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Amid mortgage mess, owners blindsided

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By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:53 AM

After Valarie Stovall fell behind on the mortgage on her home near Hagerstown, her lender agreed in April to slash her monthly payment by $300, and she immediately started paying the reduced amount.

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That's why, Stovall said, she thought nothing of the yellow flier she ripped off her screen door as she returned from the grocery store one afternoon last July.

"Then I read it and went 'Oh my God,'" she said. "It was a notice of eviction."

Across the country, struggling homeowners are increasingly tripped up by mortgage lenders that press ahead with foreclosures regardless of any effort they make to provide borrowers with relief on unaffordable mortgages.

Amid the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, mortgage companies have established a dual-track approach toward troubled homeowners, negotiating with them over loan modifications while trying to seize their homes.

Top government officials have been urging lenders to redouble their efforts at modifying burdensome loans and have barred lenders from foreclosing on homeowners who are seeking to rework their mortgages under a federal program. Mortgage companies, however, have continued to pursue this two-track strategy, with a widening toll especially on those homeowners who have been trying to resolve their mortgage difficulties before they snowball, according to federal and state officials and consumer advocates.

During the last month, several major lenders have temporarily halted thousands of foreclosure cases amid reports that fraudulent court documents and improper procedures have been used to evict people from their homes. But disarray within the mortgage industry goes much further. And the foreclosure pause has done little to address the common industry practice of taking homes from people who'd been led to believe they could save them.

"It's still happening everywhere," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who has tried to bar the dual-track process in his state, one of the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. "It's one of the largest complaints I get. . . . The lenders need to make a choice. What do they want: a foreclosure or a loan modification?"

In Centreville, Woodrow Roberts III said he enrolled last October in a loan modification program with Bank of America. At the time, he was still current on his $3,000-a-month payments but wanted some relief until he could find a second job. The bank agreed to trim the monthly payment by $600 for a three-month trial period and consider Roberts for a permanent modification, he recalled.

After three months, he said, he heard nothing from the bank. "I called in every week to see the status of my loan," Roberts said. "After a year of phone calls and no real information, I received a letter in the mail." It said he had been rejected for a modification and that he owed more than $8,800 - the total he'd thought his payments had been reduced over the course of the year plus fees. If he didn't pay, the letter warned, his home would be sold at a foreclosure auction Nov. 12.

"If I knew this type of program could risk everything, I would have never entered into this program," Roberts said. He explained he can't afford to pay the sum demanded all at once and hasn't been allowed to spread it out over time.

In response to a reporter's question about the case, Bank of America spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens said Roberts was turned down for a permanent loan modification under the federal program because his income was too high to qualify. But she said the bank is now reviewing whether he is eligible for alternative relief.


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