Skip a payment, trash your scores

Dear Liz: We are trying to negotiate our second mortgage and have not paid it since June. Will this affect my wanting to purchase an auto?

Answer: It may not affect your desire to purchase a car, but it’s likely to affect the actual transaction if you’re not able to pay cash.

Failing to pay a credit obligation can devastate your credit scores, the three-digit numbers lenders use to gauge your creditworthiness. The worse your scores, the less likely you are to find a lender willing to do business with you. Even if you can secure a loan, it’s likely to come with a scandalously high interest rate.

Selling home could ease student loan burden

Dear Liz: Your answer to the parents with $200,000 in student loans for their daughters’ educations was interesting — and cautionary. I wonder, since they mentioned refinancing their home, why not explore using their equity by selling the home and renting?

Depending on the amount they have in the home, they might be able to fund more retirement as well as reduce the loan balance. Also depending on the size of the mortgage, they might be able to rent for the same monthly amount or less. Presumably, their house was big enough for four, but now they could “live well with less.” And be more flexible.

Answer: The writer did mention getting a new mortgage, but didn’t say whether it was a refinance or a modification, or whether the couple had any equity in the home. Although a conventional refinance requires considerable equity, a mortgage modification or a refinance made through the government’s HARP program would not require that they owe less than the house is worth.

If they do have equity, it would be worth considering using at least some of it to alleviate their debt burden and supplement their retirement funds. If they don’t have equity, selling the house might still be an option if they could substantially reduce their living costs. Given that their income plunged by more than half, they would be smart to cut their expenses as far as possible to free up money to save for retirement and pay their debts. Taking such a big step down in their lifestyle might be painful, but it’s often to better to do so now rather than risk being old and broke.

Many goals, few resources: How do you focus?

Dear Liz: I have read tons of books on finance and debt repayment, but I’m having trouble deciding what to do next. My husband and I are 52. He receives a monthly disability income, and I work two days a week. We still have about $105,000 left before our mortgage is paid off. We also owe about $7,000 in credit card debt and $5,500 in overdraft charges.

Should I concentrate solely on paying off debt, including the mortgage? Should we modestly renovate our 20-year-old home because after six kids, it is in need of a little TLC? We could downsize, but I’m somewhat emotionally attached to this house, and downsizing would still mean renovating to get the house in shape to sell. At the same time, we’d like to start a small business in our town. It wouldn’t be a huge investment of money, but it’s an outlay nonetheless. I don’t really want to wait five or 10 years to have to do this because it would mean income for one of our children who needs it and sometimes has to rely on us financially. How should I focus?

Answer: You didn’t say a word about retirement savings, but that should be a priority for most people.

If you don’t make a lot of money, Social Security is designed to replace 40% to 50% of your earnings. (The more you make, the less Social Security will replace, on the assumption that you’ve had more opportunity to save.) But most people, of any income level, would have trouble adjusting to living solely on their Social Security checks.

You can estimate your future benefit checks by using the Social Security Administration’s calculator at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator. Your results will be based on your actual earnings. Then you can use the AARP calculator (in the “work and retirement” section of the website) to figure out how much you need to save to have a comfortable retirement. You may not be able to reach that goal, but you should at least try to put aside something to improve your future life.

You don’t need to be in a rush to pay off your mortgage, but you should target that credit card debt and that shocking amount of overdraft charges. You also should know that renovations rarely pay for themselves when you’re ready to sell a home. At best, you typically get back 80 cents for every dollar you spend. A better approach is to make some cosmetic fixes that don’t cost a lot, such as new paint, clean windows and freshened-up landscaping.

As for opening a store, understand that small businesses can take a while to get off the ground. If you don’t have adequate savings or access to a line of credit, the business could fail and take your investment with it. The Small Business Administration at http://www.sba.gov has resources and Small Business Development Centers to help you understand what lies ahead. Do your research before you begin, and consider holding off at least until your toxic debts are repaid.

Finally, you didn’t explain why your child needs your money. If he or she is still a minor, that’s one thing. If he or she is an adult and not disabled in some way, however, then the parental dole needs to stop. It doesn’t sound like you and your husband are adequately providing for your futures. Your kids need to know they have to provide for their own.

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Will her bad credit prevent him from getting a mortgage?

Dear Liz: Is it possible for me to buy a home without having my wife on the mortgage? She lost her business because of the recession. I do not want to deal with her creditors.

 Answer: You can apply for a mortgage based solely on your own income, credit scores and debt-to-income ratio, if those are sufficient to buy the house you want. Your wife’s income and credit does not have to be considered.

If you can’t swing the purchase without her income, though, you’ll both need to spend some time improving her credit scores. That might include adding her as an authorized user to your credit cards. Another option is to negotiate settlements with her creditors in return for their deleting the collection accounts from her credit reports. You’d want to be cautious in these negotiations, especially if the statute of limitations on the debts hasn’t expired and your wife could be sued. Consider visiting DebtCollectionAnswers.com for help in negotiating with creditors.

Regulator targets mortgage servicers

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to “whip the mortgage servicing industry into shape,” as this post on The Consumerist puts it, and such action is long overdue. Mortgage servicers have been the choke point in the mortgage mess, often costing people their homes because of their inefficiency, inaction and indifference. The CFPB wants to increase transparency and accountability among servicers, which take people’s mortgage payments and pass them along, minus a small cut, to the loans’ owners. Here’s how CFPB head Richard Cordray put it in a speech today to Operation HOPE:

“This industry has never had a requirement, or a strong incentive, to meet the needs of consumers.  Even before the crisis, there were already problems with bad practices and sloppy recordkeeping. When the financial crisis hit, however, things got much worse…And instead of investing in new personnel and processes, too many mortgage servicers took short-cuts that made things far worse for homeowners in trouble.

Picture every bad customer service experience you have ever had: calls going unanswered, glacially slow processes, mistakes made and not fixed, a kaleidoscopic cast of human beings who never seem to deal with you more than once, your paperwork submitted and lost repeatedly.  Now, multiply that mountain of frustration exponentially, and you can begin to get an inkling of the scope of the problems that Americans face:  house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, and community by community.

And it is not just consumers who suffer.  Mortgage investors do not benefit from a broken system where servicers do not fulfill their obligations or make reasonable efforts to mitigate losses.  And this failed business model widened the pain of the housing crisis and destroyed an incalculable measure of consumer trust in financial businesses, perhaps in a lasting way.”

Cordray points out that consumers have absolutely no control over which company winds up servicing their loans and can’t walk away from bad service. He quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

Like everyone else who’s covered the mortgage industry, I’ve heard horror story after horror story from people given the runaround by their mortgage servicers. People have lost their homes, and investors have suffered far worse losses than necessary, because the servicing industry is so messed up.

The CFPB’s proposed rules won’t give people back the homes they’ve already lost, but it could prevent needless foreclosures in the future.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).