A helping hand for those in danger of losing homes

Special to The Times

As foreclosures continue tracking relentlessly higher, nationally and in California, the advice dispensed by David M. Petrovich in "Fight Foreclosure!" could not be more timely, more astute -- or more welcome.

He writes of an estimated 2 million families nationwide in danger of losing their homes, a figure that seems to tally with the grim figures in California. DataQuick Information Systems has put the state's foreclosure activity "at record levels" and reported that in March almost 38% of Southland sales were foreclosed homes.

Petrovich has a winning bedside manner, not sugarcoating bad news but not throwing up his hands in despair either. There is much homeowners can do when threatened with foreclosure, and he sets out the various options clearly and honestly.

The author's other big advantage is that he really knows his subject. He has spent 25 years working with troubled homeowners and co-founded the New Jersey-based consumer advocacy nonprofit Society for the Preservation of Continued Homeownership.

Petrovich, the agency's executive director, writes as if he's much more interested in helping people than in selling books, displaying an empathy for those in trouble that perhaps stems from his own very close brushes with foreclosure.

He tells the moving story of his father-in-law's losing his home in foreclosure and the resulting effect on his wife's family; then Petrovich himself, as the result of an injury and later a job loss, twice narrowly escaped the same fate.

Drawing on these personal and professional experiences, Petrovich dispenses solid advice: Be honest with yourself and your lender. Don't make promises you can't keep. Act fast. Explore all options. Document and file everything. Don't sign anything you don't fully understand. Beware of scams.

The golden rule is to act fast -- the race against foreclosure is a race against the clock. Communication with the lender is crucial, and Petrovich outlines ways of persuading a lender to modify loan terms, enabling the homeowner to afford the mortgage payments and stay in the house.

Alternatively, an owner may use the time it takes to foreclose -- about four months in California -- to sell, with the aim of preserving equity and credit rating. Petrovich suggests smart ways to speed this process, starting with a realistic sales price.

Bankruptcy can stop foreclosure in its tracks, but the author takes time to explain the downside. Strong defense against foreclosure is also provided under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which gives special foreclosure protection to armed services personnel who are, or have recently been, on active duty.

Petrovich points out some shrewd defenses under the Truth in Lending Act in which just trying to establish who owns the loan may be an effective barrier to foreclosure.

"The complexities of mortgage loan securitization cast a shadow of doubt on who has the legal right to foreclose," he says.

Under the act, evidence of predatory lending may present a stout defense against foreclosure, as can any number of mistakes or omissions of a technical nature.

"A tiny error made (even innocently) by the lender may be grounds to stop foreclosure," writes Petrovich, suggesting that an attorney can best help unravel those fine legal points.

Many homeowners are vulnerable when it comes to opportunists who begin circling at the first whiff of foreclosure. Petrovich details several popular scams and gives cautionary tips on how to recognize and avoid them.

For further support, this excellent book lists online addresses for Department of Housing and Urban Development offices in every state plus other websites to which worried homeowners can turn.

Petrovich assures readers that financial troubles and foreclosure are nothing to be ashamed of.

"The only shame is in not doing something about it," he says.

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