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A mortgage involves the transfer of an interest in land as security for a loan or other obligation. It is the most common method of financing real estate transactions. The mortgagor is the party transferring the interest in land. The mortgagee (usually a financial institution) is the provider of the loan or other interest given in exchange for the security interest.

Normally, a mortgage is paid in installments that include both interest and a payment on the principal amount that was borrowed. Failure to make payments results in the foreclosure of the mortgage. Foreclosure allows the mortgagee to declare that the entire mortgage debt is due and must be paid immediately. This is accomplished through an acceleration clause in the mortgage.

Failure to pay the mortgage debt once foreclosure of the land occurs leads to seizure of the security interest and its sale to pay for any remaining mortgage debt. The foreclosure process depends on state law and the terms of the mortgage. The most common processes are court proceedings (judicial foreclosure) or grants of power to the mortgagee to sell the property (power of sale foreclosure). Many states regulate acceleration clauses and allow late payments to avoid foreclosure. Some states use instruments called deeds of trust instead of traditional mortgages.

Three theories exist regarding who has legal title to a mortgaged property. 

Under the title theory, title to the security interest rests with the mortgagee. Most states, however, follow the lien theory under which the legal title remains with the mortgagor unless there is foreclosure. Finally, intermediate theory applies the lien theory until there is a default on the mortgage whereupon the title theory applies.

The mortgagor and the mortgagee generally have the right to transfer their interest in the mortgage. Some states hold that even when the purchaser of a property subject to a mortgage does not explicitly take over the mortgage the transfer is assumed. Mortgages employ due-on-sale and due-on-encumbrance clauses to prevent the transfer of mortgages. These clauses allow acceleration (having the principal and interest become due immediately) of the mortgage. In 1982, Congress made these clauses enforceable nationwide by passage of the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982. The law of contracts and property govern the transfer of the mortgage's interest.

If the mortgage being foreclosed is not the only lien on the property, then state law determines the priority of the property interests. For example, Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code governs conflicts between mortgages on real property and liens on fixtures (personal property attached to a piece of real estate).

When a mortgage is a negotiable instrument, it is governed by Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code. A mortgage may be used as a security interest by the mortgagee. See Secured Transactions

The law of mortgages is mainly governed by state statutory and common law. Mortgages are regulated by federal or state law or agencies depending on under whose law they were chartered or established. The Office of Comptroller of the Currency, an office in the Department of the Treasury, regulates federally chartered savings associations and national banks. Federal credit unions are chartered and regulated by the National Credit Union Administration.

The federal government also insures mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Federal Material

  • U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
    • 12 U.S.C. - Banks and Banking
    • CRS Annotated Constitution
  • Federal Regulations:
    • Title 12 C.F.R.

State Material

  • State Statutes:
    • State Property Law Statutes
    • State Financial Institutions Statutes
    • State Civil Codes

Additional Federal Agencies

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • USA.Gov

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]