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Foreclosures Through the Roof

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(Left) Unemployed, Richard Isaiah’s chances of getting a loan modification for his fixed-rate mortgage are slim. (Right) Dorothy Lotenero and her son, Rick, fight back after she was swindled into refinancing her home. — Jason Florio

Rodney Barber got laid off from his job at a television station in September on the same date he was hired 26 years ago. He collects unemployment, but it doesn't cover his daily living expenses. Now the 50-year-old broadcast technician, who's trying to get his fixed-rate mortgage modified, worries that he is just months away from losing his three-bedroom home in suburban Atlanta.

Across the country in Visalia, Calif., 81-year-old Dorothy Lotenero fears she'll be thrown out of her home of 38 years, the place where she raised her family. The soft-spoken retiree, who lives on $1,600 a month, can't afford the $2,200 payment that her interest-only mortgage will soon rise to. She's now waiting to hear if the bank will go through with a threat to foreclose.

Troubled homeowners like Barber and Lotenero may benefit from a foreclosure freeze that many lenders put in place this fall after discovery of widespread irregularities in legal paperwork. But the relief is unlikely to last.

When it comes to foreclosures, "it doesn't change the overall prognosis," says Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at RealtyTrac, a California listing firm. By his projections, it may well be 2014 before the foreclosure inventory is cleared out and home prices start rising again.

Meanwhile, bank repossessions are running at a record high. Nearly 100,000 homes were seized in August alone as the foreclosure crisis continued its assault on American neighborhoods.

The economic downturn, with its staggering loss of jobs and income, is the primary cause of the latest round of home ­ owner anguish.

By the end of December, the 2010 toll of foreclosures could be more than 1 million homes, experts predict. That's in addition to some 2.5 million foreclosures since the start of the recession in December 2007.

The second wave is engulfing a different type of homeowner. In the first round, "we saw exotic loans and people overextending themselves, buying expensive homes," says Sharga. "Now we're seeing fixed loans in default by people who simply don't have a job. And there could be a third wave coming, which is the frightening part."

By next year, he says, about $300 billion in adjustable-rate loans will reset to higher payments and interest rates that many borrowers won't be able to afford.

More homes underwater

The economic conditions contributing to the housing collapse show few signs of improving. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, at more than 9 percent, consumer confidence is low, and property values will likely continue to depreciate as more foreclosures add to the housing glut.

According to First American CoreLogic, a Santa Ana, Calif., research firm, declining home values have pushed nearly 25 percent of all mortgaged properties "underwater," meaning they're worth less than the amount owed on them.

For near-retirees who have been depending on the appreciation of their homes to plump up their nest egg, the situation may be even worse. Of mortgaged households headed by people ages 45 to 54, about 30 percent would have to bring money to the table if they sold their home, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. About 15 percent of households headed by adults 55 to 64 were in the same boat.

Some owners of underwater homes are doing what was once unthinkable. Even though they can afford their payments, they're walking away. These so-called strategic defaults are likely to become a growing problem in states with rapidly falling property values like Nevada, where 68 percent of mortgaged properties are underwater; Arizona, with 50 percent; and Florida, with 46 percent.

"Strategic defaults are something we've never had to deal with historically. People have always done everything possible to hang on to their homes," Sharga says.

"I suspect we'll have people looking to strategic defaults if they're a few years away from retirement age, their home value is down by, say, 40 percent," and they won't have enough time for the home to regain its value.

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