Program to help U.S. homeowners

Monday, May 19, 2008 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 11:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Tyrone Turner’s most important piece of advice for homeowners facing foreclosure is to bargain hard with the bank, and to remember that losing their home isn’t the only option if they fall behind on loan payments.

“A lot of people think that what (the lender) offers is what you can get. But there’s a lot more you can get just by asking the right questions,” Turner said.

Turner was one of just 200 mortgage counselors attending a conference in St. Louis on Monday to learn new techniques to keep homeowners out of foreclosure. The training session is part of a federally funded effort to stem the wave of some 1.2 million foreclosures nationwide.

Republican Sen. Kit Bond said mortgage-counselor training should be a key part of any federal plan to address the growing housing crisis. Congress has struggled in recent months to slow the foreclosure rate nationwide, considering plans to bail out lenders or readjust home loans.

“It’s a huge national problem, and we need a big, well-informed, active army to deal with it,” Bond told the mortgage counselors during a presentation.

Congress allotted $180 million for the national training program, which is being administered by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit NeighborWorks America program. Monday’s session in St. Louis was one of eight such regional training seminars, said NeighborWorks spokesman Steve Hermes.

The group hopes to train 4,000 mortgage counselors nationwide by the end of the year, Hermes said.

Mortgage counselors act as a middleman between homeowners and mortgage lenders. If a homeowner falls behind on loan payments, the counselor can contact the lender and help negotiate a payment plan.

Bond said loans can be readjusted in some cases to help homeowners avoid climbing interest rates that sometimes kick in after two or three years of some mortgages. He said some 57,000 Missouri residents are in loan default now.

Turner said Better Family Life, the nonprofit group with which he works, has seen a spike in requests for help over the last few months, and has counseled some 45 homeowners.

Turner said his biggest challenge is dealing with the bureaucracies at lending companies. He was hoping to learn more Monday about whom to approach and what terminology to use when bargaining over a loan in default.

He expects his workload to keep increasing this summer.

“The number of people who need help is overwhelming,” he said.

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