Help and hope for the mortgage weary

Crushing house payments are sending Floridians to credit counselors in staggering numbers.

Published May 13, 2007

Until recently the debts that threw many Floridians into credit counseling were the familiar ones: Big cars with big sticker prices, a fondness for designer labels and exotic vacations and unpaid college loans.

But Tampa Bay area credit-counseling agencies say another sort of client is turning up more often at their doors: Homeowners who can't afford their homes.

Easy credit enticed people to trade up to bigger homes. Now they're shelling out hundreds of dollars more a month to keep up with their adjustable rate mortgages. Higher insurance premiums and property taxes also lay in ambush.

Pinellas County bankruptcy lawyer Jay Weller runs affiliated credit-counseling agencies in Clearwater, Tampa and Port Richey. After handling close to 30,000 cases in his career, he insists home debt has never loomed so large.

"I've never had that many people walk away from their houses before," Weller said. "Real estate is playing a larger role in bankruptcy than in the 15 years I've been doing this."

Angel and Myranda Acosta are among the house owners desperate for financial advice. They moved to Pasco County from Oklahoma in 2004 near the height of the housing boom and paid $139,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the Moon Lake Estates neighborhood.

Angel made good money as a Verizon salesman but had bad credit. Myranda made less as an office receptionist but had good credit. They felt lucky to get a loan from Fremont Investment & Loan: 100 percent financing with an adjustable rate mortgage starting at 10 percent.

The $1,810-per-month payment is already a struggle for the 30-something couple and it's set to "bloom out" next year by an undetermined amount. Their income and credit preclude them from refinancing.

"No theme parks for us. We pretty much stay around the house. At least the weather's nice," Myranda Acosta said.

Two homeowning friends recently walked away from their mortgage and moved into apartments. Not the Acostas. They haven't missed a payment, but worry about what will happen next year.

Seeking counsel, the Acostas turned up at a recent workshop in Tampa hosted by the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America. The nonprofit offers refinancing to subprime borrowers facing foreclosure.

"This is our last hope," Myranda Acosta said.

They're far from alone. The national firm RealtyTrac lists 17,147 troubled properties in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. They're properties in preforeclosure, scheduled for auction or seized by the bank.

Many have turned to Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Central Florida. Cities and counties outsource work to the nonprofit agency. Services are free for many people in Clearwater, Largo, Tampa and Pasco.

Making monster house payments on modest salaries has become a Florida ritual. Throw in piles of credit card debt and you have a recipe for financial misery, said CCCS vice president Linda Pichler. Fueled by the housing downturn, Consumer Credit Counseling served a record 8, 000 people last year, mostly in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando.

Most people wait too long - until their home is on the brink of foreclosure - before approaching a counselor, many of whom cut their teeth in banking, Pichler said. One of the biggest mistakes she sees: People who strain to pay off their credit cards but blow off the home loan.

"The mortgage companies are not yelling, so they often get paid last," Pichler said. "Maybe people are still current on their credit card but they're losing their homes."

Horace Morgan, in addition to his realty and mortgage business in Brandon, also dispenses credit counseling for free. Morgan notes that rising home values masked a variety of financial sins. Now falling home values have stripped off the mask.

Four potential clients who called last week all had the same problem: They used their home equity as an ATM and now are almost broke.

"All four owed more money than their homes were worth and all four were behind on their mortgages," Morgan said.

Morgan counsels lifestyle changes: dump the designer clothes and shoes, stop leasing the expensive car, trim foreign travel and eating out each weekend.

"They have to be retrained and change their lifestyle," he said.

Desperate people are vulnerable people, and credit counselors warn of vultures who prey on that weakness. Some sham credit counselors collect money only to damage clients' credit further or else scam people out of their homes.

Last month, a federal jury found five Tampa residents guilty of cheating homeowners into selling their homes to avoid foreclosure, then siphoning off more than $2-million in home equity.

In addition to its "credit rebuilding workshops," CCCS is holding a seminar Thursday in Tampa called the "ABCs of avoiding foreclosure."

"We plan on having these on a pretty regular basis," Pichler said.

Often, consumers can be their own worst enemy. Playing with easy credit can be habit-forming.

"I have people who move their credit score from a 500 to 700 and the first thing they do is buy a new car, " Morgan said. "They make the same mistakes all over again."

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313.