Thomas Owens thinks he would have remembered if the government owed him $3,772.
Yet more than 20 years after he paid off his federally backed mortgage, Owens said he did not know he was due a fat refund until I called him about it.
Owens, a 52-year-old city public works employee who lives in St. Anthony, is owed more from a federal mortgage insurance program than any other Minnesota home buyer, according to federal data. But he’s one of nearly 800,000 people who have yet to receive their refunds.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has $411 million in its refund account, even though it knows to whom it belongs.
I’ve seen it time and time again. Government goes to sometimes extraordinary lengths to collect money from individuals. Yet when it owes money to individuals, it shows far less urgency to give it back.
Scott Fix, owner of Entrust Refund Services in Maple Plain, said his company helped 4,000 people get refunds since 2010 by collecting the paperwork and fighting the sometimes confounding HUD bureaucracy. Once the refund is paid out, Fix takes a cut of 20 percent or less.
“The bottom line is, the government will just sit on the money” unless someone with expertise stays on top of the situation, Fix said. And even then, it’s not easy.
Fix is a “tracer,” HUD’s term for professionals who help individuals get these refunds. HUD and tracers do not like each other.
“We don’t advocate using a tracer,” HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said. Ninety-five percent of refunds paid out to people never involve a third party, he said. “You shouldn’t pay anybody for a refund.”
Brown said that in the past the agency has hired contractors to reduce its backlog of unpaid refunds. “The department is utilizing all available staff and resources to actively locate homeowners,” he said.
The money comes from upfront payments that home buyers shell out for certain federally backed mortgages. It’s a premium for mortgage insurance, which protects a lender if a home buyer defaults. Once that mortgage insurance is canceled, typically when the loan is paid off, home buyers are supposed to get some or all of that money back.
The amount averages $500 to $900, but among the more than 13,000 Minnesota home buyers on the list, the amount ranges from as little as a penny to four figures.
If it hears from a lender that a refund is due, HUD sends out a check within 7 to 10 days, Brown said. But only if the refund is less than $250. Otherwise, the homeowner gets a letter telling them how to apply for the refund. Yet it often goes to the old address, where the home buyer may not live any more.
Sometimes the home buyer has died, or the house is caught up in a divorce, and the couple go their separate ways, leaving the refund behind, Brown said. It’s clear the problem goes deeper than that, though.
A half dozen home buyers I contacted had no idea they were owed any money until they were contacted by tracers, who get the names from publicly available lists from HUD.
“Throughout the years, I’ve been getting letters from these various tracers. I threw most of them away,” said Larry Hanks, a contractor in Gilbert, Ariz. Then he got one from Entrust, and hired the company to help him land his $680 refund. First, he had to call HUD repeatedly to get the agency to send him the paperwork.
“They just try to stiff-arm you every way they can,” Hanks said.
It should not have been difficult for HUD to find Owens, who still lives in the house whose mortgage he paid off years ago. Owens said he once got a letter from someone promising to help him get a refund but figured it was a scam.
Now that he knows it’s not a scam, he said he plans to claim his windfall. “That would be kind of a nice way to start the year off,” he said.
Brown said HUD mailed three letters notifying Owens of the refund in 2012. That was 20 years after he became eligible. Owens doesn’t remember the letters but admits he might have tossed them. Then again, they may never have arrived. The addresses on the envelopes didn’t include the name of the street.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.