CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2007, a few months after Jeff Light was laid off from his longtime job, he and his wife realized they couldn't make the mortgage payment on their Huntington home.
"We've got kids, and this is the only home they've really known," Cynthia Light said. "It was very frightening."
The West Virginia Housing Development Fund helped them budget and changed their loan terms temporarily. "Without them, we would have lost our home," she said. "They were so good to us."
At the same time, in Charleston, 44 miles away, a recently hospitalized woman was receiving her first foreclosure notice in the mail. "It really rocks your world," she said. "I never in my life thought I'd be in this position."
Her California mortgage company was not as quick to help. For months, she called the company, with no luck. Finally, two weeks before her house was to be sold, they told her she could have three payment-free months to catch up.
"I'm still negotiating with them, so I don't want to give my name," she said. "But I want to tell people [facing foreclosure] not to give up."
Sometimes negotiation doesn't work. One county away, near Fayetteville, Patsy Farrell and her daughter were getting multiple phone calls from EMC Mortgage Co., they said, threatening foreclosure on their acreage and manufactured home.
"They cashed our checks, but refused to credit the fact that we paid," Farrell said. After months of trying to work it out, she found a nonprofit lawyer, who sued them. "I wish we hadn't had to do that," she said.
In different ways, the Lights, the Charleston borrower, and the Farrells managed to avoid foreclosure sale. So did more than 2,000 other West Virginia property owners in 2007.
During 2007, 4,490 West Virginia properties received foreclosure notices, according to Mortgage Bankers Association statistics.
But only about half - 2,250 - were actually sold in foreclosure in 2007, according to a Gazette survey of courthouse records of sale.
How did the owners of the rest avoid sale? Nobody really knows.
Neither the state nor federal government tracks delinquencies or foreclosures.
Some owners clearly came up with the money or refinanced. Others blocked foreclosures through the legal system when questionable practices were involved. And when an appraisal is high, the lender may not try to sell, county courthouse staff say. "That happens when you've got an $18,000 house and a $35,000 mortgage note," said Angela Sipko, Harrison County deputy clerk.
The bottom line is: Nobody knows how those 4,490 mortgage-holders got in hot water or who they were, as a group.
"That's a problem," said Joe Hatfield, longtime director of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. It makes it hard to plan an anti-foreclosure program.
"We need to be able to identify trouble spots in real time," he said.
'We need more information'
In the past four years, West Virginia's 90-day delinquencies have risen sharply. They shot up 31 percent between June 2007 and June 2008, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
When a mortgage is 90 days delinquent, foreclosure proceedings can begin.
The MBA quarterly report has another category called "seriously delinquent": 90-day delinquencies, plus mortgages already in foreclosure. This year, at the end of June, 3,138 West Virginia mortgages were already in that category.
"That is worrisome," Hatfield said. "We don't know who these people are or where this is leading."
In 2007, 2,250 West Virginia properties were sold in foreclosure, according to the Gazette courthouse survey. That number does not tell you how or why the sales happened, who they were, the kind or size of the mortgages, who the lenders were, if illegal practices were involved, or if the lender tried to resolve the problem.
How many were owned by senior citizens? Businesses? Longtime homeowners? Speculators? Second mortgages?
"We need more information," said Joe Ellison, director of the West Virginia Bankers Association. He and others believe local banks are more likely to be able to work something out with borrowers. But nobody has data to prove it. The Division of Banking does not ask state banks how many foreclosures they carry out.
Other states have housing institutes that answer such questions, said Tom Witt, who directs West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. "The basic problem we have in West Virginia is that we really don't have much real time economic information that helps us understand what's going on," he said.
"It's astounding that, in a situation where we have this national problem that's threatening the stock market and the entire economy, so little is known."
The WV Housing Development Fund is organizing a statewide effort to gather information and make mortgage counseling available to all state borrowers. On Tuesday, in Charleston, people from mortgage counseling programs, federal programs, community action programs and other nonprofits, met to plan.
'Don't give up'
Numbers can't tell the whole story. The Farrells and Lights are each one statistic, but their stories are different.
The Farrells' lawsuit stopped foreclosure for now. "But you worry about it all the time," said Patsy Farrell.