Banks to pay 75% of Sandy settlements to homeowners

Damaged by superstorm Sandy, at least four of Damaged by superstorm Sandy, at least four of the five houses on Bayview Place, a cul-de-sac off Clocks Boulevard in Massapequa, have been so badly damaged that they are no longer habitable. (Nov. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo on Wednesday said that they were increasing the amount of insurance settlement money the banks would release immediately to superstorm Sandy victims, freeing up tens of millions of dollars to fix flood-wrecked homes.

The banks will now pay out 75 percent of settlements directly to most homeowners, up from 50 percent, instead of holding the money in escrow accounts to protect against fraud and ensure the proceeds go toward repairs.

"We are continuously looking for additional ways to help customers rebuild their homes quickly," said Kevin Watters, Chase's chief executive of mortgage banking. Chase said the change will release $20 million to homeowners; Wells Fargo didn't have an estimate of the amount affected.

Insurance companies have long made large settlement checks payable to both homeowners and their mortgage lenders, which routinely release some up front and hold the rest, releasing it gradually as repairs progress. In the wake of Sandy, however, homeowners have complained bitterly that money has flowed too slowly, prompting many to delay repairs, or go into debt or deplete savings to pay contractors themselves.

In many cases, the banks are following rules set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own about 65 percent of all mortgages in New York State. The decision by Chase and Wells to release more money comes after the mortgage giants relaxed some of those regulations last week, giving banks more discretion.

"Our goal is to simplify and clarify our policies so servicers can put insurance proceeds to work helping families and repairing homes without delay," Freddie Mac senior vice president Tracy Mooney said.

Earlier this month, a state investigation found banks and mortgage servicers were withholding more than $200 million in insurance settlements from New Yorkers, hobbling efforts to rebuild. On Tuesday, the state Department of Financial Services said it was urging all banks and servicers to release up to 75 percent of settlements to homeowners immediately.

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