Falling Down: Woman, 66, faces fears day and night as foreclosure looms

01/28/2010 10:26 PM

01/28/2010 11:35 PM

It became clear when the fall from her bed left a gaping hole in her mouth: the stress from imminent foreclosure had taken over her thoughts -- day and night.

This 66-year-old woman bought her house for $250,000 in an established North Merced neighborhood two-and-a-half years ago. She had retired from county government one year earlier, but her relentless energy had driven her to take on two part-time jobs: one with the county government and one in health care.

She was earning $500 each month from the part-time jobs, in addition to more than $2,500 in monthly Social Security and pension payments. Buying the home seemed like a solid investment.

But then the downward spiral began.

She agreed to talk to the Sun-Star as long as she could remain nameless, because she didn't want others to know about her health issues and her financial peril.

When the economy tanked, she lost her part-time county job and worked so few hours at the other job that she sometimes received $5 paychecks.

At the same time, her home lost considerable value, making it impossible to refinance her adjustable rate first and second mortgages.

Now, with her checking account low and her savings wiped out, she fears that this month could be the last that she'll be able to make the mortgage payment -- the first she'll have missed since her $20,000 initial down payment in July 2007.

For the last six months, she's worked constantly, desperately, to modify her mortgage.

That hard work has taken a mental toll, and her once effervescent personality has been eclipsed by unrelenting stress and a growing list of health issues.

"I know that my nerves are really very bad right now," she said. "I'm not sure whether to let the house go."

An enthusiastic member of a local Red Hat Society -- a national cadre of women who meet for tea and companionship wearing exuberant red and purple outfits -- she often misses gatherings now, unable to front the cash for even modest get-togethers.

In 2008, she made $5,674 in wages, in addition to her social security and retirement pension income. In 2009, she was down to one job, and her wages had dropped to $1,307. She picks up hours when she can get them, but some paychecks have been unbearably small -- the $5 paystub was for a staff meeting, her only work that week.

"I don't know what to do," she said. "I'm broke. I'm cutting back, barely making it month to month."

Her combined mortgage payments are $1,367 a month. The first mortgage alone eats up 42 percent of her monthly gross income.

Last summer, she figured if she could only qualify for a loan modification under federal guidelines, the finances might work out. She would save $341 each month on her first mortgage, or roughly the same amount her monthly income has fallen -- $363 -- since 2008.

Since filing for a modification through her bank on July 8, her stress level has left her shaken and scared. She's convinced it has affected her memory, spawning fears of Alzheimer's disease.

"I went to take the census test, to work that job. I think I missed half of the questions. I got there and looked at that first question, and it looked like a foreign language. I was just so stressed, feeling so much pressure," she said. "I was just freezing up quite a bit. That's why I document everything, save everything, organize everything, and put everything back in its place. I'm afraid to go look for another job, because I've been freezing. Then I fear I will look like a dummy."

Finally, in October, she went to the doctor. He said she didn't seem to have Alzheimer's, but that anxiety had taken a toll on her memory. He prescribed a daily routine of sleeping pills and an amphetamine to regulate her anxiety.

At night, "I was tossing and turning quite a bit. Stress. Nightmares. I fell out of bed. That's when I broke the tooth," she said. "I had been taking depression pills for quite a while, but they weren't working. I couldn't sleep. I had zero energy."

Until the stress level spiked, her depression medication had always been "sufficient." Now, she takes several pills to get through each day.

For three months now, she's been taking Lexapro for depression and anxiety; a clonazepam generic for anxiety and for nocturnal myoclonus -- involuntary limb movement while sleeping; and Adderall for daytime exhaustion.

"I'm in fairly good health. It's just the stress; just not knowing what to do," about the house, she said. "I don't want to be like a tumbleweed -- here and there. I'm stable here. I'd like to stay stable."

She'd like to stop taking each of the pills she parcels out throughout the day now, but especially the Adderall because she's concerned about amphetamine consumption. "To get off these medications, I need a result on the house one way or another," she said.

She recently called Congressman Dennis Cardoza's, D-Merced, office for help. His office called Chase, and a bank spokesperson replied that they were too backlogged with foreclosures -- and not those in the pipeline -- to deal with her case.

So she calls Chase every week. A couple of times, she's been told that her payment modification application is complete.

Each time she calls the bank, she is directed to the "imminent default department." One day last week, she called again, with the speakerphone on.

"What day is it? Thursday. I shouldn't be on hold too long," she said, holding the phone out in front of her body as she thumbed through paperwork. "They told me not to call on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Too busy."

A bank employee's voice cut through the silence. It was an efficient conversation.

Chase: Loan number?

She read it from a stapled pile of yellow notebook paper, the troublesome digits scrawled across the top of each page.

Chase: What can I help you with?

My loan modification status.

Chase: We received your paperwork, it will be sent to the underwriter soon.

I was told it was already there last week.

Chase: Your counselor didn't forward your paperwork; I will e-mail him again.

How long until I get accepted or denied?

Chase: Thirty to 60 days.

OK, I'll call back next Thursday.

"Well," she said, shrugging as she hung up the phone. "It's just a very, very stressful situation to be in. It's just been lingering and lingering."

She hopes to clear up her second mortgage as well, but nothing can be done on that one until the first mortgage has been modified, she said.

"I'm a good bookkeeper, if nothing else," she said, pulling out separate binders of information for each monthly bill, credit statements, or doctor's notes.

She is no spendthrift. Her only bills are one credit card with a $700 balance for a fence repair, a reasonable car payment and her utilities. But after paying bills, she has just $141 spare cash each month. When she contacted a credit counselor, she was told to cut down on grocery spending. She started shopping for canned food at the 99-cent store to cut back, she said. Still, with just $315 savings left, she fears an emergency or unexpected expense could topple her. "You need to have an emergency fund," she said. "I just worry that something is going to come up and I won't be able to pay for it."

"I'm just in limbo..." her voice trailed off.

Walking away from the loan isn't out of the question, she says. She still owes $225,200 on the home, but its assessed value for taxes this year was just $113,000.

"Deep down, I don't want to move," she said. "I'm a planner -- and here I can't plan. If they would tell me now what would happen, that would be my decision to stay or go. But as long as there's hope, I'll stay here."

Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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