In Atlantic County, property foreclosures and sheriff’s sales can draw a crowd.
Almost every Thursday, the scheduled sheriff’s sales that are the bitter end of the foreclosure process attract up to 150 people interested in buying property, said county Sheriff Frank Balles. When Balles took office in 2009, the more typical turnout was three to five buyers, he said.
In the years since, of course, Atlantic County has become the national foreclosure leader. In 2016, the county topped the U.S. for the third straight year with a foreclosure rate of nearly 3.4 percent.
That means one of every 30 Atlantic County homes had some form of foreclosure activity last year — either a default notice, auction scheduled or bank repossession, according to ATTOM Data Solutions. That private company compiles foreclosure statistics in more than 2,500 counties nationwide.
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Now, the Stockton Center for Community Engagement hopes its home county’s ongoing foreclosure crisis will draw a crowd to Stockton University’s Galloway Township campus Thursday. The center has set up a seminar on foreclosures that day and invited a panel of people regularly involved with the process to explain the details, and invited anyone with foreclosure concerns to come and listen to those experts.
Balles will be one of the speakers, joining a lawyer with New Jersey Legal Services and three officials of the state’s court system. The program includes time for public questions.
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Merydawilda Colon, executive director of the Center for Community Engagement and a Stockton social-work professor, said she set up the seminar based on requests from the community.
“The general public is not aware of the process and what to do” if they get a foreclosure notice, she said.
And because New Jersey also has the unwanted status of leading the nation in foreclosure rates — at almost 25 percent higher than No. 2 Delaware, according to ATTOM Data — the center will record video with plans to broadcast it around the state, Colon said.
When it’s his turn to speak, Balles plans to describe some official options available to people trying to stay in their homes. They include the state’s HomeKeeper and HomeSaver programs, both offered by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which can give up to $50,000 to homeowners who qualify.
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The sheriff said he’ll also talk about the end of the line for people who can’t get that help, those weekly sheriff’s sales at the criminal courthouse in Mays Landing.
“Some days, it’s so packed in here that we have people out in the hallway,” he said Thursday, after a sale that started at noon and ended about an hour later. And although everything that goes up for auction at a sheriff’s sale is in legal or financial distress, that doesn’t mean the properties are all in physical distress.
“The highest we sold last year was $3 million, in Longport,” Balles said. “Another one in Margate was $2.4 million. But other properties sell for $1,000.”
Anthony D’Alicandro also has lots of experience with foreclosures in Atlantic County. He owns Dwell Real Estate in Linwood, and although he’s not speaking at Stockton’s session, he hears regularly from homeowners worried about foreclosure. He has a few encouraging thoughts for them.
“Only one out of four homes that gets a foreclosure notice served will actually have a completed foreclosure,” he says. The rest either “become current, or negotiate some kind of modification with the bank, or they might just sell it, not as a foreclosure.”
His most basic advice: “They really have to be in communication with the bank about their options,” he said, because different lenders have different policies. Still, he added, “One thing for sure, the bank doesn’t want the property. They want to find a way to get out of it.”
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And if the borrowers will work with the mortgage company on a short sale, the lenders will cover the closing costs. So the former homeowners don’t have to worry about paying anything at settlement. Some lenders are “even offering … relocation assistance, so the sellers are walking out with some sort of a check,” D’Alicandro added.
Richard J. Shaffer III owns Resorts LTD Inc., an Egg Harbor Township real estate agency. He said 78 percent of his business these days involves some stage of foreclosure — and he jokes that 78 percent of the real estate questions he answers also involve foreclosure.
For homeowners in trouble, “the main problem is that they come to me too late, when they already have a sheriff’s sale date. There’s not much I can do then,” Shaffer said.
Instead, when a homeowner gets that first foreclosure notice, they should “act right away. Be proactive, not reactive,” Shaffer said. “There are a lot of options if you start early on. But if you let it go on, it’s like a cancer. Sometimes there’s nothing the doctor can do.”