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What happened to the real estate boom?

“When we bought our house three years ago I never expected it to come to this.” His shoulders widened from years of manual labor and his face prematurely aged from stress and worry, John Doe* sits hunched over a cup of coffee remembering how he felt the day the bank handed his wife the keys to their new home. ”It was what we always dreamed about. Four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, an attached garage and a master bedroom with a small balcony that overlooked the backyard. It was perfect and I was so proud to be able to have my family in it.” Doe, like millions of others, has lost (is losing) his home. Since the housing boom began to cool in 2006, an increasing number of homeowners have fallen into foreclosure, having lost their homes or been threatened with it after failing to keep up with their mortgage payments. Wall Street’s troubles have been largely blamed on the nationwide spike in foreclosures. The foreclosure wave has also chipped away at the foundations of towns and cities across America. Foreclosures tend to feed on foreclosures. In neighborhoods where sub-prime mortgages were prevalent, forced sales can drive down the value of surrounding homes making further foreclosures more likely. Lamar County is no exception. Foreclosures have increased by nearly 30 percent since President Barack Obama unveiled his $275 billion foreclosure prevention plan on February 18. JUST THE FACTS, a popular website that inventories nationwide foreclosures, reports foreclosures jumped to 290,000 or 30 percent from the previous year. The agency has been compiling and collecting foreclosure data from over 2,200 counties since 2005. Nationwide data showed that the total number of foreclosure properties in January dropped 25.7 percent to 72,694 from the previous month’s 97,841. Pre-foreclosure filings also dropped almost 12 percent from December to January from 190,467 to 166,860. One in eight Georgia mortgage holders were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure in the fourth quarter, according to a survey released Thursday by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The 223,000 Georgia homeowners delinquent or in foreclosure marked a 16 percent increase from the third quarter. Lamar County’s numbers are slightly more alarming. Of the 10,323 privately owned properties in Lamar County (according to 2008 tax assessments), 27 were foreclosed on in March 2009 compared to 24 in February 2009 – a 3% increase. JUST A SMALL LOAN Traditionally, lending institutions have been able to step in and offer low interest loans or loans based on homes as collateral in order to see owners through rocky times. With the banking crisis that hasn’t been the case. Georgia reported one of the largest increases in loans over 90 days in arrears as the state’s jobless rate surged. ”People are struggling in this environment. But our customers are holding their own. They are resilient and really working hard to make ends meet. These are tough times but I haven’t seen anything unusually alarming in Barnesville,” reported Robbie Tenney, president of United Bank in Barnesville. COMMUNITY EFFECT A drive down popular, downtown Barnesville streets like Greenwood or Thomaston reveals a number of homes for sale by both agents and owners. ”Prices have certainly gone down from their peak a year or two ago. There may be a bit of fear in homeowners but the truth is that the number of sales hasn’t gone down in the last four or five years. Right now we are seeing 2004 prices,” says Dora Cox, broker at Dora Cox Realty. In fact, home prices are down some 20%. Thanks in part to aggressive federal intervention efforts, interest rates are also down on mortgages and other business and consumer loans. A tax credit of up to $8,000 is also now available for qualified first-time home buyers purchasing a principal residence on or after January 1, 2009 and before December 1, 2009. Scott Leverett of Spring Properties is quick to point out that the market is becoming a target for investors. ”The average Joe is not getting what he would have gotten two years ago for the sale of his house. The market is down as we all know and investors have an enormous stock to choose from if they have solid credit and proper financing. That same average Joe is more willing to sell because he is concerned he may not even get next year what he would get now.” Leverett is also quick to point out Lamar County is a lot better off than some of the surrounding counties. ‘We have a solid market and sales are encouraging,” he said. That notion is echoed by Joshua Swatts of ReMax Traditions. “Foreclosed houses are selling well in part because of their reduced prices. But, truly, the Lamar market hasn’t shown too drastic of a change. Anyone with a good credit score can still qualify for a loan to purchase.” Swatts has his own thoughts on why Lamar County has faired as well as it has. “The issue initially was with qualified buyers getting loans they couldn’t truly handle and then purchasing homes that were outside their means. But because our community didn’t overbuild or begin to overdevelop in 2006 and 2007 as other communities did, we just don’t have a lot of unfinished projects sitting vacant.” THE INEVITABLE Despite the efforts of the federal government, developers, investors, optimistic realtors, and even private lending institutions, one fact remains – homes are being foreclosed on at a rate not seen in recent history. Owners are not meeting their financial obligations for a host of reasons. The biggest increases in loans at least 90 days in arrears occurred in Georgia and four other states. This is clearly a sign of the spreading impact of the recession. Not surprisingly, homeowners having the most trouble in Georgia are those with less-than-stellar credit who took out sub-prime mortgages. Delinquency rates for prime mortgages are rising nationwide as higher-income workers lose jobs and income. ’We don’t want people to lose their homes – their dreams,” said Stacy Sisk, mortgage servicing manager at United Bank. Sisk, who works primarily with Freddie Mac, is compassionate and eager to work with those who are in any stage of the purchase and foreclosure process. ”What I tell lendees is that, even if you are not yet past due and you are possibly facing foreclosure due to a loss of job or other circumstances, call ahead and talk to us. Let us help you.” Since Obama took office modifications have been made to loan programs and more and more options are being introduced each day. ”There are a number of refinancing options and interest rates seem to be lowering daily. We all have to be proactive, though, and act now before things get so bad that foreclosure is inevitable,” Sisk concluded. As for Doe, he continues to hold on to his dream. The bank and the loan are the least of his worries right now though. He is resolved to telling his two kids why they have to move back in with grandma.

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