Even after a sheriff's sale, the financial and emotional strains that surround a foreclosure are rarely over.
For the past six months, the Associated Press has followed four families who lost their homes in the past year. Three of them are regaining their financial footing, but one has sunk deeper into poverty and depression.
There have been more than 1.6 million foreclosures since the beginning of 2007, according to RealtyTrac. Today, a record 12 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage are either behind on their payments or facing foreclosure. And that record is expected to be broken repeatedly for another year, depending on how many people lose their jobs in the recession.
Job or income loss remains the No. 1 reason people fall behind on their mortgages, followed by excessive debts and illness in the family, according to a survey by Freddie Mac.
The stories of these four families are raw snapshots of the challenges that face thousands of Americans after they lose their homes.
A few weeks after the radiation treatments ended and her home in Gahanna, Ohio, was boarded up, Sarah Houser allowed herself to wonder if the worst might be over.
The doctors believed the taxing treatments to treat her thyroid cancer may have helped to shrink the tumor. She had lost her home to foreclosure, but her husband and kids were still together under one roof. For the first time in months, she was feeling well enough to go on job interviews.
"Once we got into a (rental) house and got through Christmas everything was fine," said Houser, 38. "And now it's like we're feeling the aftereffects" of the foreclosure.
According to the Ohio Attorney General's office, Houser's husband has three liens for personal income tax totaling more than $8,000 at the time they were filed. The couple needed to scrape together $400 to hire an attorney to help them untangle their financial mess. Their home was foreclosed upon in November 2008, months after mounting medical bills had caused them to fall behind on mortgage payments.
"It doesn't just stop with losing the house, unfortunately," she said. "These are things we didn't know."
The stress has frayed her decades-long marriage to Eric, a retired Marine. Medical problems — her cancer, his intestinal disease — had caused them to fall behind on their mortgage payments and go into foreclosure. Now he is healthy, but the state of their finances seems as precarious as ever, even though she is doing part-time computer consulting work to supplement their income.
"I mean, it's hard not to go through something like that and not fight, you know what I mean?" she said. "But we're working on it."
The events of the past year have been difficult for the kids, Houser said, and her main priority now is helping them cope.
Mary, 15, just completed her freshman year of high school and 17-year-old Chris recently graduated. Alex, 20, who was laid off several weeks ago from his customer service job is enlisting in the Marines.
"You wake up, you get your house pulled out from underneath you, and then your parents are fighting," she said. "Your mom's sick, your dad's sick. You know, it's been a really rough year."
The street where the Housers used to live is emptier now. Six more houses have been foreclosed upon. In March, a pipe burst in the Houser's former home, which is still empty. The second floor was flooded and the kitchen ceiling below collapsed. No one has come to make repairs, she said.
"I felt horrible," she said. She paused. "Cause it was such a nice house, you know?"
A JOB PROMOTION
For Charmaine Boykin and her two daughters in Columbia, S.C., the last few months have been filled with many first steps.
Zoreah, who turns 9-months-old this month, can now take a few assisted steps. Alexis, 9, is excited about being a step closer to going to middle school. And Boykin, who works at a nearby hospital as a medical assistant, was recently promoted to the emergency room.
It's a stark contrast to the troubles the family was faced with last year. Her home went into foreclosure after a difficult pregnancy forced her to quit one of her two jobs and her adjustable mortgage payment nearly doubled.
Relying on one job, Boykin became overwhelmed when her monthly payments jumped from around $770 to $906, then $1387 when she fell behind. Not able to make the payments and provide for her children, Boykin move her family into an apartment.
She feels she's recovered from the disappointment of losing her first home. Still, she couldn't resist the temptation to drive by her former house to see who lives there. She saw a "For Rent" sign in the yard and discovered that the home she worked hard to renovate was now being rented for more than $800.
"For the past three months, I've been working extra hours at work, trying to pay off some debt," the 32-year-old single mother. "I have been trying to get my credit in order and at the same time just trying to maintain."
Boykin, who earned her associate's degree last year from Southern Wesleyan University, is talking to counselors at South University in the hopes of starting on bachelor's degree this fall.
"You know, more pay (and) higher on the career ladder," she said. "I truly believe it will help."
UNEMPLOYED AND DEPRESSED
The 14-year-old boy, tall for his age, strokes his mother's hair as they sit on their worn couch. A washer-dryer, on its last legs, rattles and creaks. A hole in the front window and a bent metal screen serves notice that no place is safe from a break-in here.
The 34-year-old woman is crying, her eyes swelling red just seconds before tears start. She wipes away the tears with her fingertips.
Laura Melendez, mother of five boys, is overwhelmed. Her recovery from foreclosure has sputtered to a near halt. She recently left her job working afternoons and evenings as a cosmetologist at Wal-Mart because her hours had been cut and caring for her five boys ages 4 to 18 was just too much work. She was getting pressure from her boss because she had missed shifts caring for the boys.
Melendez and her boyfriend bought a $250,000 home near Homestead, Fla., in April 2007. They were able to pay their $2,600 monthly housing expenses through a combination of their salaries and help from Melendez's mother's Social Security checks.
They were managing to pay their bills until her boyfriend lost his job. He eventually left her and the five children, returning to their native Puerto Rico in December 2007.
The situation deteriorated quickly. Her mother got sick and ended up in an assisted-living facility, so Melendez lost that financial help too. She stopped paying the mortgage, fell behind on her SUV payments, and eventually walked away from the home last fall.
She gets $203 a month in government housing assistance and about $400 a month in food stamps. She has been able to pay off some credit card debt using a substantial tax refund, but there are days when she avoids driving anywhere because she cannot afford the gas.
She's also had trouble with neighbors, whose children have thrown rocks at her doors and windows. Two of her other boys were found playing in a residential canal.
The break-in, in which the burglar stole some baseball caps and some clothes but left behind the TV and a computer, has made her feel unsafe. County police constantly roam in white-and-green patrol cars: Her eldest son, 18, spent a few days in jail for allegedly driving with a suspended license.
Her 14-year-old son, Jonathan, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, where he was staying with his father. The plane ticket was paid for by a South Florida homebuilder who learned of Melendez's situation.
Now, with all five boys on summer break, Melendez fears getting a job and leaving them alone during the day. But without a job, she can't afford a baby sitter. It's a Catch-22.
Melendez admits to being depressed, and sleeps often. The kitchen sink overflows with dirty food bowls one balmy afternoon in late May, while her kids clean up an upstairs bedroom. Two of the boys sleep on mattresses resting on the floor.
Her pride and self-reliance have prevented her from pushing her brother for financial help. She has contemplated a return to Puerto Rico, but she feels the United States is the better place to raise her sons.
"This is my battalion," said Melendez pointing to a room full of boys. "We're at war right now, but we're going to win."
A LITTLE MORE BUSINESS
Fred Gambino spent his 60th birthday in April on the operating table in a hospital in Chesterfield Township, Mich.
The results were good: The tumor on his adrenal gland, first thought to be cancerous, was benign, and the surgery should be covered by Medicaid. Better still, he came home to a pile of work that would help pay the rent and catch up on other bills.
"Hopefully things are turning around," said Gambino, relaxing with his wife, Linda, in the condo they share in Macomb County northeast of Detroit.
Since losing their home in foreclosure Jan. 1, the Gambinos have taken small steps toward financial recovery.
The real estate appraiser who had to close his business last June is getting assignments from his son, a fellow appraiser. The elder Gambino makes a little less than $100 for each report, down from the $270 he made in the boom years but enough to pay some bills that had been covered by family members and food stamps.
"I'll never make what we made before, which is probably better because through it we've learned to tighten up a little bit," he said. "Before, the more I made, the more I was spending."
It's difficult to find any work in an area reeling from the recent bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, and several parts suppliers. And Gambino's rising workload reflects the tough times: He says nearly all the homes he is appraising are in foreclosure.
"I know what they're going through — absolutely," he said. "But, again, it's a job."
The work sends him into many abandoned homes robbed of their furnaces, hot water heaters and even toilets to sell for scrap. But the ones that get to him remind him of the home he and Linda lost. Once worth $185,000, it recently sold for $77,000.
At his basement computer, Gambino shares pictures from his latest report: a Detroit home with a new roof, electrical work and other recent improvements.
"This is a guy that's going to go through what I went through. He's going to lose this home. It's unfortunate," he said. "Maybe he's got some family who can give him a few bucks. My main concern is, where are they going to go?"
The Gambinos know they need to leave their rented condo this summer, since its owner also has fallen into foreclosure. But they hope to rent a niece's three-bedroom ranch home a few miles away.
The Gambinos are working toward making enough money to pay all of their monthly bills and want to arrange payment plans for delinquent credit card and tax bills. If all goes well, they will celebrate their 30th anniversary later this month with a long-standing tradition: dinner at a local steakhouse.
"I'm fortunate — I don't want to sound like the most happy-go-lucky guy," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you. There's days when we've sat here and said, 'OK, we got $4 or whatever left. What do you want to do for dinner? All right, make tuna fish.'"
Meghan Barr reported from Ohio, Katrina Goggins from South Carolina, Jeff Karoub from Michigan and Adrian Sainz from Florida.
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