Four years after the housing crisis began, we've held hearings, passed laws, bailed out big banks, cracked down on predatory lending, and created programs to help strapped homeowners. The American dream is safe again, right?
If it were, I wouldn't be standing here on the courthouse steps waiting to see if our home will be auctioned off – mere months after missing a mortgage payment.
My story is a preview of the next, ugly phase of America's housing crash: ultraquick foreclosures managed by a team of mercenaries. And don't think it won't affect your neighborhood. More than 1 in 4 homeowners with a mortgage is underwater – they owe more than their home is worth – while more than 6 million of us are either in "delinquent" status or in foreclosure already.
My family's mortgage was bundled and sold off last spring to a new company. Facing financial difficulty after a job loss, we got behind on payments right after the new year. We finally scraped together funds to make back payments, but instead of taking them, the new company quickly put us on the fast track to "robo-foreclosure." With this comes ever-mounting fees demanded on an ever-shrinking timetable. It feels as if they are driving you to the auction block.
The lender engaged both a processor and law firm, each requesting the same sets of documents from us and neither talking to the other. We did all the paperwork several times over and paid the reinstatement demand. Yet we discovered that our home was still on the auction list when a real estate agent came to our door offering a short sale. (There's no law in our state requiring homeowners be directly notified of these sales.)
My family's case isn't unique. Homes nationwide are being auctioned daily due to a rush to judgment coupled with communication misfires between lenders, processors, lawyers, and homeowners. The same foreclosure steps that once took years now happen in weeks.
Outmanned and outgunned
I am a woman of faith, and when things started going wrong with our finances and the mortgage company's systems, I was sure it would all work out. But so far, I have been outmanned and outgunned.
Fighting foreclosure isn't just exhausting. It's humiliating. After forcing us to produce detailed bank account and spending statements, my mortgage company knows how much I spend on groceries and toilet paper. No wonder so many people are choosing "strategic defaults" – walking away from their home.
Mortgage companies are in such a hurry to pay back their bailouts and clear the books that they field a host of well-armed mercenaries: processors, collectors, and lawyers all working over the same mortgagee. You don't get people on the phone. If you do, they're reading a script – not listening. If you do not get agreements made via phone in writing, you have wasted your time. You can't get anything in writing unless you submit the request in writing. A company can stop taking your money after a single late payment. Technicalities multiply like bunnies. The offer to restructure can be a sinkhole.
It happens so frequently that our congressman, Scott Rigell, has a team hip-deep in casework trying to save thousands of Virginians from this fate. They tell me they are not having much luck because Virginia is one of the fastest-moving foreclosure states. A class action suit would move faster than legislation, but realistically, if someone needs a lawyer for something like this, it's a lock that they can't afford one.
I was working through both our loan processor and a law firm representing Fannie Mae and neither knew what the other was arranging. It turns out the same law firm assigned to "help" me work out the reinstatement is also the auctioneer.
At the courthouse
So, here I am on the courthouse steps with two of my four sons (one of whom has special needs, which keeps me from working full time). Even though the loan servicer accepted my reinstatement payment a week ago, the law firm didn't get that memo. I have an 11th-hour e-mail printout to hand over.
It's surreal that homes are auctioned away so casually, outdoors, on the steps of the court building amid traffic noise and the stiff spring breeze. A woman from the law firm is the trustee/auctioneer.
As I try to ask her questions, two men in jeans, T-shirts, and shades continually berate me and try to drive me off. I am told these are the "investors" who'll buy up the homes.
The auctioneer from the law firm is clad in an incongruous ankle-length, sleeveless, red silk dress. She tells me my home is now off the list. I am dismissed with a nod.
But I can't leave the scene. (Watch the video clip below.) It's like being on the road and slowing down to watch a 12-car pileup. I have to stay and watch the auction and make sure we're still among the living. Also, I am now conditioned to disbelieve what I am told.
The fact that one of my sons is recording this with his Flip camera makes one "investor" so irate that he grabs my 15-year-old, trying to take the camera. Shaking a crumpled wad of papers, he rages, "See? BANK! BANK! BANK! BANK! ALL nice and legal, see? They're all goin' back to the bank. So ... get outta here!"
And that was it. The trustee rattled on and tapped into her cellphone like something out of a street theater piece.
The auction began and ended in minutes, red silk snapping in the wind. The two men bought, as traffic passed and American dreams were sold to the lowest of bidders.
I would like to help America wake from this nightmare, but I am no expert. One thing is clear: We have to go hard on the problem, but soft on the people. The "restructuring" that needs to happen must include the way lenders treat people.
To other embattled homeowners I have a tactic to recommend. It's called "the false surrender." Used in rape prevention, it's a difficult tactic, but it worked to keep me whole. The basic idea is to override our instinct to flail wildly and panic, because it expends the energy needed to focus, fight well, and escape. It worked for me against the attacks by the companies and lawyers by making me stop getting angry and argumentative – and start taking notes.
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