Home & Garden

Restoration Comedy:Trial by Modification

By Jane Powell
Sunday May 30, 2010 - 02:54:00 PM

I'm ba-aack! And I've finally come up with an actual title for my column, which pretty much describes my life as well. I'll still mostly be writing about stuff related to old houses, though it may cross into real estate, land use, historic preservation, and whatever else the editor allows me to rant about. But I consider the comedy part of the title to be as important as the restoration part. 

In my last column, which was like September of 2008 or something, we were discussing hardware. But I'm not going to back to that right now, though no doubt I'll get to it eventually if I manage to keep writing on some kind of schedule. Instead, I want to relate my own experience with my (so far) vain attempt to get my mortgage modified. 

As many of you know, I am the proud owner of the 1905 Jesse Matteson House in Oakland- in my view one of the finest Arts and Crafts houses in the entire United States, and nicknamed by my friend Paul Duchscherer “the bunga-mansion.” (Because it's too big to be a bungalow.) By rights, it should probably be a house museum with a staff and a fundraising arm and lots of restoration architects at its beck and call. In which case it would no doubt be struggling as many house museums are right now, but that's a subject for another time. 

The Second Great Depression has cut my income in half, while not reducing the 6.375% interest rate on my first mortgage. Refinancing is not an option, since the stated income mortgages that were such a boon to self-employed people like me are gone as well. Not to mention that my house is now underwater, also thanks to those who destroyed the economy. And before you reach for those mental tomatoes about people who took out mortgages they couldn't afford and lied on their applications and blah, blah, blah- first of all, that is a line of BS put out by the banks that should have been completely discredited by now, second of all, when I took out this mortgage I COULD afford it and my FICO score was 818. And by the way, I am still paying the mortgage, on time, though I am now spending my inheritance in order to do that. So STFU. 

So when Obama's mortgage modification plan went into effect I figured I'd give it a try, especially since my lender (GMAC) had decided to turn itself into a bank just so it could get some of the TARP money. I knew I didn't want to negotiate with them directly- dealing with the kind of mindless idiocy I was likely to encounter causes me to swear and slam down the phone in most cases. I decided to go through a housing counselor, organizations or people approved by HUD to help homeowners with the process. I chose an organization called the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, or NACA, mostly because of their record of going after predatory lenders successfully, and also because they were pretty “in your face” about it. Because, you know, I'm so tactful and reticent myself. 

After attending the requisite introductory meeting (last October), I first had to fill out a whole bunch of forms online, detailing my income and expenses and so forth. One of the required forms is called a Hardship Affidavit, where there is a whole page of boxes to check off, various reasons why you can't afford your mortgage payment anymore- essentially asking the lender to take pity on you because your income went down, or you had to take time off to care for your aging parents, or you got cancer, or whatever. There were (number) boxes in total, and I was able to check off nearly all of them. Then on another page you get to explain in more detail why your life totally sucks. By the end of it you feel like a contestant on the old game show Queen For A Day. (For those too young to remember, three women contestants would come on the show and relate their tale of woe- whoever was the most pathetic won a washing machine or something...) 

To say the process is not set up for people with multiple income sources would be an understatement- I have writing income, royalties, consulting income, book sales, rental income (I rent out rooms in my house), and a part-time retail job.  

Having filled out the online forms, I then had to fax hard copies of some of the exact same forms, as well as tax returns, mortgage and HELOC statements, property tax statements, etc. to NACA. Since there was no form for self-employment online, I sent a Profit and Loss statement instead, since this is what GMAC required. As I should have expected, this was not acceptable, because anyone who dares to ask for a modification is by definition a deadbeat who would be perfectly capable of slicing and dicing their Quickbooks file like Martin Yan on speed. Instead, I was informed, I would have to provide six months of bank statements with all my business deposits and expenses circled. My protest that this would in no way reflect reality, given that some expenses went on credit cards, and some cash income went straight to petty cash, which was duly recorded in Quickbooks but didn't show up on a bank statement, fell on deaf ears. So I dutifully circled as instructed, and faxed the pertinent pages. 

As a reasonable person I figured the pertinent information was what they wanted. What was I thinking?!! No, they wanted every effing page of every freaking statement (I have three accounts), including the page on which you balance your checkbook, the page which contains nothing but your average daily balance, and even the page which says “This page intentionally left blank.” Next time you read a story about mortgage modifications in which some bank spokesperson says that “Homeowners are not submitting complete paperwork”- this is what they're talking about!! Now, if you are the average person, you quite rightly threw those useless pages in the recycling bin. Will the bank accept this excuse? Of course not. Which is how I found myself at the local Chase branch, the one where I closed my accounts three months ago (that's a whole other column too- in the meantime see moveyourmoney.info), paying $30 to get copies of the statements with missing pages, all so I could fax in “This page intentionally left blank.” 

Six months of bank statements including the useless pages makes for a sixty page fax. Unless you work in an office with a seriously industrial fax machine, you can't fax that many pages at once. But you can't fax them in batches. And even if you manage to fax all 60, invariably they won't all go through, and they only receive 28 of them. I finally started taking them to the NACA office to have them do the faxing. The last time I was there I met a woman from San Francisco who had come over for the same purpose. I asked how long she had been working on her modification. “A year,” she said. 

To be continued