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Published: Friday, 2/2/2007

Foreclosures soar in a few area counties

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

First came easy-to-get loans and persuasions to spend as much as possible buying houses. Then came closures and downsizings at Sandusky County employers Dixon Ticonderoga Co., TRW Automotive, and others.

So, when the county's housing market foundered last year, those who already couldn't keep up with large mortgage payments ran out of options.

"If you're behind, and you can't sell the house, the pressure is going to be on to foreclose," said Wes Fahrbach, executive director of the Sandusky County Economic Development Corp.

Foreclosures have hit Sandusky County hard, with the number of actions started last year totaling 130, a 202 percent increase from 2005, according to a report for The Blade compiled by RealtyTrac Inc., of Irvine, Calif.

That's a larger rise than in any other county in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Monroe County, however, came close, at 191 percent. Such actions in Fulton and Williams counties more than doubled in 2006 from 2005 numbers, the report shows.

A variety of factors plays into increased foreclosures, some real estate agents said.

Inflated appraisals for refinances and home equity loans, for example, make houses even tougher to sell in a soft market. Not having to put money down on mortgages allowed people to get loans who probably shouldn't have. Refinancing houses for up to 125 percent of their value to get extra cash to pay off credit card debt created problems, too.

Mary Stoller, owner of Mary Stoller Realty & Auction in Bryan, said some people with duplexes or other multifamily buildings in Williams County have filed for foreclosures after tenants couldn't pay the rent.

"I'm hoping that foreclosures fall back, but I think it's something we're going to see for a while," she said.

RealtyTrac reported last week that one out of every 60 houses in the Toledo area was in foreclosure last year, ranking it the 30th worst among the nation's largest cities. The firm tallies all fore-closure actions, including those that were dropped or settled.

Lucas County by far has the most foreclosure actions in the region, and last year's jump to 4,278 was a 59 percent increase from 2005, according to RealtyTrac.

Michigan and Ohio also ranked high among states for foreclosures last year, RealtyTrac found. Detroit was ranked as the worst metro area nationwide in foreclosures in 2006.

Even Hancock County, which has maintained a low jobless rate and generally is considered financially healthy, had a 69 percent increase in foreclosures last year, it said.

That county has jobs, but they may not pay as much as those from years past, noted Jim Staschiak, a broker with Preferred Brokers Inc. in Findlay.

"Almost anyone with a job can qualify for a home loan now," he said.

In Sandusky County, lenders are getting tougher about loan requirements, said Cindy Gabel, a broker at Gabel & Associates Realty in Fremont.

Last April alone, the county had 21 foreclosure actions, nearly half of the total for all of 2005, according to RealtyTrac.

"I just think people got overextended and can't catch up," Ms. Gabel said.

That sentiment is echoed in many counties, as are other explanations for higher foreclosure rates.

Monroe County is home to a roughly 1,500-employee parts factory owned by a Ford Motor Co. subsidiary that is threatened by closure if it cannot be sold. Jobs there and elsewhere have been eliminated, and those still working in the auto industry may no longer be reaping the overtime they counted on to buy $300,000 to $450,000 houses, said Robert Bomia, an agent with Avanti Real Estate in Monroe.

Tightened laws, meanwhile, make it harder for people to file for bankruptcy liquidation, Mr. Bomia said.

Often those who lose their houses to foreclosure don't have much equity in the properties, real estate agents said.

And they may not realize lenders will be willing to work with them, said Mr. Staschiak of Preferred Brokers.

Some people who got adjustable-rate mortgages a few years ago give up their houses when the interest goes up and they have no equity, figuring that, because of tax advantages, they essentially lived in the house for free, said Joe Newlove of Joe Newlove Real Estate & Auctions in Wauseon.

"I've never seen foreclosures at the rate they're at now," said the 30-year real estate veteran.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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