Property Grunt

Monday, July 21, 2008


Gretchen Morgensen of the New York Times is doing a series of articles on people drowning in debt called Given a Shovel, Americans Dig Deeper Into Debt.

Everyone should read this series. I don't care if you are a kid in elementary school or an equities trader. You should read these articles because this could happen to you.

Let's talk about Diane McLeod who is the unfortunate subject of this article.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Diane McLeod never knew financial hardship, she said. Her father owned six pizza shops and her mother was a homemaker.

“There was always money for everything, whether it was bills or food shopping or a spur-of-the-moment vacation,” Ms. McLeod recalled. “If they worried about money, they never let us know.”

As you can see, Ms. McLeod came from a family of means. She never missed a meal in her life and she was well taken care of.

Here is when things went wrong.

Earning a livable wage at Verizon Yellow Pages, Ms. McLeod finally decided to leave her marriage and buy a home of her own in February 2003. The cost was $135,000, and her mortgage required no down payment because her credit history was good.

“I was very proud of myself when I bought the house,” Ms. McLeod explained. “I thought I would live here till I died.” Adding to her burden, however, was about $25,000 in credit card debt she had brought from her marriage. Because her husband did not have a regular salary, all the cards were in her name.

After she had been in the house for a year, a friend who was a mortgage broker suggested she consolidate her debts into a new home loan. The property had appreciated by about $30,000, and once again she put no money down for the loan. “It was amazing how easy it was,” she recalled. “But that’s a trap, and I didn’t know it then.”

Naturally, the refinance had costs. There was an $8,000 penalty to pay off the previous mortgage early as well as roughly $1,500 in closing costs on the new loan.

To cover these fees, Ms. McLeod dipped into her retirement account. Only later did she realize that she had to pay an early-withdrawal penalty of $3,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Short on cash, she put it on a credit card.

Soon she had racked up another $19,000 in credit card debt. But because her home had appreciated, she once again refinanced her mortgage. Although she was making $50,000 a year working two jobs, her income was not enough to support the new $165,000 loan. She asked her son to join her on the loan application; with his income, the numbers worked.

“Boy, would I regret that,” she said. The decision would drive a wedge between mother and son and damage his credit profile as well.

Almost immediately after she refinanced, in late 2005, the department store where she worked her second job, as a jewelry saleswoman at night and on weekends, cut back her hours. She quit altogether, and her son moved out of the house, where he had been helping with the rent, to live with a girlfriend. Ms. McLeod was on her own and paying $1,500 a month on her mortgage.

Because the house had been recently appraised at $228,000, she said, she felt sure she could refinance again if she needed to pay off her credit card. “You felt like you had a way out,” she said.

But as happens with many debt-laden Americans, an unexpected illness helped push Ms. McLeod over the edge. In January 2006, her doctor told her she needed a hysterectomy. She had health care coverage, but she could no longer work at a second job.

She made matters worse during her recovery, while watching home shopping channels. “Eight weeks in bed by yourself is very dangerous when you have a TV and credit card,” Ms. McLeod said. “QVC was my friend.”

Later that year, Ms. McLeod realized she was in trouble, squeezed by her mortgage and credit card payments, her $350 monthly car bill, rising energy prices and a stagnant salary. She started to sell knickknacks, handbags, clothing and other items on eBay to help cover her heating and food bills. She stopped paying her credit cards so that she could afford her mortgage.

A year ago she was back in the hospital, this time with a burst appendix. Her condition worsened, and she lost the use of one kidney. She spent 19 days in the hospital and six weeks recuperating. Her prescription-drug costs added to her expenses, and by September she could no longer pay her mortgage.

When her father died in early January, she was devastated. About a month later, on Feb. 14, Ms. McLeod was suspended and soon afterward fired from Verizon.

Toting up her financial obligations, Ms. McLeod said she owed $237,000 on her home mortgage. Of that, sheriff’s costs are $4,350, and “other” fees related to the foreclosure come to $3,000. A house of similar size down the street from Ms. McLeod sold for $153,000 in January.

Her credit card debt totals around $34,000, she said. Each month the late fees and over-limit penalties add to her debt. Ms. McLeod said she would probably file for bankruptcy.

Patricia A. Hasson, president of the Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley, said Ms. McLeod would probably wind up having to repay 40 percent to 60 percent of her credit card debt. The owner of her mortgages could come after her for the difference between what she owes on her loan and what her house ultimately sells for. The first mortgage was sold to investors; Citigroup declined to say whether it held onto the second mortgage or sold it to investors.

A sheriff’s auction of her home on June 12 received no bidders, Ms. McLeod said. The bank will soon evict her.

“Oh, I definitely have regrets,” Ms. McLeod said. “I regret not dealing with my emotions instead of just shopping. And I regret involving my son in all this because that has affected him and his finances and his self-esteem.”

Honestly, this could happen to anyone. We live in a society where we are taught that consumption is good. That in order soothe our pain away we should go out buy stuff even if we can't afford it. Please do not get me wrong. This is all her doing. No open put a gun to Diane's head and told her to buy these things and rack enormous amounts of debt on her credit cards. She got some bad advice on her mortgages but she should have made the effort to do some due diligence on the matter. She put herself in this hole. However, I understand how she got the shovel and why she dug herself her own financial grave.

I hate debt. It scares the crap out of me. Whenever I get a offers in the mail for credit I destroy. My bank actually gave me another credit card even though I made it clear that I had no desire or need for it. I almost went to town on a customer rep on the phone when I was in the process of canceling it. she claimed I was throwing away free money. Apparently she was under the impression that I was an idiot. It was only after talking to a manager and firmly explaining that I was not her target demographic and having another card for emergency purposes sort of defeats the purpose when it screws up your credit rating.

You should only take on as much debt as you can comfortably handle and no more. In Manhattan, it feels damn near impossible, but it can be done.

Remember folks, credit card debt is not tax deductible. There is absolutely no reason to have it if you have the money to pay for it.