Monday, December 24, 2007

How to Handle a Mortgage Default

November 12, 2010 Update: Mediation of mortgage defaults has become available in a number of states and other locales. The idea behind mediation is that you and the lender meet with a neutral 3rd party (the mediator) who tries to facilitate an agreement for you to avoid foreclosure and stay in the home. The mediator won't take sides or make a decision. The goal of mediation is to foster an agreement between the homeowner and the lender. You should seriously consider mediation if it is available, because it provides a way to have a dialogue, correct misunderstandings and reach a deal allowing you to stay in your home. For more information about mediation, go the the National Consumer Law Center at You can also check your state or local government's website for the availability of mediation programs.

Foreclosure Documentation Problems have recently been prominent in the news. In many cases, courts have halted foreclosure proceedings until lenders can clean up their acts. In a few cases, judges have found the documentation problems to be so severe that they have awarded homes to the owners free of any mortgage debt. Lenders are appealing these latter decisions. If you want to litigate with the lender, you'll need an attorney. Ask around for references. A resource for finding an attorney would be at the National Consumer Law Center website:

March 9, 2010 Update:
Some states offer loans to struggling homeowners. If you live in Delaware, Massachusetts, North Carolina or Pennsylvania, contact your state's housing finance department or agency for information. California, Florida and Nevada may institute such programs. So if you live in one of these states, contact the state housing finance department or agency to see if anything is available.

July 25, 2009 Update:
The Obama administration has improved the Making Home Affordable program to give homeowners who are not yet in foreclosure an expanded opportunity to refinance. If you've been current on your monthly payments for the past year, you may now be able to refinance even if you are as much as 125% underwater on your mortgage (the earlier standard was not more than 105% underwater). This is a significant improvement over the original program. For more details, see

March 23, 2009 Update:
The Obama administration has announced the "Making Home Affordable" program, an initiative to provide mortgage relief to homeowners who are not yet in foreclosure. This program could help some people who would not be assisted by other programs, such as those discussed below. See for more on the Making Home Affordable program.

Original Blog (with a reference to a discontinued program called FHASecure deleted):

If you’ve defaulted on your mortgage, or are close to defaulting, you’ll find that the resources for assisting you are limited and scattered about. There’s no overall program, and no easy way to access the available resources. That doesn’t mean you won’t find help, though, especially if you have a moderate or low income. Here are some avenues to explore.

Rate Freeze: the federal government has sponsored a voluntary five-year rate freeze for certain subprime ARM mortgages. Covered mortgages may have their rates frozen at the initial level for five additional years past the initial teaser rate period. You could be in luck if you meet the following criteria: (a) you live in the home purchased with the mortgage and took out a subprime ARM loan made between Jan. 1, 2005 and July 31, 2007; (b) the ARM’s interest rate resets between Jan. 1, 2008 and July 31, 2010; (b) your mortgage loan was packaged into securities sold to investors; (c) you have a credit score less than 660, which hasn’t improved by more than 10% since the mortgage loan was first made; (d) the monthly payment will increase more than 10% in the first reset; and (e) you haven’t been more than 60 days late with a mortgage payment more than once in the last 12 months.

This is a narrowly defined group of mortgages. If, for example, your mortgage was not sold to investors but is still held by a bank or savings and loan association, you’re not covered by the rate freeze. If you took out your mortgage in 2004, too bad. If you’ve been conscientious about paying debts on time and your credit rating has improved more than 10% since you took out the mortgage, you’re out of luck. If you’re already in foreclosure proceedings and really need help, the rate freeze won’t be there for you. In many respects, the rate freeze was designed with the interests of Wall Street investors in mind, so its limited scope shouldn’t be surprising.

Call your mortgage servicer to find out if you qualify for a rate freeze. Most borrowers won’t get one. Here are some additional resources. They mostly focus on helping low and moderate income homeowners.

Contact the Hope Now Alliance at 888-995-4673. This organization was established by a group of nonprofits and lenders, and provides counseling services to borrowers having trouble paying their mortgages.

A national nonprofit organization that helps low and moderate income homebuyers is Acorn Housing Corp. Acorn can be reached by email at or by calling 1-888-409-3557. Acorn also has offices in a number of cities. If you are one of the borrowers that Acorn aims to assist, they may help you negotiate with the lender for relief.

Another national nonprofit organization that helps low and moderate income homeowners is Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America. Its program for distressed homeowners is described at, and you can call at 1-888-302-NACA. NACA also has offices in a number of cities, and may help you negotiate with the lender for relief.

Contact state and local nonprofit organizations that promote home ownership or provide credit counseling. The extent to which they can help you will vary. But for some homeowners, particularly those with modest or low incomes, these nonprofit organizations can provide a degree of negotiating leverage you would never have on your own. Stay away from mortgage brokers and other for-profit businesses that purport to provide mortgage assistance. If you’re in trouble on your mortgage, the last thing you need is someone who sees you as a profit opportunity.

Higher income people and investors will probably have to take care of themselves. If that’s your situation, here are some thoughts.

Dispassionately evaluate your situation and your ability to keep the house. The bank will be dispassionate, and so should you. Emotion won’t save your house. If necessary, assemble your financial records, go to the public library, and find a quiet corner in the reading room where you can work without distractions.

Calculate your net worth to find out what your financial situation is. Add up your assets, and subtract your debts and other liabilities. Don’t count as assets things like household furnishings, furniture and clothing, which you won’t sell to pay your mortgage. Count only financial assets, and physical assets you’re prepared to sell.

It’s very important to figure out if you’re upside down on your mortgage—i.e., whether or not the house is worth less than the mortgage debt. If so, then you have to make a hard decision whether it’s worthwhile to try to keep the house. Mortgage loans are almost always “with recourse,” which means that if the house is sold in foreclosure proceedings and doesn’t raise enough money to cover the mortgage debt, you will be legally responsible for the unpaid difference. But determining if you have positive or negative equity in the house gives you an idea of how much it’s worth your while to try to hold onto the house. The more equity you have in the house, the more it’s worth trying to keep. And it also gives you a sense for the feasibility of selling the house to pay the mortgage.

Estimate your ability to cut back on other spending in order to meet the mortgage payments. Cutting back on spending is the best option, because it preserves the part of your income that is needed to pay other debts and cover basic living expenses. If spending cutbacks won’t get you there, look at how much of your taxable savings and investments you could use for mortgage payments. Don’t forget that the sale of investment assets like mutual funds and stocks could create tax liabilities and you have to set aside enough money to cover taxes. If you have physical assets you are willing sell to raise money, like your 1971 Chevy Camaro SS with a 396 cubic inch engine, add them to the calculation (with reserves for taxes if necessary).

As a general rule, don’t tap into retirement accounts to make mortgage payments. You’ll have to pay taxes and a 10% penalty on withdrawals, and will have only the remainder for the mortgage. For most people, somewhere between a third and a half of a withdrawal will go to pay taxes and penalties. You could quickly deplete retirement savings you took years to build up. The mortgage lender can’t reach into your retirement accounts for payment (these accounts are protected by law from creditors) and you’d only be needlessly risking your retirement.

Once you have a sense of your financial resources (or lack thereof), you can then negotiate an end game with the lender. Have a bottom line, and if the negotiations get there, stop at the bottom line. Don’t give up everything to keep the house. That’s what the lender wants you to do, but you may be throwing good money after bad, and end up with nothing—no house, no savings and no retirement. Whether or not you lose the house, life will continue and you should preserve something for the future.

To stay in your home, ask if you can refinance into an affordable fixed rate mortgage. If the lender won't agree to that, ask for reduced rates and payments, and forgiveness of some of the principal of the debt. Also ask the lender not to add unpaid interest to the principal balance of the mortgage debt. This is called “negative amortization,” and only delays the pain. It really doesn’t do much to help you.

If you're 62 or older, you could think about refinancing with a reverse mortgage. Although the reverse mortgage might provide less money than you owe on your current mortgage, if you're having trouble making payments, your current lender may take what it can get from the reverse mortgage rather than face potentially larger losses from a foreclosure. One important advantage of a reverse mortgage is that you don't have to repay it until you sell the house, move permanently from the house or pass away. In other words, there are no monthly payments and you can't be kicked out of your house by foreclosure. It's worth looking into if you're 62 or older and about to lose your home. For more information about reverse mortgages, go to

If you can't work out an affordable payment plan with the lender, consider selling the house. This may be a viable option if the house is worth more than the mortgage debt. If not, you might be able to negotiate a “short sale” with the lender, where you sell the house for whatever you can get, and the lender doesn’t go after you for the unpaid balance of the mortgage loan. Short sales may generate a better price than an auction, and lenders sometimes will agree to them rather than see you walk away from the house.

If you can’t feasibly pay, refinance or renegotiate the mortgage, and can't sell the house on acceptable terms, abandon the house. But let the lender know that you’re leaving and send them the keys. At a minimum, they might do a little upkeep and maintenance on the property to preserve its auction value. That’s in your interest. The more the house sells for at auction, the less recourse the bank will seek from you.

A couple of things to keep in mind. Act sooner rather than later. If you expect problems making your mortgage payments, contact the lender up front and try to work things out before you default. Once you default, the stakes are raised and positions can harden. Avoid is asking family and friends for help with the mortgage. If borrowing from friends and family doesn’t give you enough money to prevent foreclosure, you’ll lose the house, and will also have tapped out the last ditch resources you might need to rebuild your life. (Remember, life will continue after your personal mortgage crisis.) Keep family and friends out of your housing problems.

If you do lose your house, there’s one thing you could gain—wisdom. Next time around, be more prudent and conservative with the price of the house you buy and the amount you borrow. A good-sized downpayment is in everyone’s interests. It obviously protects lenders, but also gives you a cushion to refinance or sell if things go wrong. A fixed-rate mortgage that you can afford makes everyone—homeowners and lenders—better off. Since time immemorial, common sense has paid off and recklessness has been costly.

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