Mortgage applications are the most confusing paperwork American consumers confront, edging out health insurance benefits forms and federal income tax returns for that dubious honor, according to new research.

Of about 1,700 consumers surveyed, 60 percent cited mortgage applications as a difficult-to-understand document they’ve read in the past 30 days, according to the “Perplexity Poll” by Siegel & Gale. The poll was designed to point out communications problems so companies can begin addressing them, said Peter Allen, Siegel & Gale’s marketing services director.

The results clearly show the mortgage industry has a problem. And it’s one that likely impacts mortgage companies’ future business, Allen said.

“Most (consumers) remember that a significant portion of the process was unpleasant,” he said. “If they sell their home and buy another, I would think they’re much less likely to do business with that company going forward.”

The poll also revealed that 57 percent found health insurance benefits forms confusing, followed by 48 percent who were confused by federal income tax returns. Forty-six percent of consumers found newspaper stock market listings hard to understand, followed by 42 percent who found investment account statements confusing.

The five commonly used documents that received high ratings for being easy to understand were payroll stubs, checking account statements, airplane safety instruction cards, credit card statements and catalog order forms.

In the poll, respondents were asked to rank certain documents they’d read in the past 30 days in terms of how easy they were to read and understand. Of the 951 who had read a mortgage application during the previous month, 38 percent found it somewhat difficult to understand. Another 22 percent found it very difficult to understand.

The hot housing market has helped propel mortgage applications to the top of the difficult-to-understand list because so many people have been dealing with them recently, Allen said. Although the poll is simply a snapshot in time, and results could differ if conducted at a later time, Allen doesn’t doubt mortgage applications would still rank as one of the most difficult to understand documents.

After all, respondents weren’t asked to read a mortgage application and then rank how easy it was to understand. Instead, the difficulty of such applications was already something they were thinking about.

“That was very top of mind for a lot people as one of the most difficult and most confusing things they’ve had to deal with,” Allen said. “It stood out in their minds very prominently.”

That confusion – with mortgage documents and other information sources – comes despite business and government programs designed to improve disclosure and corporate America’s pronouncements about building meaningful dialogue with consumers. But Allen believes the poll’s findings can potentially spur positive changes.

Companies have a chance to create customer loyalty by making documents clearer and easier to understand, he said. Consumers respond well to companies that respect them, which means communicating in a way that makes it possible for them to fully understand what’s going on.

That’s not rocket science, in fact, it’s intuitive, Allen said. But companies, especially those in the mortgage industry, must incorporate a desire for easier communication into their culture to retain customers, he said.

The poll was conducted in June among a random sample of U.S. consumers at least 18 years old. A total of 1,709 respondents completed the survey. Siegel & Gale is a strategic branding firm that focuses on clear communication.


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