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Lenders go after money lost in foreclosures

Somers said her family hung onto the house as long as possible. They tried but failed to sell it when her husband was transferred to Arizona for his job in early 2006, just as home prices were softening. They moved back into the house then tried to sell it again in 2008, after their adjustable-rate mortgage reset and their monthly mortgage payment nearly doubled. But home prices had plunged further by then, making it even tougher to sell.

Last year, their first lender and their home-equity line lender granted permission for the short sale. But the second lender reserved the right to come after the couple. Six months later, a collection agency called demanding $85,000 for related losses.

In hindsight, Somers said she and her husband should have just walked away from the house. "We took care of the house because we wanted it to sell," Somers said. "If they were going to come after us anyway, we shouldn't have done them the favor of making sure it looked good and cutting the grass even after we moved out, We should have mailed them the key and said: 'Here you go.' "

Carlos Cortez and his wife managed to escape that fate after their second lender came after them for $70,000 when their short sale was completed on his Manassas Park townhouse in 2008.

Cortez knew that was a possibility, but he went through with the sale because his real estate agent said the lender was engaging in scare tactics.

James Scruggs, an attorney at Legal Services of Northern Virginia, said the lender appears to have backed off after Cortez argued that that the loan officer falsely qualified him and his wife for a home-equity line by fabricating key details about their finances.

A handful of states do not allow lenders to pursue deficiencies, nor does a federal program that took effect April 10. Lenders participating in that initiative are paid for approving short sales and as a condition, they cannot go after outstanding debt.

In many states, lenders can go after deficiencies, though laws vary widely, said John Rao, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Some states limit how long the banks have to file a claim or collect the debt. Others may calculate deficiencies based on the fair-market value of the house, Rao said. For instance, if a home sells for $200,000 yet its fair market value is $250,000, "the borrower who owes $240,000 on the mortgage would not have a deficiency," he said.

Borrowers should get a waiver in writing from their lenders to protect themselves, said Diane Cipollone, an attorney at the nonprofit Civil Justice. "Nobody should assume the deficiency is forgiven," she said.


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