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Refinancing Boom Has County Office Hopping

Each transaction means more work, and more income, for the registrar-recorder's agency. 'We're just off the charts,' official says.

March 24, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

As homeowners scurry to lock in record-low mortgage rates, the refinancing boom is paying off handsomely for an unlikely player: Los Angeles County.

The cash-hungry county has raked in millions of dollars performing one of its most mundane tasks: the recording of each property deed onto its books. Thanks to the refinancing numbers that took off in 2001, documents have been flying fast and furious into the registrar-recorder's office.

All those processing fees add up, raising $10 million more than anticipated this fiscal year and knocking the office, which also runs local elections, well into the black.

"We're just off the charts. When is this going to end?" said county Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack. "At some point, everyone will have refinanced their house down to nothing."

In 2002, the county recorded 3.1 million documents, a 58% increase from two years earlier. Overtime, too, is off the charts. Just ask Dianna Intchauspe, a senior property conveyance examiner who clocks in at 6 a.m. and usually works a 12-hour shift. Sundays are often her only day off.

During a recent two-week stretch, Intchauspe logged more than 55 hours of overtime.

"It's unreal, isn't it?" she said. "To me, setting the alarm for 4 a.m. on a Saturday, that's like a regular day, except you don't have to dress nice. You can wear Levis or whatever."

Levis or not, examiners are trained to zip through dozens of different types of legal documents, checking for errors and assessing the proper fee. The work can be dry and repetitive, but it must be precise. When people buy property, they depend on title searchers to tell them what recorded documents affect that parcel.

Time is of the essence, because if a document is not recorded promptly, a home buyer's interest rate might climb or a lien could be placed on the property.

With a sizzling real estate market and a population greater than that of 42 states, Los Angeles County is at the eye of the storm.

County workers who record and index each mortgage (not to mention liens, business filings, domestic partnerships and other transactions) racked up so many hours that they burned through their yearly overtime budget, about $650,000, in less than six months.

"Girl, I've been tired," said Kim Butler, a clerk whose job includes plucking out staples and tracing blurry numbers by hand so that documents can be scanned. "The work's never over."

And the refinancing frenzy shows no signs of slowing. With mortgage rates at 42-year lows, the Mortgage Bankers Assn. of America reported last week that refinancing accounted for a record 79.8% of mortgage applications

Although this is good news for the county's bottom line, it has obscured growing problems in the other side of the registrar-recorder's office, the elections division. Election costs have increased steadily since 1998, and replacing the county's antiquated punch-card system with touch-screen balloting is expected to cost at least $100 million.

McCormack raised the issue at last year's budget hearings, warning officials that the refinancing windfall won't last forever. "What happens when we are no longer the cash cow on the recorder's side?" she asked.

November's general election cost $26.3 million, the most ever spent in Los Angeles County. The San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession proposals, which added more than 100 candidates to the ballot, accounted for more than $1.1 million, and redistricting had scrambled the electoral map, leading to higher costs to print more than 800 ballot styles.

When every last chad had been poked and the results certified, McCormack tallied the damage.

The election -- in an off year, at that -- had overshot its budget by more than $6 million.

Although voters rejected secession by resounding margins, Richard Close, a leading Valley separatist, said the public money was well spent. The county, along with the state and the city of Los Angeles, also spent about $2 million in taxpayer funds studying the breakup bids before they were sent to the ballot.

"It's part of the process of allowing voters to decide on issues and candidates," Close said. "No one ever said democracy was cheap."

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