'Talk before you walk away'

The message is clear: for homeowners facing foreclosure or even just starting to feel the pinch of not being able to make mortgage payments: don’t give up. And no matter what, don’t just walk away. With the economy and housing industry still struggling, there are plenty of options out there and more ways to get help every day.

On Feb. 24, the Sussex County Association of Realtors (SCAoR) unveiled their “Talk Before You Walk Away” program. It is provided by the Housing Opportunity Partner (HOP) committee of the SCAoR.

Through a grant from its national association, the SCAoR has launched this program to limit the number of new foreclosures in Sussex County. According to the SCAoR, on a percentage basis, the largest increase in foreclosed homes over the last two years was in Sussex County, a 44 percent jump between 2008 and 2009. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Even though Realtors have been hit hard by the struggling economy – as have others in the real estate field, such as builders, contractors and inspectors – they wanted to reach out to those that have been hit harder than themselves.

“We wanted to look past what it our personal situation and see what we can do for families nearby,” said Betty Lewis Kasperski, 2010 chairperson for the Housing Opportunity Partner (HOP) Committee.

They are partnering with federal, state and local agencies to bring awareness to the communities of the many options that are out there for homeowners who are struggling. They plan on holding two educational sessions, one on Saturday, March 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the new Seaford Public Library, and a similar event on March 13 at SCAOR’s headquarters in Georgetown.

“We, as Realtors, are a powerful network,” acknowledged local Realtor Robin Masland. She said, because such a high percentage of homes are bought and sold through Realtors, they really have their finger on the pulse of the community and that, in educating the real estate agents, people are really educating the community.

Part of the grant money the SCAoR received will be used for education and public awareness and also to help pay for financial-literacy education programs for homeowners. They are also putting together Realtor Survivor Tool Kits to help educate the Realtors so they, in turn, can educate and better advise their clients or former clients. Executive Assistant Ruth Briggs King said they hope to help 100 families through financial counseling assistance.

At the meetings in March, there will be representatives from the Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit, Office of the State Bank Commissioner, Delaware State Housing Authority and HUD-approved counseling agencies, such as NCALL Research and First State Community Action Center.

“Don’t put your head in the sand,” said Deputy Attorney General Sherry Hoffman, whose office will be represented at the March sessions to talk about consumer fraud prevention. “It’s so overwhelming, but that’s the worst thing you can do.”

She then went on to talk about some of the fraudulent schemes that are out there that people need to be aware of and educated about. She also added that it is important to keep things in perspective. “It’s your house, but don’t let it ruin your health or your family.”

The top five ZIP codes affected by foreclosures in Sussex County are 19973, in Seaford; 19956, in Laurel; 19950, in Greenwood; 19963, in Milford; and 19947, in Georgetown.

Kathy Goodman, a local Realtor on the HOP panel, said there has been a rise in beach-area foreclosures, as well.

“It was very rare a few years ago,” she said, adding that more help is available every day for second-home owners and owners of investment property, too. “There weren’t as many steps for investors, but now there’s more.”

For more information, visit www.scaor.com. To call the Attorney General’s Foreclosure hotline, dial (800) 220-5424.