If you’ve been notified, or even just worried, that you could lose your home to foreclosure, experts say parts of your home can actually help you fight that fate.
That could be useful knowledge in South Jersey, even if recent statistics show Atlantic County lost its unwelcome status as the foreclosure capital of the U.S. in the third quarter of 2016. ATTOM Data Solutions, which tracks foreclosures across the country, reported last month that the county dropped to the No. 3 market in the nation for that quarter. Still, New Jersey as a whole had the No. 2 foreclosure rate, the company said.
Several local public and nonprofit agencies have experience keeping struggling families in their homes. And officials of those groups know of everyday parts of the home that owners can use — or adjust their use of — to protect themselves from foreclosure.
Start with the mailbox. Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles’ office prints dozens of sheriff’s-sale listings every Monday. He knows some owners’ initial reaction to getting the first notice of foreclosure is to put it aside, or even throw it away.
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“The worst thing you can do is not open that letter from the bank,” Balles warned recently in Atlantic City, at a foreclosure-prevention seminar hosted by the New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency.
But that isn’t just a matter of being informed. Opening the mail can lead directly to another everyday tool owners can use to fight foreclosure: the phone.
Anthony Marchetta is executive director of the NJHMFA, an agency with money available to keep residents in their homes — including a freshly announced round of $115 million in funding for the state’s Homesaver program. He said the first step toward getting some of that money, or any reliable help, is calling a housing counselor certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That certification means those counselors’ help is free to users.
“If you go to a counselor and they ask you for some sort of fee, just walk out the door,” Marchetta said. He also advises acting early, possibly even before the first foreclosure notice.
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“Once you get into the legal system, it becomes more complicated to get (out),” he added. “No two foreclosures are exactly the same, and these housing counselors are familiar with them.”
When Alejandra and Jose Perez realized their Galloway Township condo was in danger, the parents of three first tried to fight on their own. They worked at Showboat and Trump Plaza, two of five Atlantic City casinos to close since 2014. But even before they lost their jobs for good — Jose after 23 years at the Plaza — their hours were cut so much they couldn’t keep up with the bills.
Alejandra asked the mortgage company to modify their loan, but they were rejected because of their low income. Still, at the end of that process, she stumbled onto help in the form of the state’s Homekeeper program.
They had to go through a HUD housing counselor to qualify but ended up getting $50,000 in mortgage help.
When that ran out after two years, they still didn’t have full-time jobs in Atlantic County’s struggling economy. NJHMFA suggested they try again for a loan modification and put them in touch with another counseling agency.
Clarifi has 50-plus years of history in the Philadelphia area and has opened local offices in Galloway and at City Hall in Atlantic City because of Atlantic County’s high foreclosure rate.
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“Clarifi told us about (NJHMFA’s) Homesaver,” which was then also new to the counselors themselves, Alejandra said. Clarifi helped them apply, and after six months — and loads of paperwork and patience — they were accepted last March.
Their monthly payment was cut from $1,100 to $800, and “so far we’re making it, we’re up to date,” she added. “I’d tell (struggling owners) first of all to never give up. The worst thing you can do is do nothing. Look for options, look for information. … And don’t wait until the last minute. It worked out for us, so it might work out for other people, too.”
She also recommended a HUD-certified counselor such as Clarifi, where Stephanie Bittner is outreach director.
Bittner recommended a “crisis budget.”
“They should make sure they’re reducing their electric bills. After the mortgage, utility bills are a major expense,” Bittner said. “If they’re upside down by maybe $200 a month, it’s going to be a lot better than if they’re upside down by $500 a month. … They have to ask, ‘Can I reduce the cable bill? Can I cut back on food?’”
Clarifi and other counseling agencies, such as Consumer Credit and Budget Counseling Inc., which has offices in Marmora and Atlantic City, also “can see if homeowners qualify for any state or federal programs, and can be a go-between with the mortgage company,” Bittner added.
Local utilities can suggest ways to cut bills. At NJHMFA’s foreclosure session, an Atlantic City Electric representative handed out charts detailing the cost of leaving dozens of common items plugged in full-time.
“Go through and unplug your devices. … And don’t leave your phone charger plugged in,” Maria Waldman advised. She recommended adding an already dry towel to each load of laundry in the dryer.
“You may get a little lint,” she said, “but it will cut down on your drying time by five or 10 minutes.”