January 10, 2020 / 10:34 PM / a month ago

U.S. regulator allows Bank of America to fund housing advisers

WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Bank of America Corp can fund agencies that advise struggling home buyers under a relaxed regulatory program unveiled in September, the U.S. consumer watchdog said on Friday.

The decision by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau means Bank of America's mortgage-lending unit will become the first lender to enter into financial relationships with approved housing-counseling agencies without fear of prosecution by the bureau, the agency said in a statement.

The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) bars kickback or referral fees that may unnecessarily increase the cost of buying a home. This includes giving or receiving anything of value in exchange for referrals for homebuying services such as mortgages and title insurance.

In September, the CFPB said it was relaxing rules on such arrangements in order to increase funding for nonprofit housing counseling agencies. Consumer groups have said the change could lead to conflicts of interest that may ultimately hurt home buyers by steering them toward more expensive lenders.

Bank of America, which already has an active home buyer counseling program, is among several major U.S. lenders in talks with the bureau about the new program, said an agency official familiar with the application process, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter publicly.

The program exempts 1,600 agencies that participate in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's counseling program from prosecution when entering into financial arrangements with lenders for pre-purchase services. It also assures lenders that the regulator would not find the funding arrangements in violation of RESPA.

The program is a response to HUD concerns that approved housing-counseling agencies have been hesitant to seek funding agreements with lenders over fears of prosecution, the CFPB said. HUD-approved housing-counseling agencies compete annually for funds from the government and other non-profit grants.

Reuters reported in August that U.S. mortgage firms are getting back into joint marketing and advertising arrangements, emboldened by what they perceive to be the CFPB's softer stance on RESPA enforcement. (Reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Richard Chang)

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