Signing Your Life Away in the US


It was precisely 7pm when the doorbell rang. Our appointment was originally scheduled for half an hour later. Freeway traffic at this time is never good and she lives a long way from me. Still she had called earlier to see if we could start the liaison early. Like some love-starved teenager, I welcomed her suggestion most agreeably.

The front door opened and in popped a cheerful smiling lady whom I judged to be an Asian. Before the night was over, I had gathered all her personal information deemed interesting to me. She was Cantonese and had migrated to the States over 30 years ago. I gathered she must have been a toddler then, for she spoke with flawless and accentless English; a mother of two girls; recently went back to Canton with her mother and daughters for a visit; did not have enough time to drop by Hong Kong. Wow! A gathering of four generations under one roof!

I have a knack for culling such information from strangers with my ineffable charm. It is not because I am nosy. On the contrary, I find myself bored in general and such things do amuse my mind. It is like the thrill of a hunt. After all, before the night is over, she would leave me, with all my vital personal data – imparted out of necessity. Before anything could proceed further, I had to prove my identity to her. The California driving licence being the most preferable form in this situation.

Before going any further, let me introduce you to Kim. Yes, she is a stranger, but a very special one. You see, she is a notary public sent by the escrow company. Signing this one inch thick pile of documents in her presence is a must. For the rest of the world, an inch is equivalent to about 25.4mm! With the authority vested in her, she is the only one who can bear witness to our act. I have no choice, due to the low rate of 6.25% in a 30-year fixed rate mortgage on some US$355,000 loan. This is very good. With every silver lining, though, a few dark clouds come tagging along. One has to provide checking account numbers, social security numbers, loan document numbers and, worst of all, a hefty cashier’s cheque of over $1,300 to cover the cost of the home loan. This is why banks seem so eager to lower their interest rate. They make a killing right on the spot first! Refinancing at a lower rate does not mean it is always the best for everyone. One has to calculate if the upfront fees are worth the while. No point in doing so if you are going to sell your home within five years when these costs cannot be recovered.

I digress.

No one ever reads these loan documents. They are filled with jargon only a real estate a1lawyer would love. Hence, the notary public also functions as a sort of advisor and interpreter explaining what the signatures are for. Almost every page has to be signed or initialed. Sometimes it is ridiculous to affix signatures and initials on the same page, within inches from each other. Such are these inconveniences of legal redundancies.  In the good old days, less than ten pages of signature were required to ensure a legal binding contract. Now there are extraneous documents – to acknowledge the right of the consumer to withdraw the agreement within three business days; to agree that the loan offered is not based on the race, gender or age of the borrower; to confirm that the homestead is occupied by the signer; or to waive all rights of privacy and allow government agencies such as the tax bureau to paw through all that personal information! With the advancement of the ubiquitous computer technology, bank account numbers now have to be divulged so that excess charges can be refunded and mortgage payments deposited electronically and automatically.

The good old-fashioned requirement of signing in black ink is no longer preferred. Most institutions now want you to sign in blue ink! This is because the photocopying process is so good that one cannot distinguish if the signature is photocopied. This is to prevent fraud. One look at the colors will easily verify a signature.

Time ticks slowly away as the mind boggles, awash in legal mumbo-jumbo. You think the English language is hard? Just wait until you try to read and understand one page of legalese!  Once those are out of the way, the signing process becomes rather routine. You just sign whatever you are given, interspersed with some explanations here and there. You just have to trust her! After all the signatures are gathered, she double checks everything once more to ensure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. No one wants to do this again! You know the finality of the process when your thumb print is requested on her official book of records.

Talk about technology! Not too long ago, getting a thumb print was a messy process. Your thumb is all black from the ink and if you don’t clean it thoroughly thumb prints will appear on everything you touch. Then an inkless version came but still can be quite messy. Of course nowadays, high quality digital fingerprint scanners, but in home visit situations, this is not feasible. I am truly impressed that inkless pads have advanced to such a point that the ink is invisible on your thumb. When you first press onto the paper, the print is invisible. As the ink dries, it becomes darker and darker on the paper but not on your thumb! Something new learnt every day.

Wait! Wait! Not so fast! I thought we were done due to prior experience in home refinancing. Well, there is something new this time! One more important document to prove that she provided a meaningful service!

Precisely at 8:15pm, she waltzed off into the darkness of the night. Hopefully never to see her again! I am happy and she is happy. And why not? You asked. The answer, my friend, is the $150 in her virtual pocket. Not bad for an hour and a half. Perhaps I should change my job too.

After note: With all these careful checks… She is human after all. Yesterday the escrow called to inform me that there was still a place where the signature is missing! It was a minor one because the paper had been initialed. Such are the fail safe redundancies of legalese. Thank goodness all I have to do is to print out the initialed document attached in the email. Sign it, re-scan it and emailed it back to them. Thank God for the convenience of modern technology.

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