Foreclosure process takes time

The entire foreclosure process can take anywhere from two to 12 months, depending on how fast your lender acts and where you live. Some states allow a nonjudicial process that’s speedier, while others require time-consuming judicial proceedings.

Once you miss at least one mortgage payment, the steps leading up to an actual foreclosure sale can include demand letters, notices of default, a recorded notice of foreclosure, publication of the debt, and the scheduling of a foreclosure auction. Even when an auction is scheduled, however, it may never occur, or it may occur but a qualified buyer doesn’t materialize.

Bottom line: Foreclosure can be a long slog, which gives you enough time to come up with an alternative. Meantime, if your goal is to salvage your home, think about keeping up with payments for homeowners insurance and property taxes. Otherwise, you could compound your problems by getting hit with an uncovered casualty loss or liability suit, or tax liens.

Read the fine print

Start by reviewing all correspondence you’ve received from your lender. The letters—and phone calls—probably began once you were 30 days past due. Also review your mortgage documents, which should outline what steps your lender can take. For instance, is there a “power of sale” clause that authorizes the sale of your home to pay off a mortgage after you miss payments?

Determine the specific foreclosure laws for your state. What’s the timeline? Do you have “right of redemption,” essentially a grace period in which you can reverse a foreclosure? Are deficiency judgments that hold you responsible for the difference between what your home sells for and your loan’s outstanding balance allowed? Get answers.

Pick up the phone

Don’t give up because you missed a mortgage payment or two and received a notice of default. Foreclosure isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it’s heading in that direction if you don’t call your lender. Dial the number on your mortgage statement, and ask for the Loss Mitigation Department. You might stay on hold for a while, but don’t hang up. Once you do get someone on the line, take notes and record names.

The next call should be to a foreclosure avoidance counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of these counselors can, free of charge, explain your state’s foreclosure laws, discuss alternatives to foreclosure, help you organize financial documents, and even represent you in negotiations with your lender. Be wary of unsolicited offers of help, since foreclosure rescue scams are common.

Be sure to let your lender know that you’re working with a counselor. Not only does it demonstrate your resolve, but according to NeighborWorks, homeowners who receive foreclosure counseling are 1.6 times more likely to avoid losing their homes than those who don’t. Homeowners who receive loan modifications with the help of a counselor also reduce monthly mortgage payments by $454 more than homeowners who receive a modification without the aid of a counselor.

Lender alternatives to foreclosure

Hope Now, an alliance of mortgage companies and housing counselors, can aid homeowners facing foreclosure. A self-assessment tool will give you an idea whether you might be eligible for help from your lender, and there are direct links to HUD-approved counseling agencies and lenders’ foreclosure-prevention programs.

There are alternatives to foreclosure that your lender might accept. The most attractive option that’ll allow you to keep your home is a loan modification that reduces your monthly payment. A modification can entail lowering the interest rate, changing a loan from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate, extending the term of a loan, or eliminating past-due balances. Another option, forbearance, can temporarily suspend payments, though the amount will likely be tacked on to the end of the loan.

If you’re unable to make even reduced payments, and assuming a conventional sale isn’t possible, then it may be best to turn your home over to your lender before a foreclosure is completed. A completed foreclosure can decimate a credit score, which will make it hard not only to purchase another home someday, but not impossible: The foreclosure disappears within 7 years or even less, especially if there are extenuating circumstances.

The more quickly you get steady employment and repair your credit score, the more quickly you’ll be eligible to buy a home again. It also may be difficult to rent a home in the short term, but your HUD counselor may be able to offer help.

But you’re better off if your lender can approve a short sale, in which the proceeds are less than what’s still owed on your mortgage. A deed in lieu of foreclosure, which amounts to handing over your keys to your lender, is another good possibility.

Although a deed in lieu of foreclosure or successfully navigating the short sale process will have virtually the same effect on your credit score as a foreclosure, you will likely be able to buy another home more quickly than if you go through a foreclosure. The earlier you begin talks with your lender, the more likelihood of success.

Explore government programs

The federal government’s Making Home Affordable program offers two options: loan modification and refinancing. A self-assessment will indicate which option might be right for you, but you need to apply for the program through your lender. A Making Home Affordable loan modification requires a three-month trial period before it can become permanent.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have their own foreclosure-prevention programs as well. Check to determine if either Fannie or Freddie owns your mortgage. Present this information to your lender and your counselor. Fannie and Freddie also have rental programs under which former owners can remain in recently foreclosed homes on a month-to-month basis.

The federal Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program, which takes full effect in April 2010, offers lenders financial incentives to approve short sales and deeds in lieu of foreclosure. It also provides $3,000 in relocation assistance to borrowers. Again, talk to your lender and counselor.