Foreclosure's Final Act

Area Homeowners' Fears Unfold In High-Stakes Courtroom Dramas

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009; Page A01

The court clerk calls his name, and Harry Rexrode, not entirely sure what to do, steps to the defendant's table. He is dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt with dried paint spattered on the sleeves and work boots. He has no attorney.

In a stern tone, Prince George's County Circuit Judge Herman Dawson asks Rexrode whether he knows what is happening to him.

Rexrode, 50, nods his head. "I want to see if I can get a continuance," he says.

Dawson grins, as if amused by Rexrode's use of the legal term. "A continuance? For what?"

"To stay," Rexrode says.

Rexrode is seeking a miracle really, in a place where there are precious few. He is in the county's foreclosure court, asking Dawson to let him remain in the Hyattsville home he has owned since 1997 a little longer before the bank takes it and he is put out in the cold.

In the foreclosure drama between homeowner and lender, this is the final act. Courtrooms such as this across the Washington region are the forums where banks ask judges to grant a default decree so they can take ownership of a home, and people such as Rexrode try to reverse or delay that decision.

They are almost always too late, and tragically ill-equipped to do so. Seated in Dawson's nondescript courtroom, most share a look of puzzlement, fearful about their futures and uncertain of how the legal system works. They sound confused when the judge begins to pepper them with questions about dates of missed payments and when the bank began warning them about default. Few offer any evidence to support their claims.

"Have you talked to a lawyer?" Dawson asks Rexrode.

"I didn't know I needed one," Rexrode responds.

Dawson, who often hears criminal and juvenile cases and has a reputation for toughness, shakes his head. Then he says something he will repeat over and over all day.

"You don't come to court without a lawyer. This is the problem."

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