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In San Diego, not underwater, but I'm bailing fast

Our San Diego County house is where we've raised kids, planted lavender and put down roots. Now, keeping it has turned into the fight of our lives.

March 31, 2009|Candice Reed | Candice Reed has written for The Times and many other publications. She recently co-wrote a book, "Thank You for Firing Me," scheduled for publication in early 2010.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I purchased a three-bedroom ranch-style home in rural northern San Diego County, where the gently rolling hills stretch toward the Pacific Ocean. It had wall-to-wall carpet and avocado green tile in the kitchen.

For 15 of those years, we paid the mortgage on time, raised two children, bought a dog, planted lavender and made friends with the neighbors. We hosted family gatherings, children's birthday parties and even a memorial service. We didn't have much in the way of extra income, drove older-model cars and never quite caught on to the whole buy, buy, buy thing. The trees in our yard grew tall, the children eventually left, and we were empty-nesters.

And then, after 30 years and with no pension or retirement benefits, my husband lost his decent-paying job as the manager of a health food store, replaced by the owner's much younger son. At age 55 and without a college degree, my husband couldn't find another management position in retail, so he took a job for less than $15 an hour but with health benefits. I make my living as a freelance writer and was doing great, so we figured we could make it.

But we couldn't.

Our mortgage payments slipped further and further behind. After 15 years of paying on time, our credit score dipped into the 600s. We sought out refinancing to save our home, but because of our lower income and the fact that I was self-employed, the only refi option for us was a subprime mortgage, complete with what turned out to be killer readjustments down the road.

Sure, we could have sold the house, and, honestly, five years ago, we could have made a killing. But then what? We were born in San Diego, and all our family is here. Should we have moved to Kansas or somewhere more affordable? Perhaps. But it just didn't seem like an option. And it doesn't now.

For the last five years, we have struggled. Checks often came late from publications and clients I wrote for, and sometimes they never came at all, and so, in turn, our mortgage payments were late. Our home slipped into default. We came up with the cash. We paid on time for another year, and then newspapers and magazines began to fade away. And so the mortgage payments were again late.

I have kept in contact with our lender, making deals the devil wouldn't make just to keep our home. There are five houses -- two of them empty -- for sale in our eclectic neighborhood, but after all these years of holding on and hard work, we don't see walking away as an option.

At this point, if we lose the house, we would probably live in our mini-RV. Two baby boomers roaming the country and staying in the driveways of friends and family. It could work, and we are ready for it, but it won't happen. We won't give up.

I'd anxiously been waiting for President Obama's plan, the one the administration is calling "Making Home Affordable," since he came into office. I've checked in with all the bureaucracies; I'm disappointed that we are not eligible for any help because of our history of late payments and the fact that we are not underwater just yet.

For those who say all homeowners who find themselves in this type of trouble are foolish and irresponsible, I take offense.

I'm not talking about the speculators or "flippers" who bought five houses in the last three years as a way to get rich, and I'm not including people who didn't have a chance of making their payments after three months and an inflated interest-rate hike they knew was coming.

I'm talking about homeowners, average Americans like my husband and I who took a house and turned it into a home and for all intents and purposes planned on making their payments until it was paid off, but ran into bad luck.

Not everyone has the tenacity to stay and hold on to something for as long as we have. Many don't have the will to call their mortgage-holder weekly and plead and beg and write hardship letters, or the courage to call HUD over and over to try to get answers, or even the sense of humor it takes to deal with this without medication.

My husband and I have become creative and turned our modest home into a guest house, taking in strangers on vacation, and we are scrimping and saving every dime to make some sort of house payment on a month-to-month basis. Recently we risked money to retain a lawyer to deal with our lender, who can't quite seem to come up with a modification plan for us.

My hope is that as many people who can take advantage of the housing stimulus funding will do so. At least 40% of the homeowners in trouble should be able to get a lower monthly payment. They should brave the system, forget the ugly comments by holier-than-thou pundits and do the very best they can to keep their homes.

As for us, we are a few hundred dollars short on our next payment, but somehow the lawyer and I will work it out with the lender. Those guys definitely don't want to own another house in this community, especially one with avocado green tile.

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