Facing foreclosure? Don’t delay; get help

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Amy Hennen

The idea of foreclosure — losing your home because of a delinquent payment (even just one day late) — can be scary and daunting for anyone. It can be particularly intimidating for those who do not have the means to hire an attorney to guide them through the legal process.

Maryland has the third-highest foreclosure rate in the country, according to RealtyTrac, Inc., with 1 in every 834 homes in foreclosure. By contrast, in Virginia, 1 in every 2,030 homes are in foreclosure, and in the District of Columbia the rate is 1 in every 3,469 homes. Nationally, the rate is about 1 in every 1,600 homes.

Pension cuts, increasing medical bills, lack of savings and fixed-incomes make older adults extremely vulnerable to foreclosures. The Federal Reserve reports that half of households whose head is between the ages of 64 and 74 do not have money available in retirement accounts.

What’s more, AARP estimates that approximately 3.5 million homeowners are underwater on their loans and have no home equity. Furthermore, one out of every 30 of those age 80 and older faces foreclosure.

Help is available

As the managing attorney for housing and consumer law at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), I work with older adults who need help making sense of the extremely complicated foreclosure process while trying to stay in their homes.

A significant number of MVLS’ older clients purchased their homes between 2004 and 2008 because they were convinced to purchase or upgrade during the housing boom. Today, two-thirds of the properties in foreclosure were purchased during this time.

In 2016, MVLS assisted in nearly 100 cases involving homeowners 55 and over who were facing foreclosure.

I share the following three steps with clients to give them confidence in starting the process on their own, while giving them the tools they need to create the best outcome possible — hopefully, keeping their home!

Step No. 1: Get help as early as you can

There is no shame in asking for help. Staying in your home is serious business when big banks and other lenders are pushing for foreclosure.

If you are late on your mortgage, seek help from a qualified housing counselor. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (www.consumerfinance.gov/find-a-housing-counselor) can help you locate a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD-approved, counseling agency in your area.

If you receive a “Notice of Intent to Foreclose” and a “Loss Mitigation Application” in the mail, take action quickly and ask for help immediately.

There are free and low-cost services available to help you throughout Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

The Maryland Judiciary recently released new videos as a part of their self-help video library. See www.mdcourts.gov/video. They are comprehensive videos that explain the foreclosure process without a lot of legal jargon.

The Maryland Hope Helpline (1-877-462-7555) is a key resource that can connect homeowners facing foreclosure with experienced housing counselors, who can be invaluable when working with a lender.

Look for organizations that provide free legal assistance and foreclosure prevention services. MVLS (www.mvlslaw.org), for instance, connects pre-qualified low-income Maryland residents with volunteer lawyers who provide legal counsel and representation during the lifespan of their case.

If you live in Virginia and qualify for legal aid services, you can turn to VA Legal Aid (www.valegalaid.org) for assistance. In addition, Legal Services of Northern Virginia (www. lsnv.org, (703) 778-6800) offers foreclosure assistance for low-income residents.

Legal Counsel for the Elderly is an AARP-affiliated service that provides civil (not criminal) legal help to residents of Washington, D.C. who are 60 and older. The organization’s Pro Bono Project provides comprehensive legal services to low-income older people through attorneys who contribute their time and expertise. For more information or assistance, call them at (202) 434-2170.

Step No. 2: Investigate and exercise your rights

Foreclosure mediation is an option in many jurisdictions. The mediations are arranged to facilitate negotiations between a lender and homeowner through an unbiased third party.

Even if mediation is not available, there are several ways you may be able to stay in your home or recoup some of the money already invested in your home. These options are called loss mitigation:

• Loan modification — you and your lender agree to changes in the terms of your loan, so you can continue living in your home

• Cash for keys — you agree to move out of your home in exchange for a specified amount of money

• Short sale — the lender allows you to sell your home for less than you owe on the mortgage

• Deed in lieu of foreclosure — you agree to give the house back to the lender and, in exchange, the lender will forgive the debt that you owe

Step No. 3: Be prompt and track the process

If you are at risk of losing your home in a foreclosure, it is imperative that you take action immediately to give yourself the best chance at keeping your home.

You will receive a lot of communications and instructions, which can be very frustrating and sometimes confusing. Collect all of the information and documents you need, make copies, and reply promptly. I recommend that clients keep a journal to track dates when documents are received and when information is returned.

The foreclosure process is swift. For instance, in Maryland, the lender may file foreclosure paperwork with the court 45 days after sending the “Notice of Intent to Foreclose.”

While it is never easy to face the loss of a home, there are ways to keep your home, or to walk away with money to purchase a new home.

The keys are to ask for help, move to mediation, and act fast. There are several housing and legal services organizations ready to help.

Amy Hennen is the housing and consumer law managing attorney with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.