Image: Delia Toothman
Helen Kaiao Chang
Delia Toothman stands in front of a condo she once owned that is now being sold in a foreclosure auction.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/9/2007 8:04:57 PM ET 2007-10-10T00:04:57

Delia Toothman once pursued the American dream of owning her own home. Now, she is living the American nightmare.

In just three years Toothman, 30, a former Navy officer and bioscience technician in San Diego, went from $18,000 in savings to $16,000 in credit-card debt. She once lived in a home she co-owned; now she lives in her father's garage.

Toothman is just one of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Americans who find themselves homeless and broke in the aftermath of the housing bust. Hers is a cautionary tale of hard-working and well-intentioned young woman who got swept up in the real estate madness of Southern California, helped along by what she describes as bad advice from industry professionals.

“I feel like my life is ruined,” she said in an interview, wiping away tears. “I only wanted a house. I wanted my own property."

Toothman's story began when she left the Navy in 2004 and returned to San Diego at what turned out to be the peak of the city's real estate boom. By mid-2004 the median price of a home in the metro area had risen to $520,000, up 30 percent from a year earlier. Condo prices also were up 30 percent year-over-year to a median of $368,000.

Fearful of missing out, she and her younger sister decided to buy a home together. “We just wanted to get a piece of land, something we could own, so we weren’t paying rent; we were buying,” said Toothman.

While Toothman was only qualified to buy a $360,000 home, Toothman's agent showed her properties in the $400,000 range. Her mortgage broker urged her to finance 100 percent of the purchase price with interest-only loans that would adjust in two years.

Any talk of a housing bubble was dismissed.

“I got pressure from the real estate agent and officer,” Toothman said. “The loan officer was saying, 'Oh, prices always rise on houses.' ... The thing, is get into the house and I can always refinance you after that into another loan."

“I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ but he kept on saying, ‘If you’re renting, you’re losing this much money, but the way housing prices are going up, it’s really a good investment and you get your money back in taxes,’” recalls Toothman. “I was convinced it was a good thing.”

Toothman was hardly alone.

“It’s the American dream and they got caught up in it,” said Gary Aguilar, a vice president at Springboard Non-profit Consumer Credit Management, an advisory agency based in Riverside, Calif. “Even if it didn’t make sense, a lot of people just passed ‘Go’ and went straight to the dream home.”

Now Springboard and similar agencies are being deluged with phone calls from desperate owners trying to save their homes or stave off bankruptcy.

At Springboard, representatives handled 11,000 phone calls in August, up from about 2,000 a month last year, said Aguilar.

Toothman ended up buying a $415,000 condo in June 2004. The mortgage was entirely under her name, since her sister could not qualify. But the two agreed to split the monthly payments of $2,400.

For a year, Toothman struggled with her half of the payment. Her monthly take-home pay was $2,000. She started eating at her savings to pay the mortgage.

Toothman tried to refinance the loan to lower the monthly payment, but she was unable to qualify.

In late 2005, Toothman decided to sell. But prices were already falling, and by early 2006, the condo was worth less than the outstanding balance of the mortgage, putting her "under water." Toothman’s real estate agent found a buyer who offered $350,000 – $65,000 less than what was owed.

The only way she could sell was if the two lenders agreed to a "short sale" — taking less money than what they were owed. The principal lender, Countrywide, agreed, but Wells Fargo, which held a second loan worth $82,000 rejected the terms because the lender would have gotten only $10,000.

Then the agent found another buyer, who also offered $350,000. This time, Countrywide said yes if Toothman would come up with another $10,000 to pay Wells Fargo more. But Wells Fargo declined the offer.

“They figured I would make more money eventually, and they could take it out of me,” said Toothman, “because if they agreed to a short sale, then they had no (legal) recourse to come after me for the $82,000.”

Executives from Wells Fargo and Countrywide did not return several messages seeking comment.

Toothman’s nightmare got worse. In July 2006, the monthly payment on the two loans jumped nearly 50 percent to $3,600. For two months, Toothman maxed out her credit cards to meet the payments. The sisters planned to keep making the monthly payments until a sale went through.

But after two months, “I couldn’t pay my bills,” said Toothman. “I’m like, ‘Do I stop paying my other loans, my other credit cards, everything else?’ I just started paying my other bills instead of my mortgage, because it was impossible, it was just too much.”

In March of this year, Toothman lost the house in foreclosure, and, like many others, she now is considering bankruptcy.

Pacific Law Center, one of the biggest bankruptcy law firms in San Diego, handled almost 1,000 such cases in the first eight months of the year, up from 626 in all of 2006.

Danielle Donovan, a broker at Clarion Mortgage who has been in the industry for 27 years, said attitudes changed around 2000 when mortgage lenders began offering "subprime" loans to borrowers with less-than-stellar credit as home prices were soaring. “People stopped being interested in buying homes and more in having an investment,” she said.

Now thousands of Americans are facing the same nightmare as Toothman.

“If they don’t have the wherewithal to keep the home, it’s a matter of how are you going to support the family,” said credit counselor Aguilar.

Many are simply choosing to walk out on their mortgages. More people filing bankruptcy these days have perfect credit, zero consumer debt and no missed house payments, said Don Bokovoy, supervising attorney of Pacific Law Center. They are filing bankruptcy because they cannot afford impending higher payments on adjustable mortgages.

For many homeowners, said mortgage broker Donovan, “The question is ‘How far do I wreck myself? Do I make myself penniless and then lose the house? Or do I just walk away now and have something to start over?’”

For Toothman, the nightmare continues. She cannot qualify for a car loan. Her credit card interest rates jumped from 5 percent to 22 percent, due to missed payments while juggling mortgage bills. She wonders who will date a woman with $82,000 in debt.

“I feel burned,” she said. “I’ve always been one who paid the bills on time. I always did things the right way. If they had counseled me (correctly), I could’ve made my payments.”

Helen Kaiao Chang is a freelance business journalist. She can be reached at hchangwriter@gmail.com.

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