QUESTION: What advice can you offer to persons who are behind in their mortgage payments due to loss of employment? I am currently three months behind, and my mortgage payments are over $800 a month. I feel certain that I could bring may payments current if given sufficient time.

ANSWER: You may not like my answer, but I have to call them as I see them.

You are currently three months in arrears, owing more than $2,400, and are also out of a job. Do you really think that you will be able to become current on your debts in the relatively near future?

Maybe you should give serious thought to selling your property. Interest rates appear to be reasonable, and clearly the real estate market has improved significantly. While I personally remain optimistic about the future, it may very well be that we will once again see a "soft" or bad real estate market later this year or early next year. In any event, this is a good time to sell, and it is an option which you immediately should consider.

Obviously, this answer is a very general one, and your individual circumstances must be considered before making the monumental decision to sell. For example, if your unemployment situation is only a seasonal (temporary) one, or if you are about to pick up a very good job, you would be foolish to sell. Also, if you are about to inherit a large sum of money, that also should be taken into consideration. But don't rely on winning a local lottery, for you may find your house foreclosed out from under in the interim.

The first thing you should do is discuss the matter with your lender. To the extent possible, make an appointment with a senior loan officer at the company which holds (or services) your mortgage, and discuss the entire situation. Find out what their policies are with respect to delinquent payments. Will they permit partial payments? Will they give you a moratorium on payments for a length of time -- perhaps three months -- to enable you to try to get back on your financial feet?

It should be pointed out that, if this is a VA- or FHA-insured mortgage, certain rules and procedures must be followed before a lender can foreclose. You also might be entitled to consumer credit counseling, but this is the subject of another column.

Don't wait for the last moment before trying to resolve your situation. Manna may fall from the heavens, but it may not. You must begin to show yourself and your lender that you are concerned about the situation and that you are taking steps to attempt to correct it. For example, listing your house with a real estate broker (or advertising it yourself for sale) will give a lender some comfort, and they may refrain from taking any immediate foreclosure steps.

Discuss your situation, openly and candidly, with your relatives and friends. Perhaps a member of your family will come to your assistance and lend you some money to tide you over your crisis. But if they don't know about the situation, they certainly cannot help you.

You also might want to consider selling a portion of your property to a relative, a friend, or even a stranger. A shared-equity program will give an outside investor significant tax benefits, and yet permit you to retain a portion of the title and also continue to stay in your property. Shared equity is a very complex area, and the Internal Revenue Service has not yet adopted final regulations covering this subject. However, it is an area to be explored and considered.

Finally, if your mortgage lender is threatening foreclosure, you may want to consider filing for bankruptcy. This sould not be used as an excuse to delay a foreclosure. It is a step which you should seriously consider. You should discuss the ramifications of bankruptcy with a competent financial planner and your own attorney.

Foreclosure should be avoided at all costs. Don't wait until it is too late.