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Avoiding foreclosure as state delinquencies climb

  90-day mortgage delinquencies: 1979-2008

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.

The Lights had an easier time. The Housing Development Fund assigned them a mortgage counselor and temporarily adjusted their terms while Jeff Light found another job.

"We sat down with the counselor and went over all our income," Cynthia Light said. "How much we spent for gas, even feeding my animals, how much we spent on school lunches, all that.

"They helped us figure out a budget. Then they let us go without making payments for three months, you know, gave us time to get financially back on track."

"Then they let us make a half payment for three months," she said.

"They spread the payments we missed out over the mortgage." Their monthly payment rose about $20, she said, "and we can handle that."

"You couldn't find a better program to help you," she said. "I cried with them. They gave me hugs."

"I'd like to see that kind of help available to any West Virginian," Hatfield said. Federally funded mortgage programs must offer counseling, but people with private companies are often on their own.

Susan, the Charleston borrower, is an example. She never got close to hugging anybody from her California mortgage company.

"I never got to talk to the same person twice in a row," she said. "They'd tell me to call back, and each time I'd call, I'd get a different person, and I'd have to start all over. They'd tell me to fax things, and I'd go downtown and fax them, then the next person I'd talk to wouldn't have my faxes, so I'd do it again. They wouldn't let you e-mail things. I spent hours and hours on hold.

"I really needed some kind of cheerleader to keep me going," she said. "But I didn't give up. That's the main thing I want to tell people: Don't give up."

Two weeks before her home was to be sold, HBSC Mortgage Co. agreed to allow her three payment-free months. "Then we'd renegotiate, they said. So I'm not out of the woods yet."

The Housing Development Fund has dedicated $350,000 toward creating a statewide mortgage-counseling network for people like her. "We're looking for other funding sources, but not waiting till we get all the money," Hatfield said. "We need to do this quickly," in light of the deteriorating national economy and rising state delinquencies.

Much of Tuesday's statewide meeting was spent organizing that effort, he said. "Instead of starting from scratch, we're building on programs we already have," joining forces, networking, adding tools.

Why the rush?

Since 2004, West Virginia's 60- and 90-day delinquencies have risen steeply, above the national average, both prime and subprime, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Subprime mortgages are only 12 percent of state loans, but 46 percent of delinquencies, according to Mortgage Bankers.

But this is more than the subprime crisis, Hatfield said. "It's important to realize that."

Consumer prices are rising: utilities, food, transportation, insurance credit fees, medical care. "All that cuts into disposable income available for mortgage payments," he said.

Mortgage payments that were affordable in 2005 can be a problem now.

"That really has nothing to do with subprime mortgage problems," he said. Eight out of 10 West Virginia mortgages are prime. "This affects them too," Hatfield said.

"If unemployment rises, if we get a wave of layoffs, we could get an almost unfixable problem.

It's not enough to just send a borrower in crisis a brochure and paperwork, he said. "To keep foreclosures down, you need person-to-person help. We know from experience."

In Charleston, Susan said one-on-one help would have been welcome. She sold things on eBay, she said, got a roommate, worked seven days a week to keep up. But payments kept rising. "I got down to the wire before they gave me a break."

Her three-month reprieve is over in December. She has a new full-time job, but doesn't know what her new mortgage payments will be. "I worry all the time that they'll set it too high."

Two weeks ago, her mortgage company, plus about 30 other lenders and government programs, announced a new effort they say will help people like her. The new version of Hope Now begins Dec. 15.

But Susan is less willing to hope now. "I don't know," she said. "But I'll check it out."

A mortgage counselor would help her do that.

Kenny Kemp | Sunday Gazette-Mail

Patsy Farrell (right), of Fayetteville, and her daughter Samantha Johnson (with son Garrett) advise borrowers to keep every scrap of paper related to mortgages. Their files include payment checks Farrell's mortgage company cashed, but refused to credit, according to her lawsuit against EMC Mortgage Corp.

Chip Ellis | Sunday Gazette-Mail photo

Worried about rising West Virginia mortgage delinquencies and consumer prices, Joe Hatfield, longtime director of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, is organizing a statewide mortgage-counseling network for troubled borrowers.

Reach Kate Long at katelong@wvgazette.com or 348-1798.


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