Foreclosures up 43 percent Nationally

Jan 1, 2006

HOUSTON - Foreclosures on home mortgages are on the way up.

Nationally, foreclosures are up 43 percent, higher than in any quarter of last year, property tracker RealtyTrac said.

The numbers are even grimmer in the Midwest. Michigan and Ohio, battered by automotive-related job losses, together recorded 45,000 mortgages entering some stage of foreclosure in the first quarter. Those are increases of 91 percent and 39 percent, respectively, compared with last year's fourth quarter.

There are many reasons for the growing number of defaults, and there are suggestions that the foreclosure trend may soon worsen.

Layoffs because of corporate downsizings, health care issues, increasing debt levels and rising interest rates all are factors. In addition, a growing number of homeowners are relying on adjustable rate mortgages, catching some people by surprise when their monthly payment rises.

Significantly, some of those ARMs were offered with an initial three-year to five-year period in which the rate was fixed. At the end of that period the mortgages will be reset at prevailing rates, potentially upending borrowers because interest rates have been rising. For many such people, that moment is approaching.

"The increases we've been seeing in foreclosures don't even reflect the worst-case scenario that could happen when the $2.7 trillion in adjustable rate mortgages are reset over the next 18 months," Another factor is the impact of rising property values.

And in some cases people stretched to qualify for a mortgage only to be undone by higher utility and gasoline costs.

"During the refinancing boom people found themselves qualified for homes they might not have qualified for if the interest rates were higher," said Jeff Metcalf, chief executive of Record Information Services, a Kaneville, Ill.-based collector of market data.

Losing jobs can and has triggered mortgage defaults.

Consider Archie Tolar, who said he once earned about $3,000 a month as a salesman at a suburban Chevrolet dealership. Since losing his job in 2002 Tolar has struggled to make ends meet, relying mostly on $400 a month in disability payments.

"To go from $3,000 a month to $400 doesn't even cover the mortgage," the Harvey, Ill., resident said. ABN Amro Mortgage Group filed a mortgage foreclosure against him in April.

`Whatever options I have'

"They're supposed to call me in two to three weeks to give me whatever options I have," said Tolar, who is single and said his monthly mortgage was $435 a month.

Tolar's was among the 6,451 foreclosure notices filed in the state in April, according to RealtyTrac. That number was strikingly higher than in any month since the beginning of last year.

Although the numbers are higher, they are below where they have been during recessionary periods, said Alexis McGee, president of Foreclosures .com, another property tracker. "It's a big jump but from very, very low numbers on a historic basis," McGee said.

Historically, about 1 percent of loans go into foreclosure, Sharga said.

William Gooch, chief executive of Community Bank of Elmhurst, Ill., said he suspects that lending policies are playing a role in the foreclosure trend. Some financial institutions, competing fiercely for business, are making mortgages available to marginal borrowers.

"People think they have to loosen their restrictions, their guidelines, their policies," Gooch said. Mortgage brokers, he added, seem to be "springing up like dandelions." The most delinquent loan at his own institutions is eight days late, he said.

Exacerbating the increase in foreclosures is the toughening of bankruptcy laws.

The bankruptcy laws have changed, making it harder for people to get debt relief on their other obligations, said Jane Garvey, president of the Chicago Creative Investors Association, a group of real estate investors.

Equity in their homes

Also, many people have tapped into the equity in their homes, a practice that can haunt them when a financial emergency strikes.

"If people have no equity in their property, they have few alternatives if they lose their job, or have a health issue or other problem that makes it impossible to make their payments," Garvey said. "When they fall behind on their payments they end up in foreclosure."

Darlene Slabenak has lived in her Berwyn, Ill., house for 33 years. Divorced in 1986, the mother of four returned to college and went to work for an eye surgeon for 15 years. She ended up with tarsal tunnel syndrome and lost her job in 2003.

Despite raiding her retirement fund and getting financial help from her boyfriend, Slabenak went into default on her mortgage and went round and round, unhappily, with Charter One over a schedule for mortgage payments.

`I refused to sign it'

Slabenak said her monthly payments used to be $657. Charter One raised it to $1,333 and then, in February, to $1,600.

"They wanted me to sign a paper saying I'd pay $1,600 a month for the next six months, and I refused to sign it," Slabenak said. "I sent them $3,800 for January, February, March and April. They sent me a foreclosure letter because I would not sign that paper.

"The house has been up for sale for three months," she said, noting that the sales price is $264,900. "I'm praying to God I can get out of this place."

`The full amount'

Charter One declined to discuss Slabenak's situation, citing privacy issues.

When Amanda Acuna got sick and was out of work she fell behind on her $950 a month mortgage payments. She said she found it difficult to work out a payment schedule with her mortgage lender, National City Mortgage Corp.

"They were saying that they wouldn't take anything but the full amount to make it current," the Bartlett resident said.

She is now trying to sell the house for $144,000.

National City Mortgage declined to comment on Acuna's situation. But the bank said it encourages borrowers who are experiencing financial difficulty to contact their lender to explore options that could help them avoid foreclosure.

3 missed payments

Most foreclosure proceedings begin when an owner misses at least three mortgage payments, and the lender files for a judgment. It usually takes seven months from that filing date for a property to go to auction. During that period the homeowner still has rights, said Metcalf, of Record Information Services. A potential investor can approach the homeowner and offer to buy the home and assume the loan.


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