CFPB sues Navient (even the feds aren’t happy with their own student loan servicers)

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is a nonpartisan government agency that was created after the 2008 financial crisis to help protect us from evil banks, credit card companies, predatory lending practices, etc.

They announced this week that they’re suing Navient, the biggest federal (and private) student loan servicer for defrauding borrowers and being generally terrible.

You may or may not really know or care about loan servicers, but they’re the middlemen who send you emails about making payments and take your money. Even when you take federal loan money, most people end up shuttled to one of the several private servicing companies who manage the payments. It should come as no surprise that handling that money is profitable and that unsavory companies stand to profit more if people send more money their way.

In short:

The Bureau alleges that Navient has failed to provide the most basic functions of adequate student loan servicing at every stage of repayment for both private and federal loans. Navient provided bad information in writing and over the phone, processed payments incorrectly, and failed to act when borrowers complained about problems. Critically, it systematically made it harder for borrowers to obtain the important right to pay according to what they can afford. These illegal practices made paying back student loans more difficult and costly for certain borrowers.

When people talk about trying to do clever (or even sometimes simple) things with payment timing or distributing loan payments, this is exactly why I would be hesitant to encourage them. It makes great sense to try to have extra payments go toward loans with the highest interest rate (and it’s still worth it). It makes sense to try to “time” extra payments to occur after the application of a REPAYE interest subsidy to get the best of both worlds by getting free government money while also paying down your debt as aggressively as possible (and probably not worth trying, I’d argue). It makes sense to talk with your servicer to get information about your options and make sure everyone is on the same page.

The problem is that the servicers aren’t good at servicing your debt.

I’m concerned enough about the servicers doing the basics of applying IDR-based interest subsidies for borrowers in general, and they purposely make it difficult to confirm what’s happening on their end by poorly if ever demonstrating this information on loan statements, even while they promise “they’re there” when you call. I’m deeply suspicious of any plan that involves the servicers working in borrowers’ best interests.

I’ve spoken with multiple residents steered away from the REPAYE plan through misinformation into IBR or PAYE. I don’t know how much is malfeasance or just incompetence—the people on the phone are customer service reps, not experts—but it’s nonetheless one of the downsides of having a complex convoluted federal system that even the people charged with handling it are unclear as to how to implement its policies.

How to submit PSLF employment verification

The general approach for PSLF is succinctly summarized here. In order to qualify, you’ll need to prove you were gainfully employed at a qualifying institution for 120 payments. That means you’ll need to account for 10 years of working life. The Feds recommend you certify your employment every year, which sounds like a pretty good idea if you ask me (there’s a lot of money at stake here, after all). At the least, you should get a form filled out at the end of your tenure at any institution (preliminary/transitional intern year, residency, other jobs, etc.). You don’t want to be asking random people to look back at employment records buried in some offsite file cabinet from your intern year 9 years ago when it comes time to file for forgiveness. It’s asking for trouble.

The steps are simple:

  1. Download the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Employment Certification Form.
  2. Fill it out. It’s extremely straightforward. Mail, email, or fax it to your former or current employer.
  3. Wait to get it back.
  4. Get it back.
  5. Send it to FedLoans, the official servicer of the federal government (address is on the form).
  6. Fedloan processes the form. If you are not currently serviced by Fedloan, your loans will be transferred from your current servicer. If you already consolidated, you’re probably with Fedloan already. Whether a new development or not, Fedloan will process your forms and update the “qualifying monthly payment” count based on the months of qualifying payments matched to months of verified employment.
  7. Rinse and repeat. Again, it may be beneficial to resubmit annually, but at the least, it’s a good idea to submit an employment verification form after moving on from each qualifying job. A) Paperwork only gets harder over time and B) You want to make sure everything is on track and Kosher before making any more financial decisions that might be based a misunderstanding of where you stand currently on the PSLF track.
  8. After you make that 120th payment, send in the final form. Unless the government has swindled you in a truly magnificent way, get ready to see something magical.

Employer verification: the lynchpin of PSLF

The week of Christmas, the NYTimes published a story about people who anticipated their loans being forgiven this year with PSLF and are now in the midst of a legal battle instead.

The suit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, says some borrowers received approval on their certification forms, then, years later, the entity servicing their loans reversed course, effectively ousting them from the program.

It did so retroactively, meaning that none of the previous loan payments counted toward the 120 payments needed to qualify for forgiveness. So if the borrowers took a job that qualified, they would have to start again with accumulating the payments.

The silver lining is that—though not 100% clear from the article—it appears these denials were all for jobs that were not 501(c)(3) non-profits. They were for other non-501(c)(3) non-profit jobs, which only count toward PSLF when they provide certain types of qualifying public services and are approved on a case by case basis. I have no doubt there are doctors who are planning on PSLF that will find themselves shocked and disappointed by technicalities, but so far there’s no evidence that the usual employment catchalls (government or 501(c)(3) organizations) for PSLF will be spontaneously denied.

These are eligibility criteria for PSLF-eligible employers:

  • Government organizations at any level (federal, state, local, or tribal)
  • Not-for-profit organizations that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • Other types of not-for-profit organizations that provide certain types of qualifying public services and must not be a business organized for profit, a labor union, a partisan political organization, or an organization engaged in religious activities.

Qualifying public services include:

  • Emergency management
  • Military service
  • Public safety
  • Law enforcement
  • Public interest law services
  • Early childhood education (including licensed or regulated health care, Head Start, and State-funded pre-kindergarten)
  • Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly
  • Public health (including nurses, nurse practitioners, nurses in a clinical setting, and full-time professionals engaged in health care practitioner occupations and health care support occupations, as such terms are defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Public education
  • Public library services
  • School library or other school-based services

So, it is the private nonprofits offering “qualifying” services that are the category at greatest risk for being denied. If your job isn’t a 501(c)(3) but “should” qualify, submit your employment verification forms annually to prevent wasting your time and money planning for forgiveness that may forever remain out of reach.

Buying a house during residency

Should I buy a house as a resident?

Probably not.

The American tendency to prioritize owning your house or car can be a bit misguided. When you buy a house with a mortgage, the title may be in your name, but it’s really the bank that owns it. You’re slowly buying it from the bank, paying interest all the while. It’s not that buying a home is a bad idea; it’s that owning a home is not intrinsically good financially. Owning something instead of renting isn’t always better.

Before we discuss the pro/cons, a disclosure: we bought a house when we graduated medical school, and we bought (and sold) a house during medical school as well.

Downsides

It takes on average 4 years to break even on the transactional costs of buying and selling a home. You can’t just compare the monthly mortgage payment on a potential house and the monthly rent for an apartment or house rental and see which is lower. The mortgage will typically be lower, but this masks several things:

  1. Upkeep costs. You’ll need to pay for repairs and maintenance on your house that you wouldn’t be responsible for as a renter
  2. You’ll need to pay taxes and home insurance, which may not have been in your original mortgage projection. This is deductible if you itemize deductions, but note that the “extra” savings on these are related to your marginal tax rate on the difference between these amounts and the standard deduction. An inexpensive house or townhome isn’t going to make a big dent in your tax burden.
  3. You’ll almost certainly lose money to realtors when it comes time to sell. 6% is common (3% to each agent [who then share that with their broker]). With the rest of the closing costs, earmarking 10% is considered a good estimate.

Bottom line: Even if the monthly mortgage payment + the upkeep etc comes out to a better deal than a rental, you’ll still have to take #3 into account. Whether or not the closing costs will make or break the +/- versus renting will depend on how much you sell the house for when the time comes and how long you held the house for (i.e. how much total money you’ve saved vs renting over time). In most cases, selling the house for exactly what you bought it for will actually result in a loss.

Buying a house and planning to sell it after a three-year residency, for example, is essentially investing on margin unless rental prices in your area are super high. You’re just hoping that real estate prices rise fast enough to counteract the costs of a real estate transaction.

Upsides

Conversely, there are some benefits. Your mortgage interest and real estate taxes are deductible, so if your house will cost enough to make your tax deductions bigger than the standard ($9300 head of household or $12600 for couples in 2016), then you can itemize deductions and get some of that money back (essentially reducing your monthly payment). Note that deductions don’t give you a dollar back for every dollar deducted, they merely reduce the income you’re paying taxes on and so save you a fraction of that dollar at your marginal tax rate. But because the standard is always an option, it takes a fair amount of tax to make it all worthwhile. If your itemized deductions add up to 13,000, for example, then you’ll only really save yourself the tax paid on the extra $400: $100 if in the 25% tax bracket that many married residents are likely to find themselves in.

You get to own a house. While upkeep could be a big headache, owning a house and having your own space could be awesome. While owning a home isn’t “priceless,” this part of the value is at least partially a personal calculus. Additionally, sometimes owning is the only healthy option. Some places, particularly small towns, don’t have much of a renter’s market. There may be no houses for rent in the areas convenient to the hospital nor decent apartments. In some unusual cases, you may feel like you don’t have a choice but to buy depending on where you match.

Real estate can also be an investment. Most houses a resident (or graduating medical student, really) can afford probably aren’t your forever home. That said, depending on what your finances will look like when it’s time to upgrade, you could conceivably keep your first house as a rental property (though again this may impair your ability to qualify for another mortgage etc when holding the additional debt). It also assumes you want to deal with being a rental owner/real estate investor, which comes with its pro/cons, costs, and headaches. But buying a home now with a low-interest rate in a good area for rentals may be a viable long-term plan; it depends a lot on the local market.

You can also consider buying and finding a renter for a spare bedroom to help defray your costs. This essentially allows you to be a real estate investor and homeowner all in one with someone else paying part of your mortgage while you still get to enjoy (part of) your home. It’s a good way to hedge your bets.

So if you need to buy a house or simply “need” to buy a house

  • Try to limit your mortgage to 2x your annual income, even if a bank will give you more. Consider 3x to be an absolute limit.
  • 20% down payment is normally considered “good” and will give prevent you from having to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI). Most residents who buy houses do not achieve this.
  • If you have medical school debt (and by odds, you probably do), you may need some variety of physician loan. There are 100% financing varieties as well as ones that require some money (usually 5%) down. Physician loans will allow you to use your match letter as proof of future income so that you can close on a house before you actually earn a paycheck and tend to ignore your student debt in making their approval calculations. If you aren’t planning on a public service career and loan forgiveness via PSLF, you’d want to see how private refinancing stacks against REPAYE, but you’d definitely want to wait to do any refinancing until after your mortgage clears.
  • Whether an ARM is worth it will depend on how likely it is that you’d keep the house past the fixed-rate limit, how much lower the rate is compared with a conventional 30-year fixed, how much the per-year increase is capped, and if there’s a maximum cap. Any lender can run the options for you so you can see what it means for the specific house you make an offer on. A 5/1 ARM (fixed for 5 years, variable for 25 years) is the most common variety. It’s possible, for example, that a 5-year ARM rate could be 1% less than the 30-year fixed with a 0.5% per-year maximum increase after 5 years (and thus would take a minimum of 7 years before it would overtake the conventional loan’s rate). If you know you’ll hold a house for less than 7 years, then you’re taking on minimal risk in choosing the ARM.1 7-year ARMs also exist if you want a smaller benefit with less risk. In this scenario, I also assume a 15-year is out of the question (because a 15-year fixed loan is more expensive per month but usually has better rates and by far lowest amount of money lost to interest). An ARM is best when you know you’ll only be holding on to a house for the fixed period of time before moving/selling.

The slow growing tide against PSLF

Jason Delisle does a nice job describing the majority of the arguments used to suggest that PSLF should be severely curtailed or destroyed in “The coming Public Service Loan Forgiveness Bonanza” for the Brookings Institution.

PSLF will be revised at some point if no other reason than this:

In 2014, the CBO estimated that the Obama administration’s proposal to cap the amount that could be forgiven under PSLF at $57,500 would save $265 million over 10 years (2015 to 2024). The agency recently revised that figure to $6.7 billion.

I don’t think the people making these programs had any idea how much graduate school costs and the incentives they were promoting through potentially unlimited forgiveness.

I still think current borrowers will be grandfathered into the program, and I think politically it is for more likely for forgiveness to capped +/- changes to eligibility rules than for the program to just disappear.

Delisle also lumps all IDR programs together as IBR and says that IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE are functionally equivalent. This certainly isn’t true for pre-2014 borrowers, but also doesn’t take into account REPAYE subsidy or changes to the payment cap (for example) and their effect on the amount forgiven under the PSLF program.

And while he discusses how a cap would help combat the perversion of this program in justifying tuition increases to students, this would really impact longer degrees like law and medicine. A $57,500 cap would still be very enticing to people going for masters degrees in things like social work or speech-language pathology.

You’ll be seeing more like this over the next year (presumably including profiles of rich suddenly loan-free doctors) as the first round of forgiven loans happens in 2017.