Escrow Payments

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.

Moving States: Part III

There are a lot of factors that go into a home purchase. There are the simple ones, like the number of bedrooms and bathrooms your family desires. Then there are more complicated ones, like what compromises are you willing to make on your wish list to get to the price and location you want.

HOME CRITERIA

I started looking at real estate options in central KY just out of curiosity in June. I knew we wanted 4 bedrooms and at least 2 bathrooms, but it would probably be more like 2.5 bathrooms (master bathroom, kids’ bedroom bathroom, and a powder room on the first floor for guests). We knew we wanted a 2 car garage, which worked out well for us in our RVA house.

Then there’s more trivial things that I learned from experience. I preferred the master bedroom to be on the second floor with the kids bedrooms. When we built our RVA house, we didn’t think it would be too much to have the kids on a separate floor. Well, we made that decision before we had kids, and it turns out that having infants doesn’t make it easy to sleep on a separate floor. Yes, I had monitors. But kids are noisy. So once I ‘kicked’ them out of my bedroom, I didn’t want to have a monitor right next to my head to still be kept up by all their little squeaky noises through the night.

Our RVA house had a loft upstairs. It had a ‘wow’ factor to it, but it wasn’t practical. We used it as a den before we had kids, and then it was hard to keep it organized and clean once kids came around. Therefore, we put a basement on our must have list, and we weren’t going to compromise on that. We knew from our living style that a basement was going to be something we’d enjoy for a long time and didn’t want to take that off our list just yet.

We had a lot of criteria associated with the lot. We wanted about 0.25 acres. We felt that 0.5 an acre was more land than we really wanted, but anything less than 0.25 acres wasn’t going to leave enough room for multiple kids and a large dog to enjoy. We want to be in a neighborhood with several neighbors close, but we want more room than a garbage can width between the houses.

One of the sad parts of the house we were leaving behind was the backyard. We had a really nice natural area in the back half of our yard. We had put a firepit in and had a beautiful tree-scape back there, but still had a decent size grassy area for the kids and dog to play. Another downside for leaving was that the playground and pavilion (hang out space) for the HOA were two lots away.

FINANCIAL CRITERIA

When Mr. ODA and I got pre-approved for our first home back in 2012, we were approved for $750,000. Sure, we could afford that monthly payment, but then we couldn’t afford food or furniture or electricity. We had set our spending limit based on our down payment available at the time because we didn’t want to pay PMI. For this purchase, we could have afforded a monthly payment associated with a $500k house (or more), but that size house isn’t necessary for our life right now and we didn’t want to be saddled with that down payment.

I’ve already quit my job. Mr. ODA expects to quit his job in the near future. We don’t want to have him quit his job to hang out in an expensive house and never be able to do anything else because we need to pay $2,500 per month for a mortgage.

When looking at houses, we’re fluid in the cost. We preferred to stay below $400k, unless there was something we could get for more than that making it worth it (e.g., more land, more amenities). We found out that we could get everything we wanted for $350-400k, so it would have been hard for us to go higher than that.

When you’re pre-approved by a bank, they’re looking at your debt to income ratio. Your debt is categorized by your routine monthly payments (e.g., car loan). We don’t have any loans or debt payments in that sense, so they’ve set our pre-approval almost solely based on our income. This is a faulty expectation in a homeowner’s reality, since we all have fairly fixed monthly costs: cable, internet, cell phone, electricity, gas, water, etc. Then you have the cost of groceries and entertainment that may or may not be on a credit card and able to be tracked against your credit. Essentially, we don’t need a bank to tell us what we can afford, and we set our own expectations.

We know what we have for a down payment and closing costs, and we know that we’d prefer to pay $1200-1500 per month for our mortgage, which includes our escrowed real estate taxes and insurance.

OUR HOME

We got a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom (with another bathroom roughed in for the basement), 2,750 square foot house with an unfinished basement, on about a 8,500 square foot lot. The basement is not a walk-out, which we were bummed about, but at least we have the space we wanted. The lot is slightly smaller than we set out looking for, but because our house is really wide and not deep, we actually ended up with a nice size back yard, which was really the intention of our lot size desire. Our house cost about $346k.

FINDING THE HOUSE

We looked in Lexington, KY first, and we explored resales and new construction. The neighborhood I was really interested in was sold out in one section or over $500k for a new-build in another section, so I started over. For resales in Lexington, we were looking at houses that were about 30 years old and needed updating. I really wish I had an eye for the potential in some homes. When I started investigating the new construction market, I realized that we could have a new build house for the same price as the resales that needed work. Most of the neighborhoods in Lexington have the houses on top of each other too, which we really didn’t want. We like neighbors, but we also want to be able to walk between the houses.

Through July, I tried to figure out the new construction market in the area. I thought I had a head start since we had built our house in Virginia a few years ago, but the process for these Central KY builders was much different. It was hard to stomach the fact that their build time was 11-12 months, and growing. We had built our house in Virginia in less than 4.5 months from contract signature to move in.

I looked up the different floor plans for as many builders as I could find. One builder had very large, but partitioned off, floor plans. Another builder had options available in Richmond, KY, and another builder had those options available for a year from now. I found a deal being offered by one of the builders in Richmond, KY that said “last basement lot of this section – free finished basement.”

I reached out to the listing agent. She took me on a virtual tour of the floor plan I liked, and it was by far my #1 contender. I asked her what “free finished basement” meant, and she said they’d cover the basement and finishing it. I verified several times – a $50k value??? Well, Richmond, KY wasn’t my preferred location, but hard to beat this deal. Plus, that neighborhood was just starting to be built, and we really liked being at the beginning of our last neighborhood’s build out. The listing agent put together a contract, but didn’t mention this deal. I said I wasn’t signing anything that didn’t have that in there. She added it, and then said she had to wait for her boss (the company owner) to come back to town in a couple of days to go over the details. Well, the deal was too good to be true. The deal was that we paid for the basement pour, but they paid to finish it. This deal was going on because the lot was less than favorable, so between the poor lot and less of an incentive, we walked away. That floor plan is still my favorite though, and if we ever move again, it’ll be hard not to go back to that builder. Also, they have the laundry room connected to the master closet or bathroom in their floor plans, and this is the most logical, amazing thing that I had even pointed out in our last house as something that should have been done.

Well, now I was getting desperate. How are we going to find something that we can move into? Maybe we’ll have to wait to list our house in Spring of 2021 because we’ll only find something to build that’s several months out. I’m very grateful that we found something when we did and didn’t have to wait until Spring of 2021 when housing prices have risen so much!

I had tried to get more information for a house that was under construction. We couldn’t change anything, but it was mostly ok. I didn’t love the tile in the bathrooms. The house layout was manageable, but it had a lot of wasted space (we don’t need a sitting room in the master bedroom or a formal living room). The house had a walk-out basement and was part of a neighborhood that had golf and a pool. It was also $393k. Affordable, but not what we were looking for. The lot was over 10k square feet, which is something we wanted. We asked Mr. ODA’s parents to go check it out. They went to see it and were quick to say no. I’m glad they did, and that I didn’t settle. We want our kids to ride their bikes in the driveway and street, and this house is on a greatly sloped hill (like recently rode our bikes down it, and I was scared).

I kept looking. We mostly were looking around Lexington, KY, but not within Lexington because of the lot spacing. We considered several re-sales in Winchester, Georgetown, and Richmond. They all were about $400k and not perfect, so it was hard to jump in.

At the end of July, a house popped up on my search. It was new construction and had been under contract, designed by someone that had to go with a different house because this one was significantly delayed. It was being built by the builder that had 11-12 month lead time on newly constructed homes, a builder without a good reputation, even to me, someone who didn’t grow up in the area. I requested the ‘spec list’ so I could see if there were any deal breakers in the design and selections.

I had hoped for white kitchen cabinets, and these were dark. I loved that there was a covered deck and that the already-selected upgrades to the floor plan were exactly what I would have selected (e.g., mudroom, guest suite, laundry room location, master bathroom layout). It had a pit basement. It was in the area we wanted; it was on a flat part of the road; and it could be ready before next year. The light fixtures were more eclectic than we would have chosen, but those weren’t a deal breaker.

We were told that it was probably going to be ready at the beginning of November. We figured a mid-August list on our home may take a week or 2 to get under contract, and then usually you see a 45 day close (versus our push for 25-30 days usually on rental purchases). We thought we may have a couple of weeks to bridge between selling our home and getting into the new house. Nope.

This was just as the bidding wars were really ramping up and people were losing out on 20-bid type offers on listings. Our house was under contract at the end of the first weekend. They wanted a 3 week close, and we pushed it to 4 weeks. That left 7 weeks of us being ‘homeless,’ which I covered in Part I.

SUMMARY

This is very specific to our needs and desires, but I hope that the thought process and ‘give and take’ in the decision making can be helpful to some. This information is also geared towards the Central KY market, and what you get for the price of a house in different areas of the country varies.

While we’ve had several issues with our home in the first six months, we’re happy to be in KY with family, the location of our house, and the general feel and functionality that it’s given us.