A tsunami of foreclosures is sweeping across many American communities, leaving millions of homeowners caught in its wake. A toxic blend of denial, fear and shame is keeping many from taking the steps necessary to avoid having their home taken away by their lender.
"Especially if they're in foreclosure, talking with a lender can be intimidating," says Julie Gugin, executive director with the Minnesota Home Ownership Center, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization that provides education and counseling on homeownership to Minnesotans with low and moderate incomes.
Often, it's easier for individuals to talk to a mortgage counselor at a counseling agency than it is to contact the bank that holds their mortgage.
For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine just which financial institution holds a particular mortgage loan, says William Bailey, professor of family economics at the University of Arkansas.
"Most mortgages are bundled and sold to secondary investment groups." Even once homeowners identify the right financial institution, there is no guarantee that it will have a local representative near the homeowner, Bailey says.
In addition, homeowners often worry that the lender will be uninterested in helping them, says John Snyder, manager of foreclosure programs at NeighborWorks America in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit network of about 230 agencies across the country that provides training and financial support to promote homeownership.
Borrowers facing foreclosure typically are frightened, and most counselors have a softer approach than bankers. "Counseling is an unbiased approach. It gives an objective snapshot of what the borrowers current financial situation is -- what is affordable, what is not, and it helps the borrowers make the best decision."
Many counselors also help borrowers address the underlying issues that are keeping them from being able to make payments on time. For instance, counselors often can provide employment training and resources for homeowners who are unemployed.
When it comes time to contact the financial institution, counselors at these agencies often have an edge over homeowners who call servicers on their own.
"We've been provided key communication points within the servicing shop to help expedite the service," says Josh Furman, director of counseling for the Homeownership Preservation Foundation.
And those servicers, Snyder says, are more willing to work with counselors than they have been in the past.
"I think the banks are far more amenable, simply because currently they're sort of reviewing what's in their best interest, as well. So it's not a matter of five foreclosures here and there," Snyder says. "We see these volumes increase and they've really taken a step back and sort of taken the comparison -- what's worse, a foreclosure or modifying a loan and taking a small loss?"
Counseling can also help mitigate any language barriers between distressed homeowners and mortgage servicers. Many agencies offer services in languages other than English.
Many organizations around the country provide information on foreclosure, as well as counseling for homeowners who may be facing foreclosure. Here are several such agencies.
Homeownership Preservation Foundation
Operator of the toll-free Homeowners Hope Hotline, (888) 995-HOPE, the Foundation seeks to connect struggling homeowners nationwide with a network of more than 600 mortgage counselors any time of the day or night.
Homeowner Crisis Resource Center
HousingHelpNow.org is an offshoot of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "We want to assist consumers in a proactive way," says spokesman Nick Jacobs. The Web site provides housing information and consumers can take the Mortgage Reality Check. By answering such questions as "Do you owe more on your mortgage than it is now worth?" test-takers gain an understanding of how well their mortgage fits their budget and income. The site also identifies steps homeowners can take if they are behind on their mortgage payments.
"If we can see that some kind of illegality happened in the execution of the loan, then it really helps," says Kathleen Skullney, project attorney for the Maryland Foreclosure Assistance Project. "If we do, we can say to the servicer, 'Our borrower has legal defenses. Why don't we work it out?' It's an incentive to talk." You can find free legal aid at local offices all over the country. To locate an office near you, go to lawhelp.org, a joint project of the Legal Services Corporation and the Open Society Institute. Just click on your state and then select "Housing."
NeighborWorks America is a network of 238 organizations across the United States that provides counseling and education to help homeowners work their way to financial solvency. Counselors also may contact lenders to help develop a payment plan, among other things, Snyder says.
Don't wait until it's too late
Although these organizations provide a tremendous amount of information, they are a first step. There's no getting around the fact that a call or visit to a lender typically is needed, Jacobs says. That's particularly the case if the individual would like to restructure the payment schedule.
"We feel that we are so much more constructive if homeowners can come to us ahead of the actual foreclosure process," says Skullney.
What's more, avoiding foreclosure may require significant lifestyle changes. An individual may have to develop and stick to a more modest budget. In extreme cases, counselors may recommend a move to more affordable living arrangements.
It's always best that borrowers reach out to a counselor or organization before their troubles have reached a crisis point. "There are more tools available if you're 60 days behind, versus if there's a sheriff's sale next week," says Gugin. For instance, the lender may consider a change in the payment plan or allow the borrower to defer several payments.
In addition, counselors can help homeowners learn more about whether they are eligible for the federal government's Home Affordable Modification program, in which lenders agree to lower a struggling borrower's monthly mortgage payment to as low as 31 percent of the borrower's gross (pretax) monthly income.