Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition public-service ad
More than 50,000 Marylanders were behind on their mortgage payments at last count in September. Homeownership advocates fear that even more will be this year, with thousands of adjustable-rate mortgages scheduled for their first resets to higher payments.
If you're worried that foreclosure could be in your future, you're not alone -- and you do have places to turn for help.
Recommendation No. 1 from everyone: Don't sit idly by, hoping things will improve or fretting that nothing can be done. There's hope if you don't wait too long. But fees really add up the longer you're behind on your payments, particularly once the lender sends your file to an attorney to start foreclosure proceedings.
First, call your lender. That's what lenders always recommend, and they're more open to working something out than they were even several months ago, whether that's freezing your interest rate or temporarily forgiving payments you missed. Ask for the loss-mitigation department -- you don't want to be shunted to collections.
But homeownership groups say you would be well-advised to look for help from a third party, too.
"The loss-mitigation departments of these lenders are tough to navigate because they're overwhelmed," said Sally J. Scott, co-chair of the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition.
You can get connected with free foreclosure prevention counseling by calling 888-995-HOPE. That's the number President Bush suggested people try if they thought they might qualify for a rate freeze on their subprime loan. At this point, the administration says, servicers handling about 95 percent of the subprime loans are participating in the HOPE NOW alliance that has signed on to the plan to freeze some borrowers' rates.
You can also call a local housing counseling agency directly. The HUD-approved list, with contact information, is HERE.
Anne Balcer Norton, director of the foreclosure prevention division for housing counselor St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, said you should prepare yourself by gathering the documents you got before and at closing for your loan. Your most recent mortgage statement and any correspondence from the lender or the lender's attorney would also be useful.
If you're hoping to get a payment plan or loan modification, you'll need documentation to prove that you can keep up with the payments if they're adjusted, Norton said. Pay stubs, tax returns, etc., can help you here.
Norton thinks it's also worthwhile to write a "hardship letter" that explains when and why you fell behind on payments, and how the situation has changed or will change to allow you to get back on track.
St. Ambrose, which is based in Baltimore but works with homeowners statewide, believes it's good for everyone when lenders agree to modify loans. People don't lose their homes, and the institutions avoid thousands of dollars in costs to foreclose.
Other options to consider:
--The state of Maryland has a new program called Bridge to HOPE, which offers loans of up to $15,000 to qualifying homeowners with subprime or exotic loans. It's a no-interest loan due at sale or refinancing, and requirements include being behind on your mortgage or in imminent danger of becoming so. Go HERE to see if you qualify, or call 877-462-7555. (To actually get the loan, you'll need to be referred by one of the state-approved housing counseling groups on this list HERE.)
--If you live in Baltimore City, you might be able to qualify for a $5,000 loan from Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore to catch up with your past-due mortgage payments. Like the state loans, these are no-interest and due at sale or refinancing. Felix Torres, executive director of the nonprofit, said you should seek counseling first and let the counselor refer you to his group for a loan.
--Want to refinance? The federal FHASecure program is one option for homeowners with adjustable-rate mortgages that have their first reset between June 2005 and the end of this year. Get more details by clicking HERE.
--The state also has a refinancing program, called Lifeline. Go HERE for more details.
Sometimes, though, the best option is to sell. If your house is worth more than you owe, great -- just make sure your asking price will attract buyers. If you owe more than it's worth, you can ask your lender if it would approve a "short sale" and forgive the difference between the loan and the sales price.
Whatever you do, be wary of unsolicited offers of "help" from individuals. They might suggest you pay them to negotiate with your lender. (You can get much better assistance for free, the counselors insist.) They might suggest that you sell the house to them and rent with an option to buy it back. (That often turns out badly, attorneys say.) They might even give you paperwork to sign up for a fabulous refinance deal. (That could be your deed you're signing over to them.)
If you think you've been had by a foreclosure-rescue scammer or you need foreclosure-related help that's too technical for a counselor, you'll want an attorney. Local nonprofit groups with legal expertise include St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, the Legal Aid Bureau (for low-income residents only) and Civil Justice.