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American Nightmare: Homeowners get reality check as more slip into foreclosure

LAWRENCEVILLE

or several years now, the U.S. housing market, fueled by low interest rates, has given rise to the notion that almost anyone can seize the American Dream.

But home ownership counselors such as Joselyn Torres know the downside of that widespread optimism, where the exuberance of first-time homebuyers crashes into reality.

Every day she helps people who didn't plan for job loss, salary cuts and other unfortunate financial twists that left them unable pay their home loans. They face foreclosure, the legal process banks use to take back a house when the mortgage isn't paid.

Foreclosures are an ongoing problem in metro Atlanta, more than doubling in less than five years, according to home ownership advocate group NeighborWorks America.

A few years ago, Torres dealt with the situation herself.

When her ex-husband lost his six-figure job as an information technology consultant amid the dot-com crash, they couldn't make their mortgage payments. They filed bankruptcy and tried to claw their way back, but eventually lost their $250,000 home.

Torres made the same mistake many first-time homebuyers do.

"We didn't allow for a financial cushion in case something bad happened and we had to sustain ourselves," said the 35-year-old counselor with Gwinnett-based IMPACT! Group, a nonprofit whose aims include giving people the financial wisdom to keep their homes.

"We bought that home based on an illusion that we could afford it," Torres said.

In recent years, foreclosures have plagued many parts of the United States. Gwinnett is no exception.

The county ranked third behind only Fulton and DeKalb every year since 2000 in foreclosures, according to the Atlanta-based real estate tracking firm EquiSystems LLC. Gwinnett saw 5,122 foreclosures last year, 5,130 in 2004 and 4,735 the year before.

People who study the industry say many reasons lie behind the trend - layoffs, pay cuts, increasing medical expenses, even abusive lending practices.

Many metro Atlanta foreclosures are focused in urban, lower-income, minority communities filled with older houses, according to a 2005 NeighborWorks Amercia report.

But even affluent homeowners can lose the battle. Sometimes $1 million homes are put on the auction bock.

Lately, Torres sees more homebuyers with adjustable rate mortgages whose payments are increasing by $300 to $500 a month, forcing them to consider selling their home rather than give it back to the bank.

Their loan payments are soaring because the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates over the past several months.

"A lot just aren't prepared for that kind of jump," Torres said.

However, more than any other factor of late, home-ownership advocates blame the high number of foreclosures on the combination of lenders making it easier to borrow money and overly enthusiastic homebuyers biting off more debt than they can chew.

During last month's Gwinnett economic forum, county economist Alfie Meek explained a troubling trend to Gwinnett business and civic leaders.

In 2001, interest-only mortgages - a loan that opens doors for many first-time home buyers - made up less than 5 percent of all mortgages nationwide. Last year, they made up 45 percent.

At the same time, the U.S. personal savings rate has been generally declining over the past 25 years.

"Most Americans don't plan for a setback," said IMPACT! Group Executive Director Marina Sampanes Peed. "They want that first home now, and there seems to be a mortgage product for everybody."

Robert Beal, who launched an Atlanta mortgage firm a year ago, said even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan acknowledged the risk of an over-exuberant home lending business.

The U.S. housing industry is filled with pressure to create more opportunities for the average homeowner, "a real chance to reach that American Dream," Beal said.

But there's a flip side to the argument.

"You still need to be responsible in managing your finances, allowing yourself a fall back in case the circumstances change," Beal said.

Homeowners like Torres learned the lesson the hard way. Now, she teaches a "Home Investment Academy" and similar classes that offer homeowners basic financial management.

Enrollment is up about 50 percent over last year.

"If I knew then what I do now," Torres said, "I never would have gone through foreclosure in the first place."