to review and understand. The new forms simplify and clarify a lot of information. Essentially, our forms work to allow consumers to compare loans and make better informed decisions.

The new forms are shorter than the forms under current law. Our Loan Estimate is three pages long; the existing federal disclosures it replaces run at least seven pages. Our Closing Disclosure is five pages long and combines five pages of old forms, plus new disclosures required by the Dodd-Frank Act. This is only some of the information consumers get; lenders, investors, other agencies, and states require other documents. We are working with these other parties to figure out how to reduce the paperwork burden further.

But length isn’t the only factor. The documents need to be easy to understand and use. If we reduced page count but increased confusion, we did the wrong thing. We adopted a user-centered design process in creating these forms that made us confident we could clarify as we streamlined. It turns out we were right: the public made us better at our work.

How do we know they work better?

After we proposed the rule that would have required the new forms, we worked with Kleimann Communication Group to conduct additional qualitative testing as well as a quantitative validation study to measure how well the forms work. Before beginning the study, based on the comments we received on that proposal, we made a few changes to make the forms even better for consumers. These modified versions were the ones tested in the study. Today, we’ve published a report on the study, including its methodology, but what wowed us, and what we want to share here, is the results, which are striking.

We asked participants to answer questions on a written test about a sample mortgage. Those who used our new forms provided more correct answers than those who reviewed the current forms, an improvement of 28.8 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percentage points. Put another way, our new forms performed significantly better than the current forms.

These results are consistent when we break down the questions by different variables in the study, such as identifying numbers from one loan or comparing two loans, experienced or inexperienced mortgage consumers, reviewing a fixed rate or an interest-only adjustable rate loan, or focusing on interest rates or on payments. Which is to say: we are confident we didn’t end up with proposed disclosures that work well for one kind of mortgage loan experience but are confusing for others.

The testing showed that it’s not just that people could understand the new disclosures; they could talk about them, too. People who used the new forms could explain why they made choices they did and offered more comments about their choices than people who used the existing forms. This suggests the new forms may help people articulate their thoughts more clearly. That could mean better discussions with spouses, financial advisers, realtors, and others who help consumers in the process. It may mean more than just better financial results; it may mean a better shopping experience.

What comes next

The next step on the TILA-RESPA rule is developing an implementation support effort. We’re already working on this. Look for information soon that helps industry understand how to comply with the new rules, what they need to do to prepare, and more.

In January, the Title XIV rules become effective. Those rules codified many lending and servicing practices that help consumers and prohibited many practices that tend to get them in trouble. We’re also beginning to develop tools focused on consumers that can help them shop for their homes.

These three areas of work – requiring good information, requiring good practices, and offering useful tools – create the foundation for a better homebuying experience, one in which consumers understand prices and risks and have the clarity they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

More time for comments on proposed changes to the definition of the finance charge

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One part of our proposed rule to improve the disclosures consumers receive when applying for and closing on a mortgage was a change to the current definition of “finance charge.” The finance charge is intended to reflect the cost of credit for consumers as a dollar amount. It’s used to calculate the Annual Percentage Rate or “APR.”

The proposed rule would eliminate numerous exceptions that exclude common costs (such as title insurance) from the finance charge. We want APR to be a more accurate reflection of the overall cost of credit. However, higher APRs and finance charges could affect the number of loans subject to other legal requirements and protections, such as special disclosures and restrictions for high-cost mortgages. In another rulemaking, we also proposed an adjustment that would prevent that from happening, by changing the coverage test for the high-cost mortgage protections to account for the higher APRs.

Comments on the proposed changes to the definition of the finance charge and the proposed change to the high-cost mortgage coverage test were originally due on September 7, 2012. Based on the feedback received, the Bureau now believes that it is appropriate to provide the public with additional time to prepare their comments. These comments are now due November 6, 2012. All other deadlines under both proposed rules remain unchanged.

For more information about the extensions, please see:

Explainer: Why did it take 1,099 pages to propose a three-page mortgage disclosure?

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Dear CFPB,

Recently, I saw your notice of proposed rulemaking to combine and simplify existing mortgage disclosures. It’s 1,099 pages long! Why does it take so many pages to create something that’s supposed to be easy to use and understand?

Sincerely,
Interested in your regulations

Dear Interested,

This is a great question, one you’re not alone in asking — 1,099 is a lot of pages, as those of us who were involved in writing them can attest.

Let’s start with some background. Currently, two federal laws – the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) – mandate that consumers receive disclosures of certain information about mortgage loans. The Dodd-Frank Act required the CFPB to propose a rule to combine the TILA and RESPA disclosures.

If you want to see the new combined disclosures, combine and simplify existing mortgage disclosures check them out here. If you want to see what the proposal means for you, we’ve provided summaries, one on what it would mean for consumers and one with more technical detail.

You said “propose a rule to combine the disclosures” instead of just “propose combined disclosures.” Why?
It’s an important distinction. The rule explains how we would expect industry to use the disclosures: when to issue them, how they apply to different loans, what various terms mean, etc.

And that proposed rule is 1,099 pages?
Actually, no. We are not proposing 1,099 pages of new regulations. That page count is for the notice of the proposed rule, not the rule. Like notices of proposed rulemaking issued by other agencies (particularly the Federal Reserve Board), our proposal consists of three basic parts: (1) the preamble explaining the proposal; (2) the text of the proposed regulations; and (3) guidance on how to comply with those regulations.

In terms of pages, the new regulations are only a small part. Most of the pages explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. As required by law, we analyze the costs and benefits of the proposal for consumers and industry. We also provide thorough guidance on how to comply including samples of completed forms, which the industry requested during our outreach and Small Business Review Panel process. Because of the variability of mortgage loan and real estate transactions, industry wanted specific guidance for many different potential scenarios. This added to the page count.

Here’s how the notice breaks down:

Content Pages
Preamble
  • Directions on how to submit comments
  • Summary of the proposed rule
  • Overview of the mortgage market and the mortgage shopping process
  • Summary of 43 years of TILA and RESPA mortgage disclosure regulation
  • Summary of the Dodd-Frank Act provisions requiring the Bureau to combine the TILA and RESPA mortgage disclosures and related Dodd-Frank Act mortgage rulemakings
  • Summary of the Bureau’s outreach, disclosure testing, and Small Business Review Panel
  • Statement of the Bureau’s legal authority
  • Detailed explanations of the reasons for each aspect of the proposed rule and requests for comment
  • Analyses of the costs and benefits of the proposed rule for consumers and industry, as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, the Regulatory Flexibility Act (as amended by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act), and the Paperwork Reduction Act
684
Proposed amendments to regulations
  • New rules
  • Technical and conforming amendments to existing rules
209
Proposed guidance regarding compliance with the amended regulations
205
Signature page
1
TOTAL
1,099

The preamble is long.
It is. The preamble provides context for the proposed forms and regulatory changes. The mortgage market is big, and mortgage disclosure regulation has 43 years of history. Also, before writing the rule, we spent a lot of time talking to industry and consumers and analyzing costs and benefits. That’s a lot of context, and that means a long preamble.

Why bother with all this context?
First, some of it is required by law. Second, we believe that part of our commitment to open government is providing more rather than less information about our work. Finally, we want your comments to help us understand the market better, and providing context can lead to more informative comments. Explaining what we considered in writing the proposal makes it easier to craft specific responses or to draw our attention to something you think we’ve missed. Comments that provide new insight or information can be the ones that have the greatest impact on what we do next.

That leaves 415 pages. Only part of that is new rules, though. What else is left?
The technical and conforming amendments make sure the new rules don’t conflict with existing rules, that they make the right cross-references, etc. This actually accounts for more than half of the proposed regulatory language.

The proposed guidance explains what certain regulatory language means in context. For example, the phrase “within three business days” appears a lot in this notice, as in: a creditor must deliver the loan estimate disclosure “within three business days” of application. But what counts as a business day? If a bank is closed the Friday before an Independence Day that falls on Saturday, does that Friday count as a business day? (Answer for purposes of delivery of this disclosure: yes.) Providing guidance that clarifies issues like these can save time, energy, and costs for both industry and regulators.

And the signature gets its own page?
Yes. We don’t expect a lot of comments on that page.

So where can I comment on this notice of proposed rulemaking?
First, we hope you’ll take a look at the Know Before You Owe project that helped us develop the proposed disclosures. Then, review the rule and submit your comments at Regulations.gov.