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California Wildfires Helped Boost Fraud Risk in Mortgage Applications

California Wildfires Helped Boost Fraud Risk in Mortgage Applications

The wildfires in the West helped boost the overall risk of defects, fraudulence and misrepresentation in mortgage applications in October, according to First American’s Loan Application Defect Index.
   
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Nationwide, the risk of defects increased 1.3% compared with September but was down 4.8% compared with October 2017.

Metropolitan areas that saw the biggest annual increases in the risk for application defects included San Diego (+16.0%); Los Angeles (+12.5%); Memphis, Tenn. (+10.5%); Buffalo, N.Y. (+10.4%); and Richmond, Va. (+10.1%).

Mark Fleming, chief economist for First American, says the risk of defects in mortgage applications in the disaster-affected areas is likely to increase in the months to come.

“Unfortunately, on top of the damage to thousands of homes, historical data indicates that natural disasters and loan application defect risk go hand-in-hand,” Fleming says in a statement. “As we’ve seen too often, natural disasters create the potential and opportunity for significant misrepresentation of collateral condition.”

Fleming points out that in the aftermath of the December 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, mortgage defect, fraud and misrepresentation risk, as measured by the index, increased roughly 10% in one month in the impacted area.

“Fraud and misrepresentation risk remained elevated for five months after the wildfire, before trending down again,” he says. “Defect, fraud and misrepresentation risk in the Oxnard metropolitan area, which had been declining prior to the Thomas Fire, has yet to return to pre-wildfire levels.”

Fleming says although the risk of defects in applications in Los Angeles has trended down in recent months, “it’s fair to expect increases” in the near future.

He points out that there are other markets which also have the potential for higher defect risk due to the impact from natural disasters.

Despite the impact from natural disasters, the overall index is down 22.5% from the high point of risk in October 2013.

For the month of October, the risk of defects in applications for refinance transactions increased by 1.4% compared with September and was up 2.9% compared with October 2017.

The risk of defects in applications for purchases increased by 2.5% compared with the previous month but was down 8.9% compared with a year earlier.

“The Camp Fire wildfire in Butte county, which has been named the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century, and the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, are some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history,” Fleming says. “In addition to the devastating impact on human life, the likely damage to housing is staggering. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Camp Fire destroyed 13,972 residences and Woolsey Fire destroyed 1,500 structures.

“While it’s too early to estimate the cost of the damage from these fires, the Associated Press recently reported that wildfires in Northern California last year gutted 6,800 homes and resulted in $12.6 billion in insured losses,” he adds. “Since the damage from the recent wildfires greatly exceeded the 2017 wildfire damages, we can expect a higher estimate in losses.”

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