Foreclosure 101: How to Protect Yourself

What to Do If You Find Yourself in Financial Trouble With Your Home

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Buying a home is typically a happy milestone. You've crossed a major threshold. You've achieved a life milestone. You feel optimistic and confident about the future. 

I don't mean to throw cold water on your party, but I'd like to extend a note of caution. 

The reality is that millions of homeowners have wound up in foreclosure. Many of these people once felt as happy and optimistic about their purchase as you do. After all, when you purchase a home, the idea that that house might one day be subject to foreclosure is perhaps the last thing on your mind. 

How can you avoid this risk? Read on. 

Why Do Homeowners Lose Their Homes?

Most homes fall into foreclosure after the owner defaults – or stops making full payments - on their mortgage loan. How does this happen?

Sometimes, this happens because the owner overextended, buying more home than they could reasonably afford. Likewise, the lender also offered a loan to an unqualified buyer; someone who shouldn't have been awarded a home loan of that size. (Prior to the recession, many lenders didn't verify a person's income before awarding a loan. Not surprisingly, many loan applicants pretended that they earned more money than they actually did.)

Other times, the owner defaults after they're hit with a series of unexpected life events, such as losing their job or facing major medical bills, which affects their ability to make their monthly mortgage payment. 

In some cases, the owner took out a second mortgage and spent the money on liabilities (rather than income-generating assets), which decreased their overall net worth and harmed their ability to repay on the second note. 

In other cases, the owner accepts an adjustable-rate mortgage, assuming that they'll be able to meet the payment obligation if the rate rises. (Federal law requires the lender to disclose the maximum interest rate that the owner might pay under the terms of their adjustable-rate mortgage note.) The owner enjoys low introductory interest rates for a while, but when those rates rise, the owner discovers that meeting those payments is harder than they'd anticipated, and falls into arrears. 

And in many cases, the homeowner realizes that he or she is "underwater" on their mortgage (a concept we'll discuss below) and concludes that walking away is the most reasonable choice.

As you can see, there are many reasons why owners fall behind on their payments. 

How Can You Protect Yourself?

Nobody likes to think about the process of potentially facing foreclosure. But we must take a hard look at risk factors that might lead us toward the threat of foreclosure if we want to develop a strong, responsible approach to our personal finances.  

In addition, we must also understand how the foreclosure process works so that if our future took a turn for the worse, we would have some idea as to what might lay ahead. This will help us know what other options we can choose from.  

In this article, we'll first cover the major risk factors that might lead to foreclosure and then dive into the actual process.

Risks That Lead to Foreclosure

Approximately 7 million people lost their homes during the Great Recession, according to CBS News

While the number of foreclosures has slowed since then, many homeowners are still in trouble. As of the end of 2015, approximately 4.3 million homeowners were underwater, meaning that the homeowner owns a home that's worth less than the amount they owe on their mortgage.  

Being underwater on your home is one of the biggest risk factors indicating foreclosure. After all, if the home is worth less than the balance owed, you may conclude that it simply makes more sense to walk away. 

Before you make that decision, though, here's a word of warning: walking away holds major implications for your credit. It can harm your ability to buy another home in the future, as well as your ability to rent homes, open credit cards, borrow on other types of loans, and even qualify for certain jobs.

What should you do if your home is underwater? You might want to hold onto the home and wait for the property to regain its value. If you need to move, you could rent the home to a tenant. Alternately, if you must sell the home, you could ask your lender for short sale approval (we'll discuss this below) or bring cash to the closing table.

What if you're not underwater but you're struggling to make payments?

First, before you purchase a home, buy a less expensive home than the one for which you qualify. You don't need to buy a home priced at the maximum amount of the loan that you qualify to receive. 

Many people within the real estate industry say that your mortgage itself should gobble up one-third of your take-home pay. This figure doesn't include repairs, maintenance, utilities and other ancillary costs. However, that figure might be too high. Try this approach, instead: as a general rule of thumb, aim for all of your home-related payments, including utilities, repairs, and maintenance, to come to about 25 to 30 percent of your take-home pay. 

On top of that, maintain an emergency fund that covers at least six months of your expenses. Keep this emergency fund in a cash-based savings account, rather than in any types of investments (like stocks). Do not tap this for holidays, birthdays, or annual expenses. Preserve this only for true emergencies.

If you find yourself struggling to make payments, begin drastically cutting expenses in various areas of your life. You're in the midst of a financial crisis; spend like it. Don't just cut your cable; sell the entire TV. Don't just brown-bag your lunch; switch to a college student rice-and-beans diet until you're back on your feet. Earn extra money in every spare second of your evenings and weekends with freelance work, which you can handle online from home while your children are asleep. See if you're eligible to refinance into a lower-interest-rate mortgage

If you fall behind on your payments and you don't think you can catch up, it's time to sell your home. Selling your home is far preferable to foreclosure.

If your home is worth less than the amount you owe, you'll need your lender's approval for a short sale. A short sale is a sale of the home in which the borrower receives less than they currently owe. The lender loses the difference.

If the lender realizes that they are more likely to recoup their losses through a short sale than through a traditional foreclosure process, they will allow the borrower to proceed with listing their property as a short sale.

Short sales are one way to avoid facing the credit repercussions of a full-scale foreclosure, but they aren’t ideal. Keep this in your back pocket as a last resort.

With all that being said, let's talk about the actual foreclosure process. As you are about to see, the foreclosure process is rather lengthy and there are multiple opportunities within this process in which you can attempt to release your home through a short sale, rather than a foreclosure.  

Let's look at the process so that you can understand what's happening along each step of the way.

The Foreclosure Process

First, a disclaimer: the process varies state-by-state. In some states, the lender holds power of sale and can pursue a "non-judicial foreclosure." The following process outlined below is a highly generalized description of the judicial foreclosure process in some states. If you find yourself facing possible foreclosure, talk to an attorney.  

Once a borrower defaults on their mortgage payments, the lender can then file a public default notice, also known as a ​Notice of Default or Lis Pendens. This publicly filed Notice of Default alerts the borrower that there has been a breach of an agreement. 

After the borrower has received the Notice of Default, they have a grace period, determined by state law, in which they can reinstate their loan by paying off the outstanding overdue balance and getting caught up to date with their mortgage payments. This grace period is known as pre-foreclosure. 

Pre-foreclosure is the time period between the Notice of Default and when a property may be repossessed or sold at public auction. During this grace period, the borrower has a few options to get up to date on their loan: 

  1. The borrower can make their payments up-to-date and reinstate their loan by paying the overdue balances.
  2. They can apply for a loan modification to reduce their mortgage payments.
  3. They can try to sell the property to a third party to avoid foreclosure. 
  4. They can allow the property to be sold at a pre-foreclosure public auction. 

If the borrower is unable to reinstate their loan, the lender has the ability to repossess the property and take ownership with the intent to re-sell the property. Properties that have been repossessed by the lender (usually a bank) become known as Real Estate Owned (REO). 

The Bottom Line 

Follow a few basic guidelines to reduce your risk of facing a personal mortgage crisis: buy significantly less home than you can afford. Keep an emergency fund with at least six months worth of expenses.

Create multiple streams of income, so that if one source dries up, your income won't fall to zero. Avoid non-mortgage consumer debts, like car loans or credit card debt. Understand how the process works, so that you won't fall into any surprises.

With that being said, enjoy your home. The vast majority of homeowners don't experience foreclosure. You're savvy enough to take a pro-active look at the major risk factors that lead to this unfortunate experience so that you can safeguard against those. And those safeguards, by and large, revolve around the timeless personal finance principle of living below your means.