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Some subprime-mortgage servicers may be trying to skirt new rules on insurance commissions

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WASHINGTON - One of the country's largest overseers of troubled home loans, Nationstar Mortgage Holdings Inc., is quietly trying to sell a $100 million insurance agency that doesn't appear to exist.

Harwood Service Co. has no website, no independent offices and only a single registered agent. The switchboard operators at Nationstar's headquarters in Lewisville, Texas, haven't heard of Harwood. Call-center employees of Assurant Inc., the insurance carrier whose policies Harwood sells, say the company is just a name used to refer Nationstar business.

Only one thing justifies Harwood's nine-figure price tag: The ethereal company has long collected commissions on high-priced insurance that Nationstar compels otherwise-uninsured homeowners to buy. If homeowners can't pay for this "force-placed" coverage, Nationstar forecloses on their homes and sends the bill to mortgage bond investors.

New rules by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, investigations by state regulators and class-action settlements now prohibit servicers from collecting commissions on such insurance policies, and the country's biggest brand-name banks have renounced the practice.

But some large subprime-mortgage servicers appear to be trying to skirt those rules. They are selling or have sold the nearly nonexistent insurance agencies or have already made profitable business arrangements to try to comply with the new rules.

The multimillion-dollar deals illustrate how regulators are still wrestling with messy banking practices more than six years after the housing market's collapse. They also mean that newly sold insurance subsidiaries have an incentive to compel struggling homeowners to buy costly policies, to justify the high sales prices commanded when the insurance agencies were sold.

Harwood collected more than $40 million last year on more than $200 million worth of insurance billed to homeowners, according to two people familiar with Nationstar's confidential sales pitch for the business but who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

Force-placed insurance is a type of backup property insurance meant to protect mortgage investors' stake in uninsured properties. Standard mortgages require borrowers to maintain homeowners insurance and authorize the loan's servicer to buy coverage when borrowers don't. If the borrowers don't pay for the new insurance, servicers foreclose on their properties and stick the bill to mortgage investors.

Nationstar's first attempt to sell its affiliated insurance agency fell through early this month after The Associated Press raised questions about the deal, prompting New York's Department of Financial Services to take a look. Nationstar is still seeking to sell the insurance agency, said one person who is familiar with its efforts and requested anonymity to discuss its business affairs without authorization to do so publicly.

Nationstar declined to discuss details of Harwood's business.

In court, however, Nationstar has opted not to fight to defend its arrangements. Earlier this month, Nationstar and Assurant Inc. reached a deal to settle a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that alleged Harwood existed solely to "funnel profits" to Nationstar at borrowers' expense.

It's unclear how or whether the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the industry's principal U.S. regulatory agency in Washington, will respond to such sales. In a statement, it expressed concern about the deals. But it said it could not stop servicers from selling their insurance agencies, even as it said it would work with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if the companies were circumventing the new rules.

The nation's third-largest servicing company, Walter Investment Management Corp., disclosed in its Securities and Exchange Commission filings that rules banning commissions will cost it roughly $20 million a year and said it was "actively looking at alternatives" to giving up the cash. A spokeswoman, Whitney Finch, declined to explain further but said the company would comply with all rules and regulations.

Another company, Carrington Mortgage Services LLC of Santa Ana, California, didn't sell its insurance agency. It just agreed to let someone else collect the profits.

In an Irish bond prospectus filed last year, Carrington's parent company disclosed that a buyer had paid it $21.25 million in late 2012. If Carrington doesn't send back at least that amount to the agency's buyer in commissions, it will have to give back some of the money it received.

Carrington executives denied that its obligation to deliver $21.25 million of commissions would in any way affect homeowners or mortgage investors, and noted that it is not subject to the finance agency rules because it services loans owned by private investors. In its Irish prospectus, however, Carrington warned that some regulators believe the commissions "may constitute an improper 'kickback'," and added: "Should any regulator decide to take action, we may be forced to pay restitution."

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