Yes, predatory lenders are still out there. Although underwriting practices have tightened and government regulations for mortgage lending have increased, it's difficult to force unethical lenders to put consumers' best interests first. It's still your responsibility, as a consumer, to look out for yourself. Let's look at some warning signs that the mortgage you're considering, whether it's for a purchase, refinance or home equity loan might end up hurting you.

Key Takeaways

  • A predatory loan is one that benefits the lender at the borrower's expense.
  • Below-market interest rates, high-pressure sales pitches, pressure to take out a risky loan, being asked to lie on your applications, are all signs of predatory lending. 

What Is a Predatory Loan?

Each time a lender successfully closes a mortgage, it earns money. In a non-predatory situation, the lender earns a reasonable and customary fee and the borrower gets the best product for her needs.

Alternatively, the borrower might choose a loan that isn't the best option, but that she fully understands and chooses willingly. For example, a borrower might reject a fixed-rate mortgage and choose an ARM instead because of its low introductory payments even though she plans to keep the mortgage beyond the ARM's low-rate introductory period. That's not predatory.

A predatory loan is one that benefits the lender at the borrower's expense. The mortgage might have above-average fees, excessive or unnecessary fees, overly high-interest rates given the borrower's qualifications, or prevent the borrower from accumulating home equity. Convincing a borrower to refinance or take out a home equity loan when there is little to no benefit, or even harm, in doing so, are also predatory.

The list of practices that qualify as predatory is endless you don't have to learn about every single one before you can confidently apply for a loan. The important things are to know that predatory lending still exists, to understand the general concept, to be aware of common red flags and to remain alert when shopping for a loan.

Warning Signs

Predatory lending practices cost consumers dearly. Be alert to these warning signs when shopping for a mortgage to lower your chances of getting taken by a predatory lender.

The interest rate is too good to be true
Those offers you get in the mail promising a mortgage at below-market rates? Ignore them. At best, they're a marketing ploy to get you to call up the lender, who will then reveal that the advertised rate isn't actually available, but will try to talk you into doing business with the company anyway. At worst, you'll get reeled into doing business with someone unscrupulous who may indeed be able to get you the advertised interest rate but will overcharge you elsewhere or put you into the wrong loan for your situation.

They pressure you to act quickly
Ignore high-pressure sales pitches for mortgages. You're making a decision that will affect your monthly cash flow and your long-term net worth, not to mention where you'll sleep at night. Take all the time you need to choose a lender and a loan.

They pressure you to take out a risky or expensive loan
It's one thing for a borrower to willingly sign up for an ARM or other product that isn't as straightforward as a fixed-rate mortgage; it's another thing for a lender to push you into one. Few mortgages are inherently bad, but many mortgages are the wrong product for a borrower's circumstances. If you walked into a lender's office asking for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage and you've been talked into applying for an interest-only loan, you might be dealing with a predatory lender.

They ask you to lie on your application
This behavior by a loan officer should be a huge red flag that you're working with someone unethical who is probably only looking out for themselves. Lying on a mortgage application is a crime called mortgage fraud and you certainly don't want to be convicted of that.

While there are some situations where rigid lending rules keep qualified buyers out of the market (such as high net worth buyers with plenty of money in the bank but minimal monthly cash flow), if you don't qualify for a mortgage, it may be that you don't have the income or savings to comfortably repay it. In these cases, not qualifying for a loan could be a blessing in disguise. A few years from now, you might have the down payment, income and steady job you need to get a good mortgage that you can afford, rather than being evicted in foreclosure proceedings because you couldn't make your payments.

The fees are high compared to other lenders' fees
You wouldn't buy a new TV without shopping around to get the best brand and features at the best price, so why would you entrust your financial future to the first mortgage lender you talk to?

The rules about shopping around on a major purchase apply to mortgages, too. Get quotes from several lenders and compare their offers. Unless you're unlucky enough that every single one is predatory, you'll be able to spot the common threads and pick out the discrepancies in the different offers. For example, three lenders might offer you roughly the same interest rate with no points; another might offer that same rate but expect you to pay points. That's a red flag that you're being overcharged.

The fees and/or terms suddenly change at closing
Lenders are legally required to give borrowers a good faith estimate of all the fees associated with their loans early in the application process. At closing, you should compare the good faith estimate with the final charges. If there are significant discrepancies that are not in your favor, you may want to cancel the deal. If the discrepancies are in your favor, that's OK, some lenders prefer to under-promise and over-deliver.

Don't Be Afraid to Start Over

The mortgage process is onerous, and abandoning your financing could mean losing the home you want to purchase, or a great interest rate. As a result, you might be reluctant to back out of a mortgage that you suspect is bad, even though you haven't closed yet and still have the opportunity to walk away.

It's important to consider the long-term implications of taking out a bad loan. Starting over with a new loan, and possibly searching for a different property, are short-term inconveniences. Saddling yourself with a financially destructive loan product has serious, long-term consequences.

The Bottom Line

A predatory loan, at best, means you'll pay more than you had to for your mortgage. At worst, it could send you to foreclosure and even bankruptcy, leaving you without a home, destroying the wealth you were trying to accumulate through homeownership and severely damaging your credit. It's worth the effort to educate yourself about the mortgage process and to shop around with different lenders so you can compare different offers and make sure you're getting the best loan for your needs.