The Settlement Group, from left, Mike Minnery, Loretta M. Colom, Crystal Jalali, Debbie Keplinger, Myrna Keplinger, Katie McGowan and Jeremy Brown.
Two grandmothers, Myrna Keplinger and Betty Reed, decided in 2000 that it would be nice to have an office space of their own. So they opened a realty and settlement office in the Mark Center in Alexandria and the two retired friends happily averaged 40 closings per month. Thirteen years and countless closings later, The Settlement Group grew to become the ninth largest settlement group in the region, with six offices in Northern Virginia, including locations in Burke, Franconia and McLean.
As for Keplinger—she had undergone as much professional growth as had her business. She is now treasurer for the Virginia Land Title Association, on the American Land Title Association board of directors and an active member of its communications committee.
When asked if she had any idea in 2000 that she would be a de facto liaison between legislators, realtors and their clients through the Virginia Land Title Association as well as the founder of the ninth largest title company in the region, she said: "Not in the least, no. But there's been so many changes in our industry. … I would say these changes were caused by the real estate crash, four or five years ago. It hit the housing industry very hard. The government believed there should be more legislation and that had a trickle down effect."
“ … that's going to drive a lot of people out of business … when you have these expensive regulatory rules, we start shrieking."
—Kevin Pogoda, chair of VLTA's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Task Force
The changes Keplinger refers to largely stem from the mandates of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in July 2010 in response to the housing crisis.
In fact, the Virginia Land Title Association is currently waiting for a Consumer Finance Protection Bureau decision, promised to come out as early as September 2013.
The decision is to affect Closure Disclosure forms, which are traditionally handled by mom and pop settlement groups like Keplinger's. The Closure Disclosure form is a statement summarizing what is going on with the consumer's money and what the transaction costs them in the end.
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, however, has an option to put the Closure Disclosure form in the hands of lenders, who are not familiar with the nuanced laws of every county and state government in the way that community-rooted settlement groups are.
Kevin Pogoda, VLTA second vice president and chair of VLTA's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Task Force, said, "We're excited about some of the changes that are proposed; the thing we are nervous about is who gets to prepare the form. … There is an option that the lender prepare the form. This scares us to death. Lenders are not there in the settlement room. They are normally in a different state. Just imagine the chaos that will result when a California lender can't make a change because they are on a different time zone."
Pogoda also talks about "the vetting issue," in which expensive solutions to ensuring lenders that settlement groups are reliable arise, sometimes driving settlement groups out of business.
Pogoda cites CFPB legislation following the $150-200 million that the bureau required Capital One and Discover Bank to refund to cardholders in response to claims of deceptive telemarketing in September 2012. "The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau swings a very large bat and fines these banks money and creates an administrative letter that says, 'look, all of you folks that are lenders out there, when you use a third provider, you better be aware that if the service provider you select violates rules, we're going to hold your feet over the fire.'"
Third party vetting companies surfaced, offering to do background checks on settlement groups and other third party service providers, to make sure they were reliable.
"The thing that really tweaks your wagon is that these vetting companies have very expensive solutions … if settlement companies have to pay $1,000 per year per employee to be vetted, that's going to drive a lot of people [settlement companies] out of business … when you have these expensive regulatory rules, we start shrieking."
The VLTA solution to the vetting issue is a mandatory certification, issued by the VLTA, which would raise the standards for settlement companies by disallowing unqualified groups from practicing without a license.
VLTA Executive Director Karenlee Oreo said, "Just last year in August we launched two very needed certification programs for the industry: title settlement certification and title examiner certification. Myrna's group was the first to go through the settlement certification, to get certified in the state. We probably have close to 300 since August that have gone through that program."
Such certifications, if required by law, would mean banks needn’t be afraid to do business with settlement group's like Keplinger's—and also would not feel compelled to indirectly fine them large sums to establish trust.
Oreo said, "The whole process will be smoother. We will have less claims [if certification is required by law] … down the road, five, six years from now our underwriters are going to see a reduction in claims and all of that trickles right down to consumers, especially with cost. But what's more important is that they're protected from fraud, any issues with title that come up with their real estate transaction."
Despite the hoops and rings of fire that Keplinger, Oreo and Pogoda assist settlement groups in jumping through since the housing crisis, Keplinger believes that 2013 will be a very good year.
"I think that Northern Virginia real estate will have a very good year in 2013. … House agency is back on its feet, people are willing to buy, willing to sell, 2012 was an increase in the value of homes, and—people are getting confidence in their government again.”