Botched remodel holding up refinancing

Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.

A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.

My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?

Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.

First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.

The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.

If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.

Old debts don’t disappear

Dear Liz: I am astonished you would counsel someone to try to negotiate a settlement of credit card debts from 2003 that were written off in 2007. Why? The statute of limitations is no more than six years in California and can be much shorter in many other states. If a reader of your column begins to negotiate over debts that are that old, they risk creating a new debt or resurrecting the old one, thereby becoming liable for repayment of a debt that is not collectible. When there is a stale claim, the response to the collection agency needs to be: “This is a stale claim, the statute of limitations has expired. I do not owe this debt to you or to my original creditor. Please stop contacting me.”

Answer: Statutes of limitations limit how long a creditor is supposed to be able to sue a borrower in court. The statutes vary by state and the type of debt, but range from three to 15 years. The expiration of that limit doesn’t make the debt somehow disappear or prohibit a creditor from continuing collection efforts.

Many people feel a moral obligation to pay their debts when they can. Others want to negotiate to remove collections from their credit reports in return for payment. (Time limits for reporting negative items on credit reports are different from state statutes of limitations; in most cases, the limit is seven years and 180 days from the time the account first went delinquent.) If someone wants to get a mortgage, for example, a lender may require payment of an open collections account regardless of the state statute of limitations.

You’re correct that anyone who wants to negotiate a settlement of an old debt should be aware of the statute of limitations affecting that debt. If the limitation hasn’t passed, the borrower needs to be aware of the danger of getting sued. If the limitation has passed, the borrower needs to avoid restarting it by making a small payment. Instead, the best approach is to settle for a lump sum and to get the collector’s assurance, in advance and in writing, that the remaining debt will be forgiven rather than resold.

Don’t pay grandson’s credit card bills

Dear Liz: I hope you can offer me some advice regarding a large credit card debt. My 28-year-old grandson is currently enrolled in college part-time and is employed. Over the last few years, he was not in school and unable to find work. He has, consequently, accumulated a total debt of $7,000 on his three credit cards. What would you advise him to do? He is paying the interest only on his debts as that is all he can afford.

Answer: Today’s minimum payments require credit card borrowers to repay a portion of principal along with the interest owed that month. If he truly is paying only interest, then he’s paying less than the minimum required and his credit scores have probably taken a big hit.

Let’s assume that he’s actually paying the minimums on his cards. He needs to increase his payments if he wants to work his way out of debt faster. That will require earning more income (by working more hours or taking a second job), cutting expenses or both.

Seven thousand dollars is not an insurmountable amount of debt, and certainly not something he should file bankruptcy over. But he may want to talk to a legitimate credit counselor about budgeting strategies or, if he’s really in a bind, a debt management plan that would allow him to pay the debt off over time at lower interest rates. He can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org.

What you shouldn’t do is offer to pay this debt, even if you can. Struggling to repay this debt could teach him not to carry balances in the future. If you pay the debt, the only thing he learns is that he can count on Grandma to bail him out of his own messes.

There’s more than one way out of credit card debt

Dear Liz: In your book “Your Credit Score,” you note that one of the best ways to improve your credit score and lighten your credit card load is to get a personal loan with a credit union and pay it off in installments.

I have two high-interest credit card balances that are hovering right near my credit limits (a little over $15,000 total) that comprise the vast majority of my debt. I’d love to get an installment loan to pay them off, but I’ve applied several times and several places for personal loans — including my credit union — and have either been denied or not given a sufficient loan to cover the total amount. I also don’t have $15,000 in cash sitting around in a savings account to secure a loan of that size.

In this situation, what would you recommend? The minimum payments on these two cards are roughly $190 and $160 each, and I’d love to be able to combine them and maybe even save a few bucks too.

Answer: What you seem to be talking about is a secured personal loan, rather than one that’s unsecured. Secured personal loans typically require that you have an equivalent amount in a bank account or certificate of deposit as collateral for the loan. If you have the cash, though, you wouldn’t need the loan — you could use the money to pay off your debt.

Unsecured personal loans don’t have collateral. The bank or credit union is relying on your word that you’ll repay the loan. Not surprisingly, lenders can be pretty picky about whose word they will trust. Few will take a risk on borrowers with poor credit scores — and those maxed-out cards, accompanied by all those loan applications, aren’t helping yours.

For now, give up the idea of getting a loan. Instead, take whatever cash you have to pay down the cards as far as you can. Retain $500 or so as an emergency fund, but put the rest to use in eliminating this high-rate debt.

Next, start cutting expenses so you can free up more money to repay your debt. Do you eat out? Cut back. Pay for TV? Ditch the cable. Take vacations? Stay home for a while. None of these sacrifices has to be more than temporary, as long as you’re willing to stop adding to your debt.

Paying credit card debt is a lot like losing weight. If you don’t make much effort, you won’t get much result. But sending in big payments each month will help you see progress pretty quickly, which can inspire you to keep going.

Once you’ve got the debt paid off, don’t charge more on the cards than you can afford to pay off each month.

Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

Hoard cash if unemployment looms

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been aggressively paying down our debts and plan to be debt free by this time next year. We’re devoting about 20% of our income to debt repayment and saving about 6% (not much, I know, but we’re young and just starting out). We were building an emergency fund and currently have enough money in it to cover only a few months of our expenses, since we had to dip into it recently for unexpected car repairs.

My husband just lost his job. I make enough that we would just barely be able to cover all of our minimum payments and our bills, but my employer lost its biggest client and I may be out of a job soon too. Should we continue to make the same debt payments, reduce the amount or make only minimum payments until we are both securely employed?

Answer: As soon as you know that unemployment is a possibility, you should begin to conserve cash. That means making only the minimum payments on your debt and cutting your expenses to the bone. Although the job picture is improving, the average duration of unemployment is still close to 40 weeks. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

When you’re both employed again, you should reconsider your financial priorities. Getting out of debt is a great goal, but not all debt is created equal. Paying off credit cards should typically be a high priority, but you needn’t be in as much of a rush to pay off federal student loans, car loans or mortgages, because the rates on these debts is typically fixed and relatively low. Instead, make sure you’re taking advantage of retirement savings opportunities and building up a cash cushion to tide you through the next financial setback.