On the House: There's help for older homeowners facing delinquency

Posted: August 13, 2012

I prefer to write about issues through real people willing to speak on the record, but even the folks at AARP acknowledge that those of us in financial distress, especially in my age group, feel uncomfortable about sharing the intimate details of our money problems.

If you don't, see my contact information at the end of this column.

Here's the topic: AARP's Public Policy Institute says more than 1.5 million older Americans have lost their homes since 2007.

The study also found that the percentage of seriously delinquent mortgages - those in foreclosure and loans with payments 90 or more days past due - increased from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 6 percent as of December 2011 for people 50 and older, a more-than-fivefold increase, the institute says.

As of December 2011, 600,000 loans were in foreclosure and 625,000 were 90 or more days delinquent. Also as of December, 16 percent of loans belonging to people 50 and older - 3.5 million loans - were "underwater," meaning that the amounts owed on their mortgages were greater than the properties' value.

Let me add that about 23 percent of the nation's mortgages (as opposed to homeowners, a much larger number) are underwater.

That's less than in 2011, but it adds up to about 11 million of the 45 million or so mortgages out there.

Though the serious-delinquency rates are lower for those age 50 and older than for those under 50, serious delinquencies increased faster for the older population over the last five years.

The study also found that people 75 and older have a higher foreclosure rate - 3.2 percent - than those 50 to 64 (3 percent) or those age 65 to 74 (2.6 percent).

"Older homeowners often rely on their home equity to finance their needs in retirement - things like health care, home maintenance and other unexpected needs. The fact that so many older Americans have no equity at all is troubling," said Debra Whitman, AARP's vice president for policy.

What should seniors be doing to remain in their homes?

If you think that you may be facing trouble, talk to your mortgage lender - now. Many lenders may be willing to work with you to set up a new payment plan that you can live with. It will be easier to negotiate before you get too far behind in your payments.

Talk with a housing counselor to help you work out a budget and find ways to manage those payments. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, can connect you with free and reputable Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved housing counselors. Go to www.consumerfinance.gov/mortgagehelp.

Talk with a credit counselor. One way to locate a credit-counseling organization is to contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling Inc. at www.nfcc.org. NFCC's members are nonprofit counseling agencies. Good counselors should sit down with you, preferably face-to-face.

Explore government programs. Under the "Making Home Affordable Program," you may be eligible to modify or refinance your loan. You can visit www.makinghomeaffordable.gov or call the Homeowner's HOPE Hotline at 1-888-995-4673.

Look for a new loan. Even if you're not eligible for the "Making Home Affordable Program," check with reputable lenders to see whether there's a way to replace your zero-interest or adjustable-rate mortgage with a fixed-rate loan.

Watch out for predators who want to take advantage of struggling homeowners. Visit www.loanscamalert.org to learn more.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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