Thursday, October 18, 2012

Public Service Announcement Regarding First Niagara Bank

Our tale of woe, written by my husband.

For those of you who aren't local or don't care, here's your obligatory picture of Peter:

Feel free to skip the rest. The rest of you are welcome to stay for my tale of woe. It could happen to you!

The year is 2008. You can still hear the rush of the housing bubble bursting if you listen hard enough, and interest rates were at "historic lows" of less than 6%! Catholic Mommy and I were engaged, and had originally planned to rent for a few years after the wedding, but decided to take advantage of said interest rates before they went back up. Our attorney recommended working with First Niagara, and so we did.

The very first question I asked the bank rep on our first meeting was as follows: I was purchasing the house in my name only. CM was not my wife yet, she was not going to live there immediately and she was not going to contribute to the payments. With my income alone, we qualified for a New York State reduced interest rate mortgage that beat out everyone. If her income was considered, it would put us into a different state program with a competitive, but not stellar, rate that also came with more paperwork than most banks. Are we going to qualify for the lower rate, or should we just go with a more traditional mortgage?

The answer? Yes, of course you qualify. She's not your wife or on the application or going to be living in the residence, so it's not relevant. This made sense to me, and so we continued. Our offer was accepted, closing was scheduled for the end of February, and everything was going great.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there was a problem.

We'd already had one delay in closing, to late March, because First Niagara was having difficulty getting the paperwork together. We'd pooled the money for the wedding and put it into a CD in my name (since my bank was offering better interest rates at the time). After discovering this, First Niagara, no longer assuring us it would be OK, now demanded to see CM's income information. Even though she was not an applicant. Even though we were not married. Even though she was not going to be living there. Even though we were explicitly told it didn't matter. By this point, the sellers were getting anxious, so rather than risk losing the house (there were only 2 others for sale in the area we were looking in at that time) by starting over somewhere else, we decided to just take it on the chin and accept the higher interest rate. Closing was moved to mid-April.

We actually closed a month after that, after our attorney got involved on yet another paperwork holdup on First Niagara's part.

Since then, we've mostly had minor annoyances with them. I was unable to pay my mortgage online, and when I contacted customer service, I was told that online mortgage payments are only available to customers who have deposit accounts with First Niagara. As you might imagine, I was not inclined to give them a single cent more than I had to at this point, so I declined, at the expense of having to actually go there each month. One somewhat amusing story from that: one month, we had a few checks we'd been meaning to deposit, so since I was going to that bank anyway, I decided to just put them toward the mortgage rather than making a seperate trip to our bank. One of them was made out to CM rather than me, and she was not with me. They would not allow me to cash the check (which was something like $10) because she was not there and her name was not on the mortgage. It was all I could do not to laugh at the manager (who was very perplexed by my reaction - "This is the least of my issues with your bank").

Anyway, fast forward to 2012. Interest rates are at more historicer lows, and we realize we can refinance down to a 15 year mortgage without significantly raising our monthly payment. You're probably wondering how we can refinance with the New York mortgage, but the second question I asked at the outset was if we would be restricted on prepayment or refinance, figuring we might want to cut down to a 15 year at some point in the future. I was told that there was no prepayment penalty and that we would be free to refinance. In fact, in this case, I was better than told; in writing, in multiple places on my closing documents it said in no uncertain terms that this was the case.

At least, I found the terms to be certain. In many areas of my life, the lack of reading comprenhension I encounter is nothing short of astonishing. Unsurprisingly, this also extends to First Niagara.

Before the closing was even scheduled, we had a little issue trying to track down the abstract of title from our purchase. I will admit there is a slight possibility that I lost the document; however, it's a ~40 page binder on nearly tabloid-sized paper, so I find it much more likely that I never received it (given that all the other papers are together in my filing cabinet). First Niagara was precisely no help in trying to track this down, but eventually our attorney from last time was able to get a new one drawn up.

Closing was scheduled for tomorrow morning, and I went to First Niagara on Saturday to get the payoff balance faxed to the attorney. I was told someone would take care of it Monday. On Tuesday morning, our attorney called and said she hadn't received it. I called First Niagara and was told they would take care of it by the end of the day. Yesterday morning, our attorney called again; she still hadn't received it, and needed it by noon in order to close. This time I physically drove to the branch and informed them that I wanted to watch them put the balance into the fax machine. The person I spoke with called the main office, who relayed the following:

1) They never got the request from Saturday. (The person I spoke with: "I see it right here in the system...")
2) They wouldn't be able to get it until the end of that day.
3) They were waiting for me to give them a whole series of documents, which I'd already been informed about.

I'll share my second reaction first, which was that #1 and #3 cannot possibly both be true.

My first thought was regarding the documents they were asking for: a copy of the new appraisal, a copy of the new estimated closing costs, and receipts for all capital improvements to the property. The reason these were needed in order to provide a payoff balance were because they needed to determine how much of my closing cost assistance loan I needed to repay.

This would be reasonable, except for one detail: we did not take out a closing cost assistance loan. I have no documentation about this whatsoever. When I confronted the bank about this, I was assured that I was correct, but that they still needed to file paperwork because that was "the procedure," and they stuck to that line even after I provided a document from the state's own lender services website stating they only needed that information if the loan had been taken out. So, we missed our first closing date, and it's looking possible we'll miss our second one as well.

I certainly have heard worse stories than the one I just told. (I actually lived through a messier one with my parents when I was a kid.) However, in my adult life I've had accounts at over a dozen banks at various times. From small credit unions, to other regional banks, to huge, faceless ones like Citi and Chase, and I've never had a single issue of significance with any of them. Time and again, whenever presented the opportunity, First Niagara lets me down. I cannot recommend them to anyone, and as soon as we do close and I (hopefully) never have to set foot in there again, there will be a huge smile on my face.


  1. My bank switched their accounts over to First Niagara. After going to the branch SEVERAL times at different points during the day and always having to sign a waiting list and then proceed to wait for a while, I closed my account with them.

    I also was supposed to receive free checks that never came, so i called and they said they would mail them to me. Well they charged me $23 dollars for these "free" checks, so I got that refunded and said forget it to anything else of theirs.

    Seems crazy that you can't do online banking unless you have an account with the bank. Good to know though in case we try to refinance sometime in the future. I'll make sure to ask those questions before.