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Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Foreclosure has huge impact on seniors

Marketplace Staff Aug 14, 2009
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Foreclosure has huge impact on seniors

Marketplace Staff Aug 14, 2009


TESS VIGELAND: When you think of homeowners facing foreclosure, what’s the picture in your head? Young homebuyers, maybe first-timers who got mortgages they could neither understand nor afford.

Well a recent study by the AARP found there’s no age limit attached to losing your home. In fact, nearly a third of all Americans who are in or near foreclosure are 50 or older. The threat of losing your home at any point is tough, but the older you get the worse it can be.

Krissy Clark of American Radioworks has our story.

Jim Beltran: Hello, Hi. Where are you going?

Customer: Hilton.

Jim Beltran is stocky guy with a perfectly bald head and a big, warm smile. He smiles a lot. Even in the middle of a slow day at work.

Jim is a shuttle bus driver, he ferries tourists…

Jim lifting luggage: Oh god.

…and their luggage…

Jim: Some of them don’t know how to pack.

…to their hotels up and down the Las Vegas strip. But there are fewer people on the Strip these days, fewer people on Jim’s buses and he’s making less money.

Jim: This is the Venetian! Venetian!

Jim is 76. He has a heart condition. And frankly, he thought he’d be retired by now.

Jim: And the only reason why I still drive and pull myself up in the morning is, if they’re to ask me, “Do you have a job?” I’m able to say yes.

They is Jim ‘s mortgage company, Countrywide. He wants to look good for them so they’ll consider modifying the terms of his home loan. It’s one of those adjustable rate deals, and the payments just jumped from $1,700 to $2,000 a month. Jim can’t afford it. So he’s trying to get the bank to reduce his payments. But unless he’s employed, he won’t qualify for help.

Jim’s not the only 70-something who’s found himself in a sticky housing situation like this. In fact, seniors as a whole have taken on more housing debt in the last decade than in earlier generations.

Dean Baker: These are people at an age where you would expect them to have largely paid off their house and in many cases, they’re very far from it.

Dean Baker runs the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington D.C.

Baker: Older Americans acted pretty much like everyone else did. They assumed that the run-up that the housing bubble would persist, so they either didn’t put as much money into their homes as they might’ve otherwise or in many cases, they actually took money out of their homes, because they saw their prices rising, 10, 15, 20 percent a year.

That’s exactly what Jim Beltran did: Cashed out some of his home equity to pay off credit-card bills and do some landscaping. He planned to refinance before his monthly payments jumped up, but that wasn’t an option once the real-estate market collapsed. Now he and his wife, Ruth Marie, owe more on their house than its worth.

They’ve drained their retirement savings trying to keep up with the payments. And the house that was supposed to support them in retirement, is more like a ball and chain around their necks.

Ruth Marie: We’ll just go down the stairs here.

Still, Jim Beltran and Ruth Marie love their ball and chain. It’s a small three-bedroom house in the suburbs of Las Vegas.

Ruth Marie: Our patio is out that door there.

The place has high ceilings and lots of windows.

Ruth Marie: So bright and light.

Jim: And we love the house

Ruth Marie: And it’s such a joy to wake up in the morning and come in to a nice bright living room. I never get used to it, doesn’t get boring

It’s not just the house that the Beltrans love, it’s what it represents. They bought this place 10 years ago, after a long climb out of near poverty. Jim had a janitorial business that failed in the last recession; Ruth Marie got colon cancer. They fell deep into debt.

Beltran: Honey what were we eating?

Ruth Marie: Top ramen and hot dogs.

Beltran: Top ramen and hot dogs and renting apartments.

But they found a way to start over. Got new jobs, saved money and eventually bought this house.

Now that they can’t afford it, they’re trying to figure out what to do next.

Dean Baker: Well you don’t have a lot of options at that point in your life.

Here is economist Dean Baker again.

Baker: Some of them are fortunate enough to be in good health, but even if they are, it’s not easy for them certainly to find a good paying job. You know, a lot of us may still be able to turn to parents and borrow some money, well, odds are if you’re in your late 60s, 70s, you don’t have parents you can turn to.

These days a lot of younger folks in their situation are just walking away from their homes. But that doesn’t seem right to Jim and Ruth Marie.

Ruth Marie: It’s really foreign when you’ve been raised to pay what you owe. You make the bill you pay it.

Jim: Within 20 years, I’ll be old and feeble or maybe I’ll be dead. So at least I’m able to enjoy myself having my own home, right honey?

Ruth Marie: I think so.

Jim worries that if he and his wife go into foreclosure at their age, they’ll never own a home. Still, giving the house back to the bank might be their only option. The Beltrans just found out that they’ve been turned down for a loan modification, because of some missing paperwork. They’re refiling, but while they wait for an answer, Jim’s rethinking foreclosure as a money saving tool.

Since there’s such a backlog of foreclosures in Las Vegas, banks can take more than a year to evict homeowners. In the mean time, the Beltrans can live for free in their house.

Jim: So by the time they tell us to get out of here, we’d have saved close to $20,000. We’ll find a rental and just live on our retirement.

Not exactly the retirement plan he’d been expecting, but in this economy, that’s to be expected.

In Las Vegas, I’m Krissy Clark for Marketplace Money.

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