I was introduced to Audrey via Facebook when I first started my Battling the Banks blog campaign. She offered to share her story on my blog. I’m honored. She told me it’s long and that maybe I should break it into 2. I can’t. This story needs to be told in it’s entirety. The banks are screwing us and we all need to be aware and share our stories for the world to read.
Our story starts the way a lot of other faerie tales start, with an unusual twist here and there, but nothing too out of the ordinary.
Boy meets girl via an international pen-pal project when they’re both in elementary school in their respective countries. Boy writes to girl for 20+ years. Boy meets girl, finally. Boy and girl fall in love. They get married. They have a baby. Boy and girl who are now Mommy and Daddy (well, OK, she was already a Mommy from a previous marriage), and baby makes three. This little family does what every other family in the United States dreams of doing. They buy a home. It wasn’t his first home, as he’d been a homeowner and landlord back in the United Kingdom, his native country. But together, this was a huge step. Gareth and Audrey closed on their first home; a beautiful 3500 square foot house along the Maine coastline, on July 2, 2007.
I’m Audrey of the “Boy meets girl” story above. True, it was our dream come true. Our dream came with a lot of hard work, saving for a huge down payment, and extensive credit checks and employment verification – not just in one country, but two. Being a fairly new legal permanent resident, Gareth’s background, credit, employment history, and references were checked and then double checked and verified just for good measure. It was all worth it though when we closed and were sitting in the front room of our house, nary a single piece of furniture, and toasted one another with plastic cups filled with champagne and a pink sippy cup filled with water. We looked around at what was now, our house . . . No. It was our home. We smiled as we imagined the BBQ’s and parties we’d throw, having friends and family over, Gaby growing up in the home, inviting friends for play dates, eventually bringing a special-someone home to meet mom and dad. That morphed into grandchildren playing in the back garden. We drank champagne out of plastic Solo cups, shared a greasy but oddly delicious pizza, and dreamed the dreams of new homeowners everywhere.
What started out as our dream come true has now ended up being one of the worst nightmares imaginable.
It’s not without a great deal of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment that I tell you this sordid little tale of our battle with Bank of America. We’re aware of how many people in the United States view people who have been foreclosed on or who are going through foreclosure. So many of the people that our little family knows and associates with, read my blog on daily basis. It’s humiliating because I fear the first thing they’re going to think every time they see me write about what we’re going through is, “So glad it’s them, not me. Thankfully we can pay our bills!” We’re almost always cast in the same lot as those individuals who just got tired of paying their mortgage and either walked away from their home or decided to live in the home, basically “rent free” because they know that due to the sheer volume of foreclosures, the process is taking, in many cases, as long as 48 months to complete. For the record, our home in Maine stands at 50 months in, and only now has the case been sent to the courts for adjudication. Now, reading that we’re 50 months in, you might assume that the bank (Bank of America is the most recent financial monolith to acquire the mortgage.) gave us every chance possible to work with them in order to save the home. Not so much.
Our mortgage was a normal conventional mortgage with a decent but not stellar interest rate. We were certainly in a position to afford the home and the $1800 monthly mortgage payment that came with it. While we closed on July 2, 2007, we received a letter in the post the very next day, July 3, 2007 that the mortgage had been sold from the original bank to another bank. It was just an ordinary letter. It let us know that we’d receive papers from the new bank within a couple of weeks. It certainly didn’t seem important enough to them to include a telephone number of the acquiring bank, or to whom we should address any questions should we have them. Over the course of the next two years, this would happen four more times. Countrywide Home Loans was the last bank the mortgage was transferred to and then Bank of America bought Countrywide and that’s when the fun started. There was a never ending stream of small issues during the transfer that made me want to pull my hair out, several times over. Looking back, all those small issues seem so inconsequential.
When we bought the home it was just Gareth, me and our 15-month-old daughter, Gaby Rose, who lived in the home. Then, about a month after we moved in, my oldest daughter Meg, from my previous marriage, wanted to move in with us. Not long after Meg moved in, my youngest son from that marriage, Zach, moved in with us as well. Eventually, Meg’s twin brother Matt, would come to live with us too. But for the most part from 2007-2009, it was just Meg and Zach, Gaby Rose, Gareth and me. Our dreams of a home filled with the voices and laughter of our children and their friends, parties, and more love than we could imagine, happened a lot faster than we ever thought they would. It wasn’t long after Meg moved in that I became “That Mom.” The one who was willing to host the loud and boisterous surprise 18th birthday party for her daughter, as well as the mom who was willing to let her daughter have a massive co-ed sleepover after letting several teenagers watch “The Exorcist.”
Our home was often refuge for the occasional angry teenager who needed to vent, or the place they all crashed after a school dance. It was the home where they could come to try their hand at cooking a meal on their own – sometimes with successful results even! In short, it was bliss.
While we were still financially stable for the most part, having two teenagers in the house, who had moved in with us with basically the clothes on their back and little else, had begun to drain some of our savings. I decided that after staying home with Gaby Rose for 20 months, that it was time to go back to work and help pad our bank account. Unfortunately due to a legal issue with my employer which included getting seriously hurt on the job and subsequent harassment, I wasn’t able to work. That’s putting it lightly. I had a massive downward spiral which included a suicide attempt and it took me a long time to begin to climb back out of what became a miserable depression. What we’ve since gone through with Bank of America has threatened at times, to push me back down into that miserable hole. Little did we know that Zach was dealing with his own internal demons – demons that had been present for a very very long time and began to manifest themselves in painful and horrifying ways. In between his crisis and my own mental and physical health breakdown, due to insane health care insurance deductibles, co-pays and outright medical care that wasn’t covered under our personal insurance, our savings account all but disappeared.
When Countrywide/Bank of America first took over the mortgage, they made a few “minor adjustments” to our mortgage and told us that the PMI (Private Mortgage Insurance) that we were forced to take out when we obtained our mortgage, rates had gone up. That took our mortgage from $1800 per month to $1979 per month. Then our local town went around and re-assessed all of the homes. Once again our mortgage went up. This time it jumped to $2103 per month due to the increase in property taxes after the new assessments were levied. With increasing medical costs and now a jump of $303 per month, we were really beginning to feel pinched, financially.
Looking back, we never would have made the upgrades to our home that we did, if we’d known what was headed our way. We updated our kitchen, all of our appliances, flooring, painted, replaced plumbing that was beginning to fail, and then, while we still had the money in the bank, the septic system failed. If you know anything about septic systems, you know how expensive they are to replace . . .including the leach fields. The water heater failed and flooded the entire first floor of our home causing minor damage. Things happen when you’re a homeowner. In the beginning, we were prepared; we had the money in the bank. The hot water heater happened a bit later in the game, but thankfully homeowners insurance covered a great deal of the damage that happened as a result of the bottom literally falling out of the water heater and flooding everything downstairs.
When things began to get rough for us, we did talk to the people at Bank of America about refinancing, and eventually tried to apply for help through the Making Home Affordable Act. MHA was designed for people like us, yet we were never once, despite proving the ability to pay a modified amount, were never approved. No matter what we did, we were told our situation wasn’t dire enough and that we hadn’t even missed a mortgage payment yet. Basically we were told to go talk to a financial counselor; a counselor who was actually set up as part of the MHA Act. That was a joke! They told us we had two choices. Walk away from the house and let the bank foreclose, or file for a restructuring of our debt via Federal Bankruptcy protection. At this point our credit was still stellar. I went so far as to write and phone Maine Senators Snowe and Collins to try and get some help sorting this out to see if there was any sort of assistance through HUD or any other entity that could help us modify the mortgage so that we didn’t lose the home, not to mention our hefty down payment, and all of the investment we’d put into the home by repairing, remodeling, and upgrading. There was seemingly nothing that could be done for us. Despite the fact that our home was becoming less and less affordable, we were determined to make things work. We sold what we didn’t need. We cut back drastically on groceries. We asked Matt and Meg to contribute a little around the house in the form of Meg paying for her own auto insurance and both of them buying any “snack/junk” foods that they wanted as they were now out of our budget.
On October 30th, 2009, a mere 5 days before Meg was due to leave for BMT (Basic Military Training) Camp with the United Stated Air Force, Gareth was laid off from his job. I was driving Matt to work when my cell phone rang. Through a voice choked with tears, I barely made out Gareth’s words, “I’ve worked so hard, and it’s gone. They’ve laid me off.” I pulled over and leaned my head against the steering wheel and closed my eyes against the tears that were threatening to stream down my face. I told Gareth to come home and we’d sort things out. He told me he had to clean out his office and say goodbye to his co-workers, a task that brought him fresh tears.
After dropping Matt off at work, I raced back home and waited for Bank of America’s customer service lines to open up. The minute the clock struck I was on the phone. All to no avail. We hadn’t missed a mortgage payment yet, and even if we did go into default, based on our obligations and now a distinct lack of income, there was nothing they could do for us. I phoned the people at Making Home Affordable, again, and was once again told the same thing. “There’s nothing we can do for you!”
Our next mortgage payment was due November 1st and we knew it would be a couple of weeks yet before Gareth would receive his meager severance package from his employer. I spent most of October 30th cancelling various doctor’s appointments (there was no way we could afford any more co-pays or prescriptions that weren’t absolutely necessary), shutting the telephone service off, and creating Excel spreadsheet after spreadsheet trying to figure out how we were going to make it on his severance, and then when that ran out, on the scanty allowance that Gareth would receive once he was approved for Unemployment Benefits. Thankfully, Gareth was only out of work for 30 days. A huge blessing came in the form of an offer for employment. There was a pay-cut but we’d deal with it. It was a job with a great company working on several major projects. The only downside to this job offer came in the form of where the job was located . . . 350 miles away in upstate New York. It didn’t matter. He was taking the job, and as a family, we would make the move to New York. Meg was now safely ensconced at BMT in Texas, and Matt could get a job in New York. We’d make everything work out. Start over. That’s all there was to it!
We tossed around the idea of Gareth renting a room in New York and commuting back to Maine on the weekends. However, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to be a parent on the weekends only, and I couldn’t bare the thought of only seeing my husband 8 days out of every month. We naively assumed we could get a renter for the house. However, this dream home, located along the bucolic Maine coastline in a town that had once had a booming economy thanks in great part to the local Naval base, was now only limping along by the autumn of 2009. The base was closed and all of the service men and women transferred to other bases around the country. Not only did the bottom fall out of the local real estate market, the rental market was nearly decimated as well, with the departure of all of the base employees. We tried, unsuccessfully for several months to rent the house. The real estate agent we worked with told us that if we could get the bank to modify the mortgage to a more reasonable amount, we might be able to get tenants that could afford the rent. There were few in our area, especially after its major employer had just closed its doors, that could afford a monthly rental of $2100.
We asked the realtor what our chances were of selling the home quickly? It was then that we realized just how badly the real estate market in that part of Maine had suffered as a result of near economic collapse our country had suffered and the near failure of the banking industry. Our home was only worth close to one third of what we owed on it. She advised us to ask Bank of America if they’d agree to a short sale. Several phone calls and letters back and forth with the bank we found out, for some reason they would not agree to a short sale. We still don’t know why. Maybe I was wrong in assuming that a home that was priced dirt cheap, that came with brand new wood flooring, a completely updated kitchen with entirely new appliances, plumbing, hardware and fixtures, not to mention granite counters, would sell for a song! Oh we can’t forget that the home was situated on nearly an acre, with a massive back yard that was completely fenced in!
What’s ensued from there on out can only be described as Hell. Once we moved to New York and stopped making the mortgage payments (despite offering to send Bank of America what we could – we wanted to make an effort because we hoped we’d eventually go back home – they refused any payment at all unless it was the full amount!), only then did Bank of America make ridiculous gestures of trying to modify the mortgage. We did modify it twice. Signed the papers! Thought they were filed accordingly. Made the payments according to the modification (which brought new meaning to “living on a tight budget.”), only to be told we were going into foreclosure. What the hell? Didn’t we just modify the mortgage? Weren’t we making the payments? What happened? This happened not once, but twice. We were even assured that these “modifications” stopped the clock on the foreclosure process. The second time around Gareth and I were in tears. Our dream of being homeowners was now becoming a nightmare.
In the autumn of 2010 Bank of America began to call us every single day. After asking them to please cease phoning us every day one of the representatives mentioned something called a “Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure.” Basically we sign the house back over to them, give them the keys and we would be able to avoid a messy, humiliating foreclosure. After speaking with Gareth we decided this was the route we were going to take. If they wouldn’t agree to a short sale, let’s just have this done and over with as soon as possible. I phoned Bank of America and let them know that we wanted to proceed with the DIL. They assured me that our folder was now going to the DIL department and they’d handle it from there. Once again we were given promises of the DIL process stopping the clock on the foreclosure process.
I don’t know why I believed them. We’d eventually come to find out that the group of investors that held our mortgage did not approve any DILs at all, under any circumstance, especially not in cases where the home was never placed on the market. Alright, so we made a huge mistake in never placing the home on the market at all. After the bank being unwilling to accept a short sale, and not one but three separate real estate agents telling us we’d be lucky to get 1/3 of what we owed on the home, we decided not to put it on the market. We were still heading back to Maine an average of every six weeks at that point. We were staying in the home while in Maine, taking care of the yard, and doing everything we could to make sure the house still had the appearance of being lived in. We feared putting a for sale sign on it would make potential vandals aware that the home was unoccupied.
A couple of weeks after being informed that the bank would not accept a Deed in Lieu of foreclosure the bank once again phoned us, despite having a written cease and desist order in place, asking them to send all correspondence to us in writing. They wanted their money or they were going to foreclose NOW! They made it very clear to us they were moving forward as quickly as possible to regain legal possession of the home. Their tone frightened me. None of the “modifications” or the DIL process once stopped the clock when it came to foreclosing on the home. I don’t know why we ever believed another word the bank said when they backed out of a modification not once, but twice! But here we were, and it sounded as if things were finally nearing the final stages of foreclosure.
We made a mad dash back to Maine to try and remove as much of the stuff that was still left in the house, as possible. Despite being advised to remove all of the nearly brand new stainless steel appliances, we left them in the house. We simply didn’t have room in the moving van. As we prepared to leave, Gareth walked up the steps of the front porch to make sure the house was locked and secured. He stopped, leaned over the railing of the front porch, and began to weep.
I can’t begin to describe the nearly overwhelming ache in my heart at the sight of my husband’s body being wracked with sobs. We had invested so much, both financially and emotionally into this home. We’d slowly begun to weave a wonderful life for ourselves into little pieces of the house here and there. It was rough going occasionally, especially with my mental breakdown, but that had never destroyed the core of our family. But what now? Our credit was rapidly going down the toilet and we realized we couldn’t get financed for so much as a Twinkie if we had to! It seemed to Gareth that we were losing a huge part of ourselves as he locked the door to the house that once was, but was now never ever going to be.
To add insult to injury, upon arrival back at home in New York, there was a Fedex package propped against the front door. I picked it up and glanced at the return address; Bank of America. “Here it is.” I thought. “This is the final blow. I bet we have a court date.” Instead, it was a huge package of paperwork offering to modify the loan to an amount that would allow us to place the home on the rental market, plus possibly make a little bit of more money on top of that, which would surely help us get back in the black again. It also took into account the arrears (I did the math and something didn’t add up – there should have been an accounting for the months we did pay the mortgage with the two other “modifications.” I’d have to look into why it still appeared that there was an extra almost 6 months worth of mortgage payments seemingly missing!) I could hardly believe it. I showed it to Gareth and his first response was anger.
“Where was this a year ago when we desperately needed it and made every effort, nearly starving ourselves, in order to pay exorbitant rent here, and the mortgage back there? Why the offer of the olive branch now? I don’t understand how the American mortgage system works. This is like a cruel joke!”
I didn’t have any sort of an answer for Gareth except to say that first thing Monday morning, I’d phone the bank. Monday morning dawned with me plopping Gaby down at the table with crayons and a coloring book so that I could phone the bank in peace. I was hopeful. It didn’t matter that Bank of America had screwed us over several times before, I was still hopeful. I had formed an image in my mind of happy renters, paying their rent each month, us writing a check to Bank of America, and this nightmare slowly fading into ancient history. I once again allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security at the hands of Bank of America. No sooner had I phoned the number on the newest modification proposal then I was transferred to the bank’s legal department. I was made aware that the modification offer we’d received was null and void. No longer valid. No reason was given. I assured them that we would be able to find a renter and make the mortgage payments and that we desperately wanted to work with the bank in order to resolve this and avoid foreclosure. There was no arguing. I was told that “No further offers of modification would be forthcoming.” Period. End of story. As I closed the call the legal representative I was speaking with said that the next time I heard from the bank would be a notice informing us of a court date and from there the home would be placed on the market or sold at auction.
I hung up the phone and let out a ragged, tearful breath. Looking back I now know that breath for what it was. It was the sound of my dreams for that home, and the life I longed for in Maine, dying. It was the infamous death rattle of an idyllic life, one that included home ownership and security; a place for my children and grandchildren to come. A safe harbor, a home to celebrate our lives in, a place to live to the fullest. That dream was now it seemed, officially dead. I know that a house, when it comes down to it, is really little more than bricks and mortar, wood and metal, stone and cement. However, intertwined amongst the 2×4’s, is the laughter of a baby playing with a puppy. Wrapped around the nails that join the timber to form the frame are the conversations that happen; the shouts of happiness and joy when a young adult is accepted into the college of her dreams. Layered in between and on top of each coat of paint are the fragrant scents from meals past and present. Tangled in the threads of the carpet are memories of Christmas carols being sung by the fireplace. Where once there was life, there are only the hovering ghosts of what was. What we’re going through now can only be described as the painful demolition of all of those dreams. I didn’t realize until then that I’d been hanging onto that dream – that home, with everything I had. Letting go of it – something I am still in the process of, hurts. As much as I don’t like to think of someone else in our home – making memories of their own, enjoying the fruits of all of our hard work, I know that eventually new voices will fill the rooms, new dreams will be woven into the fabric of the building. They just won’t be ours.
I blame myself for a lot of what happened. Maybe if I were tougher, emotionally and physically, I wouldn’t have had the breakdown I did. We wouldn’t have incurred insane medical debt. Perhaps we should have stayed in the house, with Gareth only being a weekend dad and husband? Surely I could have handled Maine winters by myself, and while a nearly 700 mile roundtrip each weekend would have taken a toll, maybe we’d have been able to save the house? Should Gareth have accepted the job offer in New York or held out for something closer to home (several of the people he worked with who were laid off when he was have only just recently found new jobs.)? Should we have just lived in the house, “rent free”, taking advantage of the bank?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions. Our financial standing certainly hasn’t improved in the nearly two years we’ve been in Maine. We now sport credit scores in the low 400’s. We’ve only just recently, in October, received the official summons from the court that the bank is moving towards legally foreclosing. Maine is a state where the bank can obtain a “deficiency judgment” so we are in the process of applying for protection under Federal Bankruptcy laws. I won’t lie . . . what we’re going through is scary.
We know that there will come a day when the pain we’re going through now, will be a memory. But right now there’s a lot of anger. Anger at the way we were played by Bank of America. We signed legal contracts with them, and acted upon those in good faith and according to the letter of those agreements.
The anger extends to a certain segment of society that blames families like ours for everything that’s going wrong in our country right now. As if we had any control over the fact that my husband lost his job? We’re hated because many people feel that due to our homes being in foreclosure, it’s the sole reason their homes are worthless, or the reason they can’t obtain a mortgage in the first place. We’re seen as deadbeats who just wanted to walk away from a legal obligation. Certain people don’t feel like we have any right to be angry at anyone and that we brought this upon ourselves. I don’t understand why the blame is being placed on our shoulders alone. What about Bank of America? What culpability do they have in all of this? We’ve been told by our attorney, that Bank of America, and other banks like them, bare a great deal of responsibility for the colossal mess we’re in, as well as the economic downturn our country took. Why was Bank of America able to get away with allegedly fraudulent handling of hundreds of thousands of mortgages and yet, get several billions in Federal bailout money while we sit here, with no help at all from programs designed to help families like ours?
Most of all, I fail to see how a bank as large as Bank of America can get away with repeatedly modifying a mortgage, then reneging on it, then further telling us we can give them a Deed in Lieu of foreclosure and bailing on that too! The banks can get away with blaming people like us for needing a Federal bailout (however, they received that money well before we defaulted!) but not accept a legitimate offer from us to try and pay something towards the money owed? I do not understand how our government can give a financial institution like this, billions of our tax dollars knowing they operate the way they do? What did they do with all of that money? I know we didn’t benefit in any way! From the sounds and looks of things, not many people that I know who are going through something similar to what we are, benefited either. People like our family are being forced to be accountable for what happened, so why aren’t the banks? Perhaps you might not think I have any right to be angry, having a home in foreclosure and going through bankruptcy. But, as much as anyone else, I have every right to be angry with a banking system that is wrought with fraud and gets away with it every single day. Why aren’t you just as angry? The billions of dollars in bailout money was yours too. The banks insisted they needed the money in order to help more people stay in their homes, and extend credit to others. Neither thing happened. Again I ask you, where is your anger?
Maybe one day my anger will fade much in the same way my dreams of the faerie tale home are fading.
Audrey Holden is the award winning writer behind Barking Mad, and has been featured in Woman’s Day magazine, BlogHer online, and can be seen in an upcoming major documentary mini-series about the obesity crisis in America. Audrey is also a professional land, seascape, and portrait photographer whose work has been prominently featured in New England galleries and businesses