Terry and Lloyd Berger live in their dream house in Marysville. Members of their extended family live nearby. “I love Marysville,” said Terry Berger, 52. “I’m from here. I don’t want to move out of here.” But they may have to move if things turn sour. Like millions of others in this country, the Bergers are struggling to stay in their home. A subprime mortgage with a high interest rate they got a few years ago has choked their household budget. Their savings continue to dwindle, even though Lloyd Berger, 47, makes about $62,000 a year as a fleet mechanic for Frito Lay in Everett. The veteran also gets approximately $9,600 per year in early retirement payments from the Army. The Bergers hope to get a home loan modification through a settlement with Washington and 10 other states reached in October by their lender, Countrywide Financial Corp. The nation’s biggest mortgage lender rose by selling risky loans and then fell when those loans turned bad and triggered the nation’s financial crisis.
The $8.4 billion settlement, the largest of its kind in history, aims to modify troubled mortgages for about 400,000 homeowners nationwide, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. The program is expected to be up and running on Monday. The settlement showcases the increasing efforts of the government to reduce home foreclosures, which continue to bring down the housing market. Falling home prices have yet to see the bottom in Snohomish County and elsewhere in the nation, compounding the economic downturn.
The Bergers grit their teeth thinking about how they switched from a safe, thirty-year traditional mortgage loan to a higher-rate mortgage in 2006. It was fast and easy to get into the riskier loan, but getting out of it has been hard because of extra fees the Bergers said were not clearly explained. They made their own mistakes, the Bergers said. But aggressive lending tactics by Countrywide pushed them into the quagmire, they added. “I understand Countrywide was in business to make money,” Terry Berger said. “But when they use deceptive practices to make money, there’s a problem.” Lloyd Berger moved around a lot while serving in the Army. Terry Berger followed him to Alaska, Louisiana and Texas.
When he retired in July 1997, she was ready to come back to Snohomish County. Her husband, originally from Stanwood, granted her wish. The couple moved back and rented a place for a year before finding a two-story house for sale in Marysville. Lloyd Berger, who enjoys woodworking, loved the big shop in the back yard. The couple got a thirty-year Veterans Affairs home loan from Countrywide with an interest rate fixed at 7 %. The $152,750 mortgage was a good deal with no closing costs, no mortgage insurance and no down payment. They started paying about $1,300 per month for their house. The payment was reasonable because both of them held jobs. But their debts would mount over time: credit cards, a student loan and an energy conservation loan.
In 2006, the Bergers decided to do a mortgage refinance with Countrywide to reduce their total monthly debt payments from about $2,700 to about $2,000. “We had more going out than coming in at that point,” Lloyd Berger said. The refinance came with a setback. Countrywide told the couple that they could qualify only for a subprime mortgage with a fixed 8.375 % rate because of a bad credit score, the Bergers recalled. As they negotiated by phone and e-mail, they struggled to keep up with their debt. “We needed to get the refinance done, and they knew it and they got us in the corner,” Lloyd Berger said. They didn’t shop around for lenders or check their credit score by themselves, they said, adding that they learned much later that their credit score was not bad.
In May 2006, they closed the deal while looking at a pile of paperwork at a coffee shop inside a Lynnwood book store. “We never met a live body until we went to sign the paper,” Lloyd Berger said. “That wasn’t even somebody who worked for Countrywide. That was just a contractor.” The new, $225,000 loan included a prepayment penalty for paying it off early. The penalty would expire a year into the loan, Terry Berger said she was told. She said she was also told it could be waived by negotiation. She would find out otherwise later.
Terry Berger said Countrywide called her again and again after the home refinancing was done, urging her to switch to yet another mortgage. Some offers were for low, adjustable rate mortgages in which the interest rate is set to spike in a few years. She refused all the offers. Another refinance would give Countrywide more money in closing costs and fees, but it would do her no good, she said. Countrywide also kept calling her husband’s cell phone. “I basically told them, ‘We are done with talking,’” Lloyd Berger said. Why so many calls? Because there was money to be made by the mortgage companies through extra fees and higher interest rates, said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University in Pullman. Crellin noted that the riskier, subprime mortgages were developed several years ago to give people a chance to buy a house when they couldn’t qualify for a traditional mortgages. “There was a lot of pressure from federal agencies to increase home ownership,” he said.
Investors loved mortgages when home values kept rising in America. The burgeoning global economy, especially spurred by China, generated a huge amount of money to invest, Crellin said. U.S. financial firms such as Countrywide competed to issue and collect mortgages to sell them as securities to worldwide investors. The bigger the demand for mortgages, the looser the lending guidelines, said Steve Tytler, vice president of Best Mortgage in Bellevue and a real estate columnist for The Herald. At the height of the housing boom, people were able to buy expensive houses without any income verification, he said. “Bad guys abused the system,” he added. Initially, the Bergers managed to keep up with their mortgage payment.
In March 2008, though, Terry Berger quit working as a paralegal for health reasons. Tired of repeated calls from Countrywide, the couple tried to refinance their mortgage with Pentagon Federal Credit Union. They wanted to get another 30-year loan with a fixed 6 % rate to make it affordable on one income.
Countrywide said that they would have to pay about $6,000 in prepayment penalties, Terry Berger said. The fee won’t expire until March — three years into the subprime mortgage, she learned. She had thought the penalty would go away after a year. “What I heard from them was different from what appeared on paper,” she said. The penalty kept the couple from switching to the credit union. Even without the loan, they had to pay $600 to the credit union for administrative fees that would have been waived had the new loan panned out.
If they don’t get help from the state with lower mortgage rates from a loan modification, they said they plan to wait for May 2009. That’s when the prepayment penalty is expected to go away. That’s when they plan to say goodbye to Countrywide. Read complete news article >