Federal Program to Prevent Foreclosure Creates Confusion

A federal program designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure has left many confused about who qualifies, how it works and how to navigate the process.

Meanwhile, banks and consumer counseling agencies have been swamped with requests for help.

Stacee Shrauner has battled for months to understand the program and the worries are piling up. Her family business hit tough times, money has been tight, and she got behind on the mortgage. Now she fears she could lose her house, she said.

"I'm nervous, because I don't believe what they tell me, so I don't know what to believe," Shrauner said.

For help she turned to "Making Home Affordable," or MHA, the Obama administration's program to help homeowners facing financial hardship, refinance their mortgages and avoid foreclosure. 

For the Shrauners, it sounded like the perfect solution: a chance to cut their payments and keep their home.

But it wasn't that easy. They would soon find that confusion over the program and which mortgages are eligible could threaten to put them closer to losing the house they've been trying to save.

Shrauner said the bank that services her mortgage encouraged her to apply for MHA and told her it was perfect for her situation.

But after months of waiting, she was told her mortgage was not eligible for the program after all. While the bank that services her mortgage participates in MHA, the mortgage investor that holds her loan apparently does not.

After months of waiting, Shrauner had fallen further behind in the payments. She said the bank told her not to make payments during the time the paperwork for Making Home Affordable was processed.

Today, she's frustrated and confused.

"I mean, you're being told for months on end that everything's fine, and you're going to get this, and then you don't for a reason that's not even your fault," Shrauner said.

The bank that services her loan, National City, would not talk about the specifics of her situation.

"We are doing everything we can to assist customers under the rules of the program," a bank spokesman said.

The bank is now working with Shrauner to see if there is another way to modify her loan and reduce her payments.

Since the start of Making Home Affordable, banks have been flooded with requests, and consumer counseling agencies have been swamped with calls from people confused about how it works. Consumer Credit Counseling Services in Dallas, a HUD-approved housing counseling agency, has received thousands of calls.

"Everyone's inundated right now; no one was expecting this," said Linda Davis-Demas, who directs the housing program at CCCS.  

The government recommends that people who have trouble navigating Making Home Affordable contact a HUD-approved housing counselor such as CCCS.

"We will get them the help they need and help them work more productively with their lender," said Andrea Rissotto, a U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman.

The services at CCCS are free, and counselors can help clients step through the process.

But counselors warn clients to continue making payments on their current loan, while the MHA paperwork is processed -- even if a bank says it's OK to stop. Payments may end up held in what's called a "suspense account," but they can be credited back to customers once the new loan is complete.

"As a counselor, we would never encourage a client not to make a payment. Always make your payments", said Davis Demas, of CCCS.

The Treasury Department said it's working with mortgage companies to encourage more to participate and make the process smoother for consumers.

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