Renegotiating a bad mortgage

A mortgage application

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: There's been a lot of finger-wagging throughout this whole subprime mess. Many of you wrote to tell us that people who got bad mortgages should have been more careful, should've paid closer attention to the details.

Well, there is always an argument for personal responsibility, but sometimes even the best intentions can go off the rails.

Alisa Roth has this story about what to do if you're stuck with an ugly loan term.


Alisa Roth: Under the red and green glow of a "Seasons Greetings" sign, two mechanical reindeer graze on the icy lawn of Nerida Cuccia's home in Queens. On the door hangs a wreath and just inside is a carefully decorated Christmas tree. The festive decor masks Nerida Cuccia's anger.

Nerida Cuccia: I've heard about this. I thought I was too smart to be caught in this. The first person I called, I said, I feel like an absolute idiot. And I'm not. I'm a professional. I've worked all my life. I've done numbers, I was excellent in math. You know, I'd treat the math a hundred times before I thought this would be a good idea.

This is a mortgage she got to refinance her house, a simple three bedroom affair she shares with her husband, two grown children and 3-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter. The retired nurse practitioner wasn't in any hurry to refinance the place which she's owned for 27 years, but when a mortgage broker offered her 2.25 percent fixed, it was too good to pass up.

Except when she got the first bill, she realized the offer was terribly misleading and her monthly payments had actually tripled.

John Taylor: At the end of the day what's happening is these very nice smooth-talking, clever, genteel salesmen are convincing people "this is the loan for you and this is the way everybody's doing it."

John Taylor is president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a non-profit group that tries to bring private money to underserved communities.

He says we shouldn't blame consumers like Cuccia for their mistakes.

Taylor: What's changed is not the ignorance or intelligence of the American public. It's the ethics of the mortgage-lending industry.

Taylor says he's worried the president's new plan to help subprime buyers doesn't go far enough to curb questionable lending practices and he thinks the administration's being too optimistic about how many people will be eligible for help under it.

Housing advocates like Taylor say a big problem is a lot of people don't even realize their mortgage is going to reset and that stack of papers you sign at the closing seems so permanent. Is there really anything to do if you find yourself with a less than ideal mortgage?

Maybe. A lot of bad mortgages carry hefty penalties for paying them off early and even if you feel like you were duped, if you signed the papers, you may be stuck.

A good place to start is with a lawyer or a local housing advocacy group to help you figure out the actual terms of your loan. Then you can try to get it rewritten.

Sarah Ludwig: People are encouraged very very strongly to contact their mortgage servicer, the entity to which they make their mortgage payments.

Sarah Ludwig heads NEDAP, a New York non-profit that focuses on economic issues.

Ludwig: It's sometimes very hard to get through to servicers and not all servicers are going to take the call and work with borrower, but the homeowner should try to get in touch with the servicer and say "look, I have a resetting mortgage and please work with me to modify this loan."

She says many mainstream lenders are still willing to refinance in spite of all the talk about credit drying up. That's especially for borrowers who should've qualified for prime loans to begin with. And Ludwig says some states have special funds designed to help people avoid foreclosure.

As for Nerida Cuccia, she's trying to make an agreement with her lender. And angry as she is, she realizes she's one of the lucky ones. She only stands to lose a lot of money out of the deal, not her home.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace Money.

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