If you're lying awake at night, fretting about whether you'll lose your house to foreclosure, you may not be the only insomniac on your block.
More than 2.1 million Americans with home loans missed at least one payment last year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Even more troubling, the rate of new foreclosures hit a record.
The problem is likely to get worse. As adjustable-rate mortgages adjust to higher rates, many borrowers are finding they can't afford their payments. And the collapse of the subprime market has made it harder for those with tarnished credit to refinance.
But be aware: Even if your mortgage has become an intolerable burden, letting the bank foreclose could lead to a lifetime of hurt. Losing your home is just the beginning. A foreclosure will wreck your credit report for years, making it impossible — or at least extremely expensive — to buy another home.
Many borrowers who lose their homes to foreclosure haven't tried to negotiate with their lenders. That's unfortunate, because lenders are usually willing to work with borrowers to avoid foreclosure, says John Lamb, co-author of "Solve Your Money Troubles." "Lenders are going to be more willing to work with people, because it doesn't do anybody good to have a glut of foreclosed houses on the market."
Ideally, you should call your lender before you miss your first payment, says Bob Walters, chief economist for Quicken Loans. If your payment is due on the first of the month, call before the 15th, which he says is usually when your lender will report the late payment to credit-reporting agencies. Once your loan is declared in default, typically after you've missed three or four payments, you're "past the point of no return," Walters says. Unless you can come up with the money to cover all your missed payments, plus any late fees, your lender will start foreclosure.
If you're suffering a temporary financial setback, your lender may offer programs that will help you get back on track. They include:
# Forbearance. This is an agreement that lets borrowers make a reduced payment, or none, for a specific period. You might have to make larger payments once the crisis has passed. To qualify, you might need to show that you're expecting a bonus, a tax refund or other income that will let you catch up.
# Reinstatement. You agree to pay the full amount of your missed payments by a specific date. Reinstatement is sometimes combined with forbearance.
# Modification. Your lender agrees to change the terms of the loan to make payments more affordable. Your lender may agree to add missed payments to your loan balance or extend the term of your loan, reducing the size of your payments.
Before asking for forbearance or loan modification, be prepared to show that you are making a good-faith effort to pay your mortgage.
If you're in a home you can't afford, loan forbearance won't help. But even if you have to move, you can take steps to avoid foreclosure:
# Put your home up for sale. This may be the best choice, Walters says, if you've been in your home for several years and have built up some equity. The proceeds from the sale might cover your mortgage and selling costs.
# If you have no equity or your local real estate market is depressed, ask your lender to consider a "short sale" where the lender agrees to accept the proceeds from the sale of your home, even if they don't cover the amount you owe.
# Ask your lender to accept a deed in lieu of foreclosure. If you can't sell, your lender may agree to take the deed to your home and cancel your debt.
There's one serious drawback to a short sale or a deed in lieu of foreclosure: You could find yourself stuck with a hefty tax bill. In most cases, debt forgiven by a lender is considered taxable income.
So why opt for a short sale or a title transfer instead of foreclosure? For one thing, foreclosure won't get you off the hook, either. If the lender sells your foreclosed house for less than you owe, it might sue you for the balance. And if the lender writes off the remaining debt, you could still end up with a tax bill, Roth says.
Though a short sale or a title transfer will hurt your credit report, you might still be able to work with your lender to reduce the damage — which isn't possible with a foreclosure, Lamb says.