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Getting a mortgage workout shouldn't be this exhausting

A Downey couple who had fallen behind on mortgage payments to Wells Fargo subsequently tried to make good on the money owed. But getting their lender to work with them — that's another story.

October 04, 2011|David Lazarus
  • Jackie Durra and her husband, Pedro Balladares, and son Leon in their Downey home. In January, Wells Fargo refused to work out more flexible home loan terms with the couple because, Durra said, they weren't making enough money. in June, the bank refused on grounds that they were making too much money, she said.
Jackie Durra and her husband, Pedro Balladares, and son Leon in their Downey… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Jackie Durra and her husband, Pedro Balladares, have been riding out the economic downturn as best they can.

For a while they were both out of work, making it a challenge to pay the bills and feed their two kids. She eventually found a job, and then he did as well.

But over the course of what turned out to be a very difficult year, the couple fell behind on mortgage payments for their house in Downey. There were months when they simply had to choose between keeping the lights on and meeting their obligations to their lender, Wells Fargo.

"It was hard," Durra, 49, told me. "We had no money coming in."

Make no mistake: She and her husband are at fault here. They missed four mortgage payments between October 2010 and April of this year. They shouldn't have been surprised when Wells stopped taking their payments in June and served them with a notice of default in August.

But Durra and Balladares are also typical of many other homeowners who, because of circumstances beyond their control, found themselves barely able to keep their heads above water. They aren't deadbeats. They aren't trying to cheat the bank out of its money.

Given a chance, they're eager to make good. They want to keep their home. But getting their bank to work with them — that's another story.

"It's a national crisis," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based advocacy group. "Banks seem more interested in foreclosing on people than on keeping them in their homes."

Adding insult to injury, many of these banks (including Wells) received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailouts to keep them afloat when times were tough.

"If we gave the banks a second chance," Court said, "the least they can do is help people out who are trying to do the right thing."

Durra bought her three-bedroom house in 2001 for $280,000. After a second mortgage was taken out several years later, the total outstanding loan balance was about $375,000. The real-estate website Zillow estimates the current value of the property at $348,300.

Durra and Balladares received a loan modification from Wells in 2009 that lowered their monthly payments. But by summer 2010, the couple were facing new difficulties.

She had lost her job handling billing for a doctor's office, and his business exporting car parts to Nicaragua fell victim to harsh global economic conditions.

With other bills mounting, they were unable to make their October mortgage payment of $1,470. Then Durra landed a job that month handling billing for USC's Department of Pathology. She immediately contacted Wells Fargo and explained their situation.

The bank, Durra said, seemed placated, especially when the November and December payments came in on time. But the family was still facing hardship.

"My husband wasn't working and we just didn't have enough income," Durra said. "We were living paycheck to paycheck."

In January of this year, they applied for another loan modification to work out more flexible terms. Durra said Wells turned them down because they weren't making enough money.

She and Balladares missed their January and February mortgage payments. They were able to send in a check for March. They missed April. They sent in a check for May.

Then, in June, Balladares finally landed a gig as an X-ray technician for a medical clinic. The couple applied once again for a loan modification. This time, Durra said, Wells turned them down because they were making too much money.

They sent in a check for their June mortgage payment. Wells sent it back and foreclosed on the property.

Durra said she tried to approach Wells to work something out, but each time was rebuffed — even though she and her husband were now setting aside thousands of dollars to cover their missed payments.

At the beginning of September, they tried to find out how much they owed, including late fees and legal charges. Wells said it would get back to the couple in about a week.

It never did. So Durra and Balladares came to me.

I went straight to Wells with a simple question: Would the bank really rather add to the glut of foreclosed homes than work with a committed homeowner who's eager to pay her bills?

I'm glad to report that Wells wasted no time in reaching out to Durra and trying to find some way to fix this mess.

"We're working with them to keep them in their home," said Jennifer Langan, a Wells spokeswoman.

She said it's likely that a repayment plan will be established, and once that happens, the foreclosure proceedings will end.

"At the end of the day, no bank wants a foreclosed property," Langan said. "It is not good for homeowners, neighborhoods or communities."

Which is why it's surprising that so few banks seem to step up, especially in times like these, to assist homeowners who are trying to act in good faith.

Consumer Watchdog's Court said many banks have one-size-fits-all policies that make it difficult to address individual problems. It can also be more labor-intensive (read: expensive) to work with homeowners on a case-by-case basis.

Langan said Wells would have probably done something for Durra and Balladares even if I hadn't taken an interest, and maybe that's true. But I hear a lot of hard-luck stories from people who say all they get from the bank is a door slammed in their face.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. But banks should know from personal bailout experience that there are many who do.

And helping them out can be good business over the long run.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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