Mike Tharp: Paying it even in tough times

April 3, 2010 

Mike Tharp

Just when you think you've heard all there is to hear about our foreclosure crisis, along come Matthew and Melissa Blake.

And they let you know real fast that you have not heard all there is to hear at all.

Here's the CliffsNotes version: In 2004, the Blakes, just about to get hitched, bought their first home in Merced for $205,000. Even as they were closing, people started making offers of $230,000 and up. They bought the house with 100 percent financing. He was 24. She was 23.

In 2006, it was reappraised for $350,000.

We know what happened next.

Like thousands of other Mercedians, they sank underwater. Last year, their home was reassessed at $144,000. This year, it dropped to $77,000. It's worth one-third of what they owe on it.

Their monthly mortgage payment went from $1,300 a month when they first bought to $1,800 two years later when they refinanced and used the cash to fix up a bathroom in the house, built in 1946. Now, with their adjustable mortgage, it's $1,450 a month.

And you know what?

They're paying it.

Every month.

This is the part of the foreclosure crisis you haven't heard about -- or at least not enough. The Blakes believe their word is their bond. They signed a mortgage, a promise to pay back the bank that was lending them the money to buy their home.

And so, amid the misery of a lot of local homeowners who've watched their investment evaporate into the tule fog, the Blakes keep paying.

To do that they've had to give up some stuff. Such as vacations. Cable channels. A cell phone. Eating at restaurants.

Now 30 and 29, with son Jarrett turning 3 in a couple of months and son Ronan born six weeks ago, the Blakes both hold down full-time jobs. He's a partner in his father's business, The Mattress Store, and Mark Blake has his son work the Atwater site. She's a biology teacher at Golden Valley High. After her maternity leave, Matthew will bring the boys to the store with him so they don't have to pay for child care. They have zero credit card debt and have almost paid off their college loans.

Here's the kicker: Like a lot of other folks in property distress, they've been told they should just buy a new, larger, cheaper place (they both have high credit ratings) and, after taking possession, walk away from their present home. Give it back to the lender, claiming Joe Blow is now renting it. Get out from being underwater.

Others have done just that. Others facing foreclosure have gone to the extreme of backing up trucks to their houses, stripping them of their contents -- including heaters and air conditioners off the roof -- and hightailing it. Still others have complained long and loud to Uncle Sam and Rep. Dennis Cardoza and Supervisor Deidre Kelsey for relief.

Not the Blakes. Walking away from an obligation "strikes them as immoral, even if it is legal," says Mark, his dad.

The Blakes' motto: Keep your mouth shut, head down and keep praying.

"We made a commitment to pay the money back," Matthew says. Adds Melissa, who teaches the "Character Counts" course at her high school, "I couldn't walk away from my core beliefs."

As the real estate implosion spread across the county, the Blakes started cutting back. "You're not entitled to anything," he explains. "You do the best you can to honor it. Everybody wants somebody else to bail them out -- they blame the banks, the real estate agents. Maybe they just bit off more than they can chew."

He's sympathetic to folks who've lost their jobs, which leads to losing their homes. But he's not sympathetic to the latest bailout plans. One major bank, for instance, says that for a loan modification, their borrowers have to be 20 percent underwater (easy enough around here) and be behind two months in their payments (also easy to find).

"The only way we can get any help is if we purposely stop paying our bills," Matthew shrugs. He notes that they haven't heard word one from their lender about their faithfulness in paying the monthly mortgage. "We've always had to work for what we've been given," Melissa adds.

Both credit their parents and extended families for their beliefs. They're Christians, and on her side are a lot of teachers and educational administrators. (Her dad is Hub Walsh, a county supervisor.)

The Blakes also raise an issue not often seen as part of the foreclosure crisis: When you buy a home, you bear a responsibility to your neighbors, to the community, "to do your best to keep it up," Mark observes. "Everybody else is affected because the value of their homes goes down. If more people had done what we try to do, it might not have imploded around here."

In other words, there are wider consequences for letting go of your home.

It amazes them both that anyone buying a home must sign his name 50 or more times, pen her initials 50 or more times. "You know full well everything you have to do," he recalls. "Yet you hear about people -- 'Hey, I walked away. So what?' They want somebody else to pay for it. Well, I'm that 'somebody else.'"

Maybe it's a paradox, but Matthew is training to become a property manager, while continuing to work for his dad. He's on the verge of getting his real estate broker license. The real estate market "can't go anywhere but back up," he says. "But I don't think we'll get the value of our home back for 10 years."

Meantime, the Blakes will keep on meeting their monthly mortgage payments. To do less would be, well, less than what they stand for. And they'll keep doing without.

Their younger son's name, Ronan, is Irish and Gaelic. And it sort of means what his mom and dad are all about:

"Little seal" -- not the animal, but the stamp.

A little man of his word.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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