by Srinivas Rao, ProPublica
ProPublica asked a simple question of more than 700 homeowners dealing with the administration’s mortgage modification program: Knowing what you know now, what tips would you give someone who’s struggling with a mortgage payment?Their advice: Get help, stay organized, and don’t give up.
In total, 718 homeowners, all of whom applied for a loan modification through the Home Affordable Modification Program, volunteered tips and tricks for struggling homeowners. While more than a third of respondents were skeptical about the value of program, the majority of respondents suggested simple steps homeowners should take to survive the process of applying for a modification. Culling through the hundreds of responses, three pieces of advice stood out.
Have you worked for a servicer in a loan modification call center?
Don’t do it alone. The most popular suggestion was a simple one: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One hundred thirty-five respondents advised struggling homeowners to hire lawyers, contact their elected representatives, alert the media and file complaints with a variety of government agencies; they also advised homeowners to rely on emotional support from friends, family and other homeowners in the same situation. As one California homeowner put it, “Find others to talk to, or you will go crazy.”
One of the most recommended resources for struggling homeowners was the HOPE Hotline, at 1-888-995-HOPE. The Treasury Department-sponsored hotline, operated by the nonprofit Homeownership Preservation Foundation, helps connect callers with HUD-approved counselors who can provide struggling homeowners with information and support. Homeowners who suspect their servicer of making mistakes can escalate their case to a special HOPE Hotline team. The Hotline can also connect homeowners to local HUD-approved counselors; homeowners can access the list of counselors directly at HUD’s website.
Stay organized. Research and organization were important themes among respondents, with 125 of them advising homeowners to take notes, to do online research, and to get everything in writing during their campaign to get a loan modification. For many respondents, the process of applying for a loan modification stretched across months, involving an ever-changing parade of customer representatives that 64 percent say gave them contradictory answers at times. Respondents recommended everything from pen and paper to certified mail, phone recorders and video cameras to keep track of the process. As one New Mexico homeowner explained, “document your journey thoroughly — you will never be able to recall or communicate all the madness you will go through.”
Just keep trying. Another 48 homeowners stressed the importance of making mortgage payments by any means possible. Despite what 52 percent of respondents say they were told by their servicer, homeowners do not have to be behind on a mortgage to be eligible for a HAMP modification. By making their monthly payments, however painful, struggling homeowners can prevent themselves from descending into a spiral of debt, and perhaps avoid the loan modification process altogether. As one Massachusetts homeowner put it, “Sell your furniture, car, dog and your soul to the devil to get your mortgage payment. The banks are liars, incompetent and not trustworthy.”
Others offered optimism to those searching for loan modifications, asking struggling homeowners to not give up the fight. Ninety respondents told homeowners that they had to “be relentless,” to “persevere” and to “just keep trying.” Many who stuck with the program remarked that it eventually paid off, with one homeowner saving over $25,000 after treating the application process like “a part-time job.” While most described the struggle as heroic, at least one respondent put her advice bluntly: “It sucks, but stick with it.”
Still others gave homeowners common-sense advice, ranging from tips on how to getting a consistent story from your servicer (by building a relationship with one or two representatives you can reach directly) to how to improve your application’s viability (by watching your spending and not using your ATM card for eating out). One Maryland homeowner spoke for a handful of respondents in stressing the importance of being polite. “Above all, don’t be combative on the phone, or the entire conversation and time spent on hold will be for nothing.”
But some respondents were less hopeful about the value of the program. 193 respondents advised homeowners to steer clear of the program altogether, describing it as “pointless,” “humiliating,” “hopeless” and “not worth the hassle.” “Quit paying, save your money and find an apartment,” said one Nevada homeowner, echoing a common theme of many of the more downtrodden responses. “They’re going to get your house anyway they can.”
To many of these homeowners, the loan mod program is at once deeply frustrating and their best shot at securing their home and financial future. They have spent months, sometimes years, navigating a bureaucratic maze set up by their servicers, all the while in the dark about the final the status of their loan modification.
For struggling homeowners looking to start the process of a loan modification, one Florida homeowner may have had the most practical advice of all: “Pray.”