Area Suburbs See Rise in Foreclosures

Real estate agent Miguel Martinez peers inside a home in foreclosure in Herndon, an area hit particularly hard by recent home repossessions. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tommy Rice, Arlington County's real estate assessor, spotted something troubling on his computer when he returned to work after a three-week vacation early this year: a half-dozen residential property transactions with an unusual code, the numeral 1, which indicates a foreclosure.

Rice was taken aback, because he had seen that code so infrequently in his 22 years as an assessor in the affluent county.

"It's rare in Arlington and in Northern Virginia, too," he said.

Home repossessions are cropping up almost everywhere in the region, regularly occurring on suburban streets unaccustomed to hard times. In Montgomery County, the foreclosure rate has tripled in a year. In Fairfax County, it has quadrupled. In Loudoun County, it has increased tenfold. In Howard County, there was one foreclosure in 2004; there are 157 so far this year. District officials are reporting a similar trend.

"We're seeing an uptick, and it's fairly dramatic. It appears to be accelerating, and we haven't reached the peak," said John Rust, commissioner of accounts for the Fairfax County Circuit Court. He processes paperwork for foreclosures, a legal proceeding that occurs when a lender takes back a home to sell when a homeowner falls behind on payments.

Foreclosures normally come amid economic downturns, when people lose manufacturing jobs or when regions are devastated by a natural disaster.

The surge in foreclosures, in relatively good times, can be traced to risky, so-called subprime mortgage loans made to people who stretched too far to purchase homes in an inflated real estate market.

In many cases, lenders loosened credit rules for home buyers with bad credit, who made no down payment or who didn't earn enough money to qualify for traditional loans. The lenders charged them higher interest rates, which made the loans more expensive.

The two hardest-hit Zip codes in the region are in Herndon, where 75 homes went into foreclosure in the first five months of the year, up from nine during the same period in 2006, and Fort Washington, where 80 properties were lost to the lender from January through May, double the previous year's five-month rate, according to a real estate information firm, Realtytrak, which studies foreclosures nationally.

Some of the home buyers took these loans knowingly, but others say that they didn't understand that these new and unconventional mortgages were profoundly different from traditional loans and that their payments could double or even triple in a single month.

Bolivian immigrants Marcelo Ortega, a dump truck driver, and his wife, Jenny, who cleans houses, bought a brick-front Colonial in Herndon for $549,000 in February 2006. The payments are $4,200 a month, which grew unbearable as residential construction work slowed and Ortega's income dropped.

The couple tried to sell the house, but the value has fallen to $499,000, and they can't refinance without paying a steep prepayment penalty, something Ortega says they did not know or understand.

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