Homeowners are accustomed to mortgage payments that include taxes and insurance. Every month you pay 1/12 of the annual tab (give or take), and the lender socks it away into an escrow account for when the bills come due.
But a lot of the subprime loans made during the pre-credit-crunch frenzy didn't come with escrow accounts. There's nothing like being hit with an unexpected tax bill to ruin your day - or wreck your budget.
Many of the people streaming into St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore for help avoiding foreclosure don't have escrow accounts and didn't realize it when they got the loan. The truth is especially shocking to homeowners who refinanced, thinking they were getting a better deal.
"That's something we're seeing more often: 'What do you mean my taxes and insurance aren't included? I always had taxes and insurance included with my payment,' " says Anne Balcer Norton, director of foreclosure prevention at St. Ambrose.
If you're shopping for a mortgage now, you're probably not in danger of ending up without an escrow account.
Much has changed since subprime lending collapsed last year. (Keep in mind that reverse mortgages are a different animal: Seniors getting them to tap into their equity should be aware that these products typically do not cover taxes and insurance, Norton says.)
But what if you already have a mortgage? Unless you're absolutely certain your lender is escrowing for you, it wouldn't hurt to double-check. Your monthly mortgage statement should say how much you're paying in taxes and insurance if you are indeed paying for taxes and insurance, Norton says. You could also call your loan servicer or look through the stack of documents you got at the settlement table.
All isn't lost if it turns out that you're escrow-less. First, try calling your servicer to request an account be set up, Norton suggests. In most cases she's aware of, the servicers followed through.
If you get a "sorry, but no" response, there's the do-it-yourself method. Figure out the annual cost of your insurance and taxes. Then every month put 1/12 of that amount into a bank account or other special fund for the purpose. (As a bonus, you get interest on that money while it sits there.)
"Really be disciplined about putting that money aside," Norton says. "Life happens. Particularly in this economy, there are no certainties."