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VA official talks future of partial claims, revamping agency’s reputation

VA is currently working on a permanent option that will replace its temporary partial claim program

In a few months, the loss mitigation measures that have kept close to 100,000 veterans from foreclosure during COVID-19 will end. Decisions of policymakers at the Department of Veterans Affairs will determine what happens to those borrowers.

The VA also faces challenges unrelated to the pandemic. The cost of credit for its borrowers is set by Congress, not the department. The perception of VA loans as risky and logistically complicated — even if an outdated view — continues to impact the competitiveness of the borrowers it serves.

But the VA is hoping to change that.

John Bell, deputy director at the VA, said the agency has made strides in recent years to get loans processed and out the door in a timely manner.

HousingWire sat down with Bell to learn about how the VA is working to revamp the image of the loans it offers, how it plans to modernize its appraisal processes, how it coordinates with other agencies, and whether its COVID-19 partial claim program will get an extension.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

A photo of John Bell, Deputy Director at the VA
Photo credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

Maria Volkova: There are some negative perceptions that the VA product is more cumbersome to deal with and riskier than a conventional loan. How is the VA addressing this?

John Bell: We have been trying to get the word out about improvements to our program and trying to get this message to the right people at the right time. Our borrowers are the cream of the crop. They’ve got 722 credit scores, they’ve got 40% debt ratios, they’ve got average reserves in the bank of $54,000. These are great borrowers, and they need to be given a chance.

We have done a lot of work reducing the time that it takes for certificates of eligibility to be issued. When I started 12 years ago, the average time was 20 business days. That is now 48 hours for 92% of all our requests. We’ve also done a lot of work in appraisals and trying to reduce the time that it takes not only to assign an appraisal to an appraiser, but also the time an appraisal is delivered to us.

MV: How is the VA educating stakeholders in the industry about improvements made to the program?

JB: We just approved a brand new training department for VA. We now will have our first training group that will be intensely focused on just spreading the word, getting information out to lenders, veterans and real estate agents. We’re really excited about building this training team out and hiring a contractor to help us put together the materials.

MV: VA’s appraisal process is criticized for being lengthy and costly. Legislation is making its way through the Senate that will modernize appraisals, in part by allowing desktop appraisals. How will this benefit borrowers? Is this a positive development for the VA?

JB: We are thinking about how to best serve the industry in providing desktop appraisals. But remember, we are still a high LTV program and lenders own 75% of the risk in that delegated authority that we’ve given them. Even if we have a desktop program, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lender wants to use the desktop program, because there is a lot of risk.

It’s really about putting options out there and then letting lenders determine what best suits their needs as well as keeping the veteran competitive. I would love to broad stroke say, ‘Hey, you have this ability,’ but unfortunately it really must be thought out. Procedural information comes out very soon on what we can and can’t do, so that’s even before any legislative changes that would come out this year.

There are also things that we can do right now at the VA without legislative help. Last year the Assisted Appraisal Processing Program launched. The program allows appraisers to utilize any tools or resources at their disposal to put together an appraisal and to sign off and certify a house’s value. Our problem is getting appraisers and lenders to want to use it. Right now, we only have a 14% usage rate. We’re trying to find out why that is.

MV: Approximately 200,000 VA and FHA borrowers are currently in forbearance. What is the VA doing to help veteran’s whose financial wherewithal continues to be impacted by the pandemic?

JB: There are a little less than 100,000 veterans that are still in forbearance or some type of modification mitigation program. We have the partial claim program that sunsets in October, but we also have other tools that veterans can utilize such as COVID refund modifications and loan deferment. These options are available through July of 2023.

MV: Stakeholders in the mortgage industry have been calling for the VA to extend the deadline for the partial claim program and possibly make it a permanent fixture. Why is the VA moving to sunset the partial claim program in October?

JB: Just because the partial claim program is sun setting on October 28, that’s not the end of the story. We are working on other permanent options for our veteran borrowers.

This was a regulation that we put together in six months that normally would take three years. Whenever you do things like that, there are things you miss. There are things you wish you had done differently. As we have gone through this program over the past six, eight months, we’ve seen some of those holes and where we could have done things a little bit better to tie some loose ends together. That would make it easier for servicers, easier for veterans and easier for our staff to be able to maneuver.

We’re currently trying to solve what we should permanently do. You’ll see this from us shortly.

MV: In recent years the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the VA have cracked down on deceptive ads targeting veteran borrowers. Why do you think that veteran borrowers have been targeted by these types of campaigns and what is the VA doing to educate borrowers about these types of schemes?

JB: A lot of it had to do with our interest rate reduction refinance loan. It’s a rate and term loan where you’re just signing your name, there’s no appraisal, they’re not underwritten. So they really were easy pickings because you didn’t have to go through that approval.

We have a lot of veterans that work for our program and a lot of veterans that have utilized the program that are getting those same marketing materials. As we receive those marketing materials ourselves, we are [spreading the word to veterans and lenders].

We partnered and we continue to partner with the CFPB to try to crack down and monitor those those type of ads. And it’s not just for the interest rate refi program, it’s also for cash-out refinances. It wasn’t just a one time thing, every month we’re having discussions and sending [the CFPB] materials that we see in the industry.

MV: Certain legislation is in part funded by increasing the cost of credit for VA borrowers. What is the decision process behind adding funding fees to legislation, which inevitably impacts veteran borrowers?

JB: We have zero input when it comes to the funding fee and we basically do what Congress requires us to do. They set the funding fee rates, they set the length of the funding fee they set, who is responsible, or who is required to pay. And then we follow whatever that guidance is.

I understand the frustration. We just don’t have a say in that.

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