A theme I stick to in this blog is that you need to watch your money. I’ve talked about ways that I’ve fought to get money back where it wasn’t billed correctly (e.g., medical bills), and today’s warning is about escrows.
An escrow account, in the sense that I want to talk about it, is tied to your mortgage. Your monthly payment includes an amount that goes into a separate account held by your mortgage company, and they manage paying out your taxes and insurance on your behalf.
The benefit of an escrow is that you don’t have to manage your insurance and tax payments. You don’t have to pay out a large sum of money once (or twice) a year because you’re paying towards this account every month that will manage that billing for you. The downside is that this escrow account requires you to maintain a balance, so it’s holding your money where your money isn’t working for you. Another downside is that your money movement is less transparent, and you just expect that the payments will be made accurately. The bank basically takes on the administrative burden of paying these bills on your behalf, in exchange for continually holding this money without paying you interest.
Each month your mortgage payment includes principal, interest, and escrow. For example, I have a mortgage payment that is $615.34. The P&I total will remain the same amount each month, but the principal portion of each payment will slowly increase while the interest slowly decreases. In my example, the total P&I is always $428.11, but the breakdown of what’s principal and what’s interest changes (e.g., October’s payment due included principal of $119.58 and interest of $308.53; November’s was $120.03 of principal and $308.08 of interest). The escrow amount each month for this mortgage is now $187.23; this number stays the same until there’s an escrow re-analysis.
An escrow analysis is conducted once per year to verify that the escrow account will have sufficient funds to pay out the bills received (typically taxes and insurance), while maintaining the required minimum balance. Sometimes the increase is known ahead of time because you can see that the estimates for the initial escrow contributions were off (or in our case, new construction uses estimates based on last year’s tax payment, which only included land value and not the final sale of the home, so we know there will be an escrow shortfall in our future). A shortfall may also occur when there’s been a drastic change in your property value assessment, causing taxes to increase more than an expected amount (like in 2021!), or when insurance costs change more than projected.
Below is an escrow analysis of one of our accounts. The highlighted row shows that when our taxes are paid, the balance will fall below the required minimum. The document says that the minimum “is determined by the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), your mortgage contract, or state law. Your minimum balance may include up to 2 months cushion of escrow payments to cover increases in your taxes and insurance.” If you are projected to dip below the required minimum, they’ll offer you the opportunity to make a one-time contribution to the escrow account or your monthly payment will increase to cover that projected shortfall.
The increase is calculated in the image below. My payment to escrow at the time of this analysis was $126.18. They take my insurance and taxes owed, divide by 12, and come up with my monthly base escrow payment ($149.81). At the lowest point in my escrow balance (highlighted in yellow above), the account will be -149.43. The difference between this balance and the required balance of $299.62 is $449.05. Divide this number by 12 to get the $37.42 in the image below indicating the monthly shortage for the account.
The new escrow payment is added to my P&I payment (which stays the same), and this is my new monthly mortgage payment.
An escrow analysis showing that we’ll fall below the balance required inevitably means that my monthly cash flow will decrease (because we always opt for the change in monthly payment instead of a one-time contribution). As taxes and insurance increase, so does your requirement to fund your escrow account. While the reason for the escrow increase is to cover the taxes and insurance, which I would have to pay anyway, the escrow increase is higher because of the required minimums. One of our houses started with $766.96 as the monthly payment, and it is now $802.96 due to the escrow analysis. Another one started at $477.77, and it’s now at $537.60.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
Honestly, the only way I’ve checked my escrow balances in the past is at the end of the year when I’m verifying the insurance and tax payments “make sense.” I’m not even verifying the details behind the numbers, just that it was similar to last year’s amount as I update my spreadsheet. Well this time, I logged in to update my spreadsheets with the new mortgage balances for the October Financial Update, and I saw my escrow account was negative by over $1000! That makes no sense because these accounts are reviewed annually through an escrow re-analysis to ensure you’re not projected to dip below their required minimum balance, and if it were to be negative, it would only be by a much smaller amount.
We had recently changed our insurance. Usually when we change insurance providers, we pay the current year on our credit card (to get those points!), and then all future billing goes to our escrow account. I don’t know why we didn’t do it this way for the most recent change, but I’m inclined to blame the fact that the process took months to get new insurance because this company hasn’t been responsive, so we just wanted it done and weren’t thinking. Since we didn’t get the new policy issued before our old policy was billed, both insurances were paid out by our escrow. Sure, that should have affected our escrow balances, but still not by $1000.
One house had a policy that cost $573.31 and the other had a policy that cost $750.06. The new policy includes both houses under one policy (this becomes annoying and it makes me uncomfortable for reasons I can’t seem to articulate to the agent) and costs $1,180.87. Each mortgage escrow paid out the original policy amounts since we didn’t execute the new policies timely. After these were paid out, the mortgage company received a bill for $1,180.87. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the company paid $1042 from each of our escrow accounts, and then one escrow account paid $138.87 (which is the balance of 1180.87-1042). The $138.87 covers the policy fees; so someone realized that there was a separate line item for policy fees, but didn’t realize that the $1042 should have been split between two houses (even though they knew there were two houses because they took from both escrows).
I questioned the process with the new insurance company, but he didn’t take responsibility for it. He claimed that the mortgagee had to know to split it and they don’t manage any of that. I explained that I’ve had multiple houses insured by one company and have never been given one policy number for it. He acted surprised. My gut says this is wrong and isn’t going to work, both for future billing and the possibility of a need for a claim. We did receive a check in the mail for $903.13 (the difference of $1042-138.87), but we still have paid the $138.87 and want it reimbursed. I sent an email this morning explaining again that I’ve confirmed with my mortgage company that this insurance company was paid $1042+$1042+$138.87. He again responded that the $138.87 is the fees portion of the bill, and I again said that I know, but it’s been paid twice, and I’d like it back. So now I’ll stay on top of that $138.87 to make sure we get it back.
You need to fight for yourself. You need to know what companies are owed and know what you’ve paid. Then don’t back down to keep asking for an update. I recently discussed how I had to fight for medical bills (multiple times) for a year at a time to get the money reimbursed that I was owed. I even recently had to call on another medical bill that I paid before realizing it hadn’t been submitted to insurance (I would love to understand why this keeps being an issue that my medical bills aren’t submitted to my insurance before billing me). Then they submitted it to insurance and sat on my reimbursement until I called twice asking for the reimbursement (that both times they agreed I was owed and it was “in process.”). Manage your money. Especially because that $138 that I’m waiting for now could mean a big difference to a family in need or living paycheck to paycheck.