The flood of documents to be signed at closing is one of the most confusing parts of the mortgage process. A typical borrower can expect to be presented with over two dozen documents to sign at a mortgage closing. How do you know what you're signing?

Like anything else, you need to prioritize. While some documents are critical and need to be carefully scrutinized, others are routine and can be quickly dispensed with. The question is, which are which?

Fortunately, federal law gives you the right to receive copies of all closing documents 24 hours in advance of closing, so you can review them to ensure everything's in order. Unfortunately, many borrowers fail to take advantage of this right, trusting instead that everything will be in order.

Key mortgage closing documents

The key documents are going to be the ones that set forth the actual terms of the transaction itself. These include the HUD-1 Settlement Statement, Truth in Lending disclosure and the mortgage agreement itself. Copies of these should be reviewed prior to closing and the actual documents you sign should be checked again at closing itself.

The HUD-1 is a detailed listing of all the costs of the transaction, and specifies who is paying each - for example, the seller typically pays certain costs associated with a home sale. The division of costs between buyer and seller - such as for city and county taxes - should reflect what was agreed upon in the sales contract. Also, any payments to the lender should match those provided in the Good Faith Estimate - and are so marked with the designation "from GFE."

The HUD-1 will also detail a number of other "third-party fees," such as various types of insurance, real estate agent's commission and different taxes. Most of these will also have been listed on your Good Faith Estimate, though they can vary by as much as 10 percent from those figures.

The final Truth in Lending (TIL) disclosure details all the terms of your mortgage, including the amount borrowed, interest rate, payback term, total interest to be paid over the life of the loan, etc. Some of these will correspond to figures on the GFE and should match. The TIL also provides a figure called the Annual Percentage Rate (APR), which is a way of expressing the total cost of your loan. Basically, the APR is your mortgage interest rate plus an adjustment to reflect the cost of any fees paid to obtain the loan.

The mortgage agreement

Another major item is the actual mortgage agreement, which is usually in two parts. The first is the actual mortgage note itself, which again states the terms of the loan, gives you the money and commits you to repaying it. It also sets forth such things as when payments are due, grace periods, penalties for late payments and the steps the lender can take if you fail to make payments.

A second document, variously called the mortgage or deed of trust, establishes the right of the lender to repossess the property if you violate the terms of the note, most notably by failing to pay the mortgage, taxes or insurance.

Finally, the deed is the document that actually transfers ownership of the property to you. Although fairly straightforward, it's important to make sure everything is in order, including your name, the name of the seller and the description of the property. You won't take this home with you after closing, but it will be sent to you once it is recorded with the county.

Formal notifications

Another group that should be paid close attention to are notifications, which spell out certain conditions in your loan or home purchase that might not be covered in the other agreements or which are spelled out separately for emphasis. These will likely include a notice of your right to cancel, which gives you three days to cancel a refinanced mortgage and recovery your money if you change your mind for any reason, and a notice of no oral agreements, which basically means any verbal promises from your lender carry no weight.

Another is your initial escrow statement, which details the estimated charges for insurance premiums, taxes, PMI and anything else to be paid from your escrow account over the coming year. Any documents that provide additional information about the terms of your loan or home purchase, or about your or your lender's rights and obligations, should be reviewed and understood prior to closing.

Getting your ducks in a row

Another batch of documents might be termed "ducks," since they're about getting your ducks in order so the mortgage and property sale can proceed. These include your title and homeowner's insurance, property survey, private mortgage insurance (PMI) if needed, sewer and water certification, termite inspection and homeowner's association agreements if required, certificate of occupancy for a new house and all the other things that have to be done before the sale can proceed. These should be reviewed before the sale to make sure they're in order, but don't demand close scrutiny.

Finally, a last batch of documents are for routine matters, many of them simply confirming that you have received or signed off on other forms, that you have had certain terms of the agreement explained to you or that you understand certain terms of the agreement. They don't demand a lot of attention from you, but you should at least recognize what they refer to. If not, don't sign off on them until you're sure about what you're signing.

Published on September 20, 2011