The Czarina and I are finally moving on up. The bungalow that was merely “snug” when we only had one set of twin girl babies has become a raucous and cramped madhouse now that the eight-year-old girls have been joined by their four-year-old brothers. We scrutinized our finances, consulted with our lenders, and decided to hold on to the old house, build a new house, then clean-up and sell the old house. We could just barely swing the dual mortgage payments. The problem was coming up with the down payment for the new house while holding on to the old house. Fortunately, we had a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) from Bank of America, so we’d be able to borrow against the old house to raise the funds to pay for the new house.
Or so we thought.
Unfortunately, when we paid off our HELOC last year in anticipation of getting ready to build our new home, Bank of America (BoA) froze the account so we could draw upon it no more. Somehow we missed this fact at the time, discovering it only a couple of weeks ago when we tried to draw upon the HELOC to get our down payment together. Now our HELOC was apparently inherited by BoA when they took over Countrywide, and I can certainly understand them trying to reduce their exposure by cutting our credit. I could grumble that would have been nice for BoA to tell us a bit more explicitly, but since BoA had made it clear they didn’t want our business, we took it elsewhere.
The Czarina and I both do our business banking at First Commercial Bank. We’ve both found them very helpful, extending lines of credit to both of our businesses. Our banker connected us with someone else at their branch who got us rolling with a new HELOC. With nearly three weeks to go before closing, there was plenty of time.
There was only one problem. When BoA froze our zero balance HELOC last year, they did nothing about the second mortgage lien on our house. When we went to get our new HELOC from FCB, their underwriters discovered the BoA HELOC lien was still in place. I got on a conference call with our bank and with BoA customer service, and they agreed to cancel our HELOC and release the lien. It wouldonly take thirty days to get the lien filed in the court house. That’s not fast enough – we’re closing in a few weeks, we told them. We’ll have a letter of satisfaction right out to you, they said.
And they did. Now our FCB underwriter could have been a stickler and insisted on the prior lien being cleared before closing the new HELOC. But they were quite reasonable – all the FCB underwriter insisted upon was a letter from BoA stating the loan number, amount, date opened, date closed, identifying information for the lien (Book and Page Number of the Lien in the County Records), and an acknowledgement that the lien release was in process. Unfortunately, the BoA Letter did not have the Book and Page number of the lien. Further, the FCB underwriter was confused by our re-finance in which BoA released the original first mortgage which was recorded at the same time with a slightly different Book Number. It appeared to be an error.
On Tuesday January 15, I called into BoA’s customer service line. I spoke with an agent about the problem. I told her I needed the letter to satisfy the underwriter for my new HELOC. At the agent’s request, I e-mailed the title search showing the identifying information on the lien. The agent said she’d look into it, and I should hear something soon.
Days passed. We got a week out from closing and I was wondering why we hadn’t heard anything yet from FCB. They told me they still weren’t able to get the information they needed from BoA, despite being in e-mail contact. I volunteered to get it. On Thursday January 24, one week out from the closing date for my new house, I took matters into my own hands and dove into BoA Customer Service hell.
The solution should have been quite simple – maybe a fifteen minute process. The agent should have been able to call over to ReconTrust, the subsidiary of BoA that handles lien releases, verify the book number on the title search I provided, and draft a letter back to the FCB underwriter with the appropriate information. To make it easy, I already prepared a draft letter showing precisely what I needed and wanted. Call, verify, sign, and fax it back – that’s all I needed. This simple process was utterly beyond BoA’s capability.
In my first call, I spent 30-40 minutes bringing the agent up to speed. The agent insisted that e-mail was impossible, and I’d have to fax my forms in. I should have known I was in trouble when I was being asked to use a fax to forward an e-mail I’d already sent, but BoA’s Customer Service process seems stuck in the 1990s. I called a few hours later to check on the process and got yet another agent up to speed. I was told the main fax line could take 24-36 hours to “process” a fax and get it in their system. But I could get “expedited” service by faxing my information directly to their call center. I did so. Finally, as I was driving home late Thursday night, I got a call back. Don’t worry, matters are in hand, I was told, we’ll send the letter out tonight or tomorrow morning. Finally I could relax.
I checked back with FCB first thing Friday morning. No letter arrived overnight. And then I learned from FCB that the problem was more grave than I had realized. To “protect” borrowers, there’s a “right of rescission.” This means that you can renege and back out on a financing deal within three days of closing, no questions asked. Naturally, this also means that no banker in their right mind will let you actually have the money until the three days have passed. I counted the days. IF I could resolve matters with BoA on Friday and “close” the HELOC, I could get the money on Wednesday January 30, the day before my Thursday morning closing. That was cutting it awfully close, but maybe the letter I was promised would be there that morning and all would be well.
I called to follow up Friday morning and spent another 30-40 minutes bringing yet another agent up to speed. They had trouble finding any record of the faxes I had sent the previous day. I faxed my documentation in yet again for expedited processing. I called back in the afternoon and still got nowhere.
I began to get desperate. From my previous lien release I knew that ReconTrust, a BoA subsidiary, was probably going to be performing the actual lien release. Perhaps I could get them to verify that yes the lien release was in their queue. I tried calling them directly, but I was unable to get through their published contact information to anyone who could help. I asked one BoA agent for help connecting with ReconTrust. Not only did he actually tell me that they didn’t have any phone numbers I could call, but also he refused to confirm that they had anything to do with the process.
While I was on hold, I tracked down an “Office of the CEO” customer service number, and had the Czarina call them in parallel with my efforts. But this group appears to operate under similar principles as the main customer service group. In fact, as far as I could tell, BoA’s “Office of the CEO” customer support appears to be a mere branding gimmick to create the illusion that one is the recipient of some “special” level of attention. The Czarina was unable to get prompt action.
As I called multiple times I became increasing frustrated with the clunkiness of the automated call in process. The customer service line has a perky automated voice that takes your loan number, and verifies your identity. Every time I called, the system insisted on telling me cheerfully something to the effect of, “This account has been recently closed. Did you really mean to do that?” By the time I worked my way to “other account questions,” I’d already been on the line several minutes. Then, despite having already verified my information to the automated system, I’d get to do it all over again to every agent as a preamble to any discussion.
BoA’s customer service has a fundamental problem. Their agents are completely constrained by a limited selection of options and actions they can take on your behalf. Any deviation from their prepared menus of options requires days of scrutiny and review. Believe it or not, there is no one at BoA’s Customer Service capable of making any actual decision or taking any action on the spot. There are no upper-level managers with authority to whom you can have your case escalated. Even if there were someone capable of independent action, the process for submitting information to BoA is slow and arduous. Apparently the agent who accepted an e-mail was an anomaly – communication with BoA requires using a fax. Sending a fax to BoA’s customer service means at least a 24-36 hour wait while the fax is uploaded into their system. Even the “expedited” fax takes hours. Their system is designed so it is absolutely impossible to interact with an agent in a short feedback loop. You cannot talk with an agent, send in a document, and discuss it on the same call. And everytime you call in, you get routed to a new agent with no history or awareness of your problem except whatever sketchy notes the prior agent may have taken. My problem was really very simple. I can only imagine the difficulty in trying to resolve a genuinely complicated problem through BoA’s clunky system.
How could BoA improve their Customer Service? Any good customer service needs to have troubleshooters to whom unusual or out of the ordinary problems can be routed for immediate action. And there must be a way to send in paperwork for immediate discussion and review without having to wait hours or days for processing.
By Friday afternoon it was clear that our chances of closing on time were fading. If the BoA letter came in Monday, we’d be able to close the HELOC and the three-day rescission period would bring us to Thursday. We could conceivably get a cashier’s check cut the morning of closing, but Monday was our absolute last chance. If BoA failed us, we would be unable to close on time. We have a great 3.25% rate on our thirty-year fixed mortgage and the lock expires at the end of January. If we missed our closing, it didn’t seem likely we’d be able to get as good a rate.
We needed a Plan B, and the Czarina came through with one.
She realized that we have a line-of-credit for her Baby Dipper, LLC business. Perhaps we could get a bridge loan from the Baby Dipper, LLC line-of-credit to tide us through. Our FCB bankers, with whom the Czarina had her line, agreed, so we took the Czarina’s idea to our lender for the mortgage on the new house.
Monday passed without word from BoA. We were on to Plan B.
We had some additional hoops to jump through, though. We had to get a comfort letter from our CPA certifying that drawing on the Baby Dipper line would not materially impact the business. And because the available credit on the Baby Dipper line was less than we’d anticipated from the HELOC, we were going to be cutting our finances really close to make our required down payment. That opened new problems. Now the underwriter for our first mortgage wanted to scrutinize every deposit in our account. The zero percent credit card we rolled over to a new zero percent deal raised scrutiny.
We answered each inquiry promptly – the last one was yesterday afternoon. Also yesterday, BoA came through with the lien release – but three days too late for us to use it at closing. Still, we should be able to close the HELOC in a couple of days and pay back the Baby Dipper line sometime next week.
As I write this on the morning of our January 31 closing, matters still hang in the balance. We haven’t received confirmation that our scheduled 11am closing will go through as planned. We shall have to wait and see if this story has a happy ending.
Update: We did have a happy ending. The closing took place about an hour later than originally scheduled, and we’re moving in.