Getting Back in the Black

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December 12, 2011
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Getting Back in the Black

THOUGH the threat of foreclosure has eased a little in the last 18 months, more than 2.6 million households are at least 60 days delinquent on their mortgage payments, according to Hope Now, a nonprofit coalition of lenders and agencies.

Beyond the obvious threat of losing your home, falling behind can be costly: lenders charge late fees as well as legal and administrative costs, and your credit score will suffer. Experts say the sooner you deal with the situation, the better your chances of making a full economic recovery.

Those who are one or two payments behind, said Carol Yopp, the foreclosure program manager at the nonprofit Long Island Housing Partnership in Hauppauge, N.Y., are more likely to recover by making back payments. “You get beyond that — 60 to 120 days behind — it’s much harder to catch up,” she said.

If you are determined to keep your home but cannot immediately make back payments, you will need to meet with your lender or a credit counselor to consider your options. Among them are devising a repayment plan, modifying your loan, doing a short sale, and adding what is owed back into the mortgage balance.

The first step is to assess your financial situation: what you earn and spend each month. Many credit and housing counselors have worksheets on their Web sites to help you do this.

Sharon Clark, the executive director of the Central Jersey Housing Resource Center in Raritan, N.J., says that to get an accurate picture homeowners need to dig into their receipts — or start faithfully keeping them. It is a mistake to guess at spending or earnings, she said, because you might end up with a repayment plan you cannot handle.

Next, collect pay stubs, documentation on other income, two years’ worth of tax returns, two months of savings and checking account statements, and mortgage records. If you have experienced a hardship like a layoff, a divorce or an illness, gather evidence of that: unemployment insurance receipts, medical bills, a copy of your doctor’s letter to your employer, a divorce decree. “The more prepared you are,” Ms. Clark said, “the better people can help you.”

Then go to your lender or servicer, or perhaps visit an adviser first. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development certifies counseling agencies that provide free advice and assistance, and has a list of them on its Web site. (Some charge small fees for services like obtaining a credit report.) Counselors can offer alternatives and prepare a budget to see if you can afford your home.

A HUD-certified foreclosure-prevention specialist will know about new programs and initiatives available with aid. Sometimes counties or local agencies have assistance programs, or will help match you with a renter to defray part of your monthly mortgage payment.

Housing experts warn against signing up with a company that promises a quick fix or a new mortgage in return for paying a substantial upfront fee, say $2,000. Many are scams that use names similar to local or national nonprofits or HUD programs. If they ask for cash, that is a warning sign that they may not be legitimate.

Before agreeing to a repayment schedule, it is important to understand how your lender treats partial mortgage payments. Some credit them toward your balance immediately; others hold the money in a “suspend account” until the full amount is received, Ms. Yopp said. Some will return the check to the borrower. Others will stop accepting payments after the mortgage is seriously delinquent. In those cases, borrowers may be foreclosed, or work out a short sale, or get a family member to help them repay the entire balance.

But whether you agree to a reduced payment schedule, borrow money from family, or raid a retirement account, Ms. Yopp said, “if you haven’t resolved the reason for the delinquency, you’re still in trouble.”



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