By Alex Aguilar
March 12, 2009
Last spring, Michele Tierney knew that her finances were getting tight.

She and her husband have five children and live in a five-bedroom
home in St. Charles. They both work two jobs, but the interest rate on
their mortgage was high and financial and medical issues made their
large monthly payment hard to meet.

For months, she reached out to her mortgage company in hopes of
renegotiating the high interest rate, but to no avail. It was months
before she reached a live person on the phone. By the time the company
was willing to talk, it was almost too late.

With the help of the non-profit Joseph Corp. in Aurora, she was
able to negotiate a lower interest rate that put her monthly payment
within reach.

"We are not upper-crust people trying to live a certain lifestyle," Tierney said. "We’re just trying to make it."

The numbers show many families like the Tierneys are facing the
loss of their homes: In DuPage County, foreclosure filings climbed from
1,886 in 2006 to 4,470 in 2008, a jump of 137 percent. In Kane County,
filings rose from 1,614 in 2006 to 3,451 in 2008, a 114 percent
increase, according to the non-profit Woodstock Institute.

The statistics don’t account for the families who are barely hanging on to their homes.

For homeowners in the western suburbs desperate to hold on, an
important first step to avoiding foreclosure can be lining up help.

Local, free resources are available. Non-profit counseling agencies
will try to prevent foreclosure by explaining homeowners’ rights,
assisting them with the paper trail and negotiating with the lender.

In 2006, the DuPage Homeownership Center assisted 54 families
facing foreclosure. In 2008, 272 clients sought help. In the first two
months of 2009, the center already has seen 56 families.

"I think in some cases families in this area were able to hold on a
little longer," said Dru Bergman, executive director of the center.
"But we are seeing clients who run the gamut from the starter home to
some very expensive homes."

The Joseph Corp. also has seen a significant increase in Kane
County families seeking help. When the city of Aurora included
information about local foreclosure-prevention agencies in water bills,
the Joseph Corp. saw an immediate uptick in clients, said Denny
Wiggins, interim executive director.

Experts agree the key is getting help early. Don’t panic or go into
denial and throw bank notices into a drawer, Bergman said. At the first
hint of trouble, homeowners should assemble their paperwork and make an
appointment with a local counselor.

"A lender is much more willing to work with you when you are behind
$3,000 than $30,000," said Jerria Donelson, a counselor at the Joseph

Bergman said: "The earlier you take action, the more options you have at your disposal."

Jim Centanni, 64, of Naperville met with a counselor at DuPage
Homeownership last week after he was five days late on his February
mortgage payment.

Centanni recently lost his job as a clerk and has been able to line
up only part-time work at $9 an hour. His counselor helped him persuade
his mortgage company to give him a monthlong moratorium on his

Without the counselor, he said, "I would have hit a wall."

Still, his plans are unclear. His paycheck takes care of only a few
bills, and he’s still waiting to see whether he is eligible for
unemployment insurance.

"I’m just a nervous wreck," Centanni said. "I’m in such a jam."

The counseling agencies can help homeowners understand their
options, Bergman said. Knowing what documentation they need and what
they must be prepared to show the lender can make the process go more
smoothly, she said.

Homeowners have to be realistic about what can be done, Donelson
said. If the homeowner owes a huge sum, renegotiating a small payment
isn’t likely, she said. A modified mortgage also isn’t an option for an
unemployed homeowner who no longer has any income.

"I try to be as honest as possible and provide as much education about their options as I can," she said.

Tierney said even though she has a background in real estate and
attorney friends who provided free legal assistance, she was unprepared
for how difficult it was to get through to the lender.

Foreclosure-prevention counseling helped keep her on track, she said, and kept alive the hope she could avoid losing her home.

"The whole process was overwhelming," she said. "It becomes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

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