Some Peace of Mind This December

The holidays are here, the end of the year is looming large, for many it’s time to tidy things up before 2019 rolls in and things get going again. Over the last few weeks I’ve written about Lodge 49 and the fact debt (of every kind) is so prevalent on the show, it’s another character; and I relayed happy news about settling judgments and liens for clients looking at foreclosure.

Everyone, I think, can identify with the residents of Long Beach in Lodge 49, beset at every turn by debt, plunging home prices (the area just became a superfund site), foreclosures, and more. Everyone, I think, can vicariously enjoy hearing about a judgement and/or lien being settled in the borrower’s favor.

But, in my experience, that doesn’t translate – often enough, at least –  to the many, many, people out there with the same problems I write about getting – really getting – that there are solutions for them. In many cases, several solutions.

Everyone can be LIz, the Lodge 49 character who walked into her bank and took care of her debt problem forever . . . the only thing you need to get started is to understand you have options.

Liz figured it out in the season finale.

Well, December is our season finale and the time to get some peace of mind, probably the commodity I deal in the most.

It’s simple, if you are looking a a possible foreclosure, have judgments and liens that threaten your home and/or continued financial health, are facing a crippling crumbling foundation situation, are in foreclosure and are scared … or baffled … or confused …

. . . come and talk to me.

Give yourself a consult for Christmas and give yourself some peace of mind. The one thing I can tell you sight unseen, you have no idea how many options you have.

The Debts of Lodge 49

The first season of Lodge 49 ended a few weeks ago (along with the latest season of Better Call Saul, I’ll write about that later). I waited to write because this piece contains a mild spoiler.

Lodge 49 is … well, it’s hard to categorize. It’s gentle, a bit melancholy, smart, sometimes very funny, very well acted and pretty much a ten-episode shaggy dog story.

There are great characters who are very real people, it occurs in Long Beach, California which is an excellent stand-in for so many things about 2018 it would be impossible to list, there’s a mystery out there somewhere, there’s some intriguing as yet undisclosed mysticism swirling around everything and everyone.

So, yeah, I liked it. I was so engrossed in it I didn’t realize until forty-five minutes or so into the last show – and I did so with a real jolt – that the entire show was about . . . debt.

The debt of the middle class in 2018, with Long Beach still feeling the effects of the Recession.

I was jolted because looking back I saw it was there all along. I’ll bet ten minutes doesn’t go by – per episode – without someone talking about debt – their own, someone else’s, the Lodge’s (it is, after all, a building with a mortgage).

Debt is everywhere and when people aren’t talking about it there are signs in the background blaring it. Foreclosure signs on boarded up buildings, empty condos, ReFi billboards, more, everywhere.

A main character is a pawn broker. The pawn broker isn’t nasty, makes almost fair offers on property, seems to have a sense of humor, is a rock-solid businessman.  He also makes payday loan, title loans, and personal loans with interest rates around the thirty-percent mark. He also tells every ‘client’ exactly how stupid they are for taking whatever loan he’s offering before they put pen to paper.

The protagonist, Dud (yes, no ‘e’) is into him for big bucks and his car. Dud’s father owned a pool servicing company, went out to surf one afternoon and never came back. The business had loans far in excess of its value. Their house was foreclosed on and auctioned off.

Dud’s twin sister Liz owes the bank $80,000 – she co-signed a business note for her father. She’s obsessive about paying it down, makes every payment on time even though it stretches her budget to the breaking point, has been paying for over a year when she is shocked to find she has only been covering the interest.

Ernie works for a company that can’t pay commissions until it gets advances, he’s into the pawn broker. The lodge itself is being foreclosed on. The mysterious rich guy who pops into Dud and Ernie’s lives (a great Bruce Campbell) is dependent of leveraging – he borrows to invest. The people who bought Dud and Liz’ childhood home at action are clearly underwater, all the land in town is about to be declared toxic, they’ll never resell.

Debt, debt, everywhere. It’s not oppressive, it certainly doesn’t put a damper on the show, but it is always there, like another character.

No one does anything about their debt, except add on more in the hope of getting by long enough to do . . . something that will maybe fix it, . . . until the very end, the tenth episode/season finale (that raised more questions than it answered but made me want more).

That debt finale: Liz walks into her bank to talk to about her loan. The ever helpful, ever cheerful, manager says “The outstanding balance is eighty-thousand, five hundred and thirteen dollars.” Liz answers, “That is outstanding,” – a line I am sure I will use one of these days.

Liz then explains that she ‘really doesn’t have a place in her life’ for the debt anymore. She slams her entire life’s savings on the table, eighteen thousand dollars or so and explains – I won’t get into the specifics because those are spoilers (I think) – this is all you’re ever going to get from me.

The shot of Liz back in her car with her ‘account closed/paid off’ paperwork is outstanding.

It, of course, doesn’t really happen that way but it’s not a bad representation of what can happen if a debt is approached correctly, (check out my book for more on this). The end result, have the debt go away, that’s just priceless. Liz’ relief is palpable and absolutely spot on.

You’re not a character in a prestige series TV show, you don’t have to live with debt.

Surviving Debt: Expert Advice

Some people just like self-help books. Some people (like someone I am related to) always have one open on their nightstand and seem to have read them all. I’ve only recently gotten into them and that is to supplement the in-person help I have been getting (specifically, on managing my business).

If you’re a self-help person, you have to check out Surviving Debt: Expert Advice for Getting Out of Financial Trouble, published by the National Consumer Law Center, now in its 11th edition. It covers almost every personal financial issue you can think of, and is only $20. CLICK HERE to purchase (I get no benefit from this other than to share with you a really valuable resource)

You can even get free content from the book by clicking here. 

Let’s say you had a car repossessed a few years ago, and you can’t figure out how to pay off the debt resulted from that. Or you want to know which of your accounts to pay first. Surviving Debt has a chapter for that. If you’re the type of person who can read instructions and advice and follow through, then the price tag on this book is more than worth it. Maybe you’re shy about talking to someone about your finances, or want to know if you really are as bad off as you think you are (if I had a nickel for everyone who was afraid to pull their credit reports!), try Surviving Debt first. Then let me know if it was helpful, and which sections were the most relevant to you. You may need some follow up help, or have questions about your options. After all, this kind of book doesn’t (and can’t) provide you advice specific to where you live as each state is different in how debt is pursued and your options are different depending on which creditor you are dealing with, whether you have been sued on the account or whether it is in collection or not. Foreclosures especially are different in every state, so maybe after reading about your particular problem you will feel better prepared to ask questions and start tackling your situation with a live professional.

This book, and the chance to read parts of it for no charge, was too good an opportunity not to share with you. Again, I get no proceeds from the sale of the book (I don’t even keep the proceeds from the sales of my own book!), I just wanted to make sure you knew about it, especially as many of you are looking forward to a new year soon and in my experience, most people have something money-related on their New Year’s resolution list.

I Call BS . . . (on everyone, myself very much included)

“I call BS”

The students of the high school in Florida who suffered that mass school shooting earlier this year adopted the battle cry “I call BS” in the face of politicians’ empty promises to stop gun violence and to stop taking money from the gun industry.  If anyone dared tell the students they would work to make a difference and acted in a way that said they did not intend to, they called out the BS.

Good for them.  Because we are too nice and we don’t call out each other’s BS enough.  And because of that many of us never get out of our own way.

We all do it—we all have some BS we are hiding behind.

“I want to lose weight.”

“I know I should exercise more.”

“I have no money.”

All true statements for many of us.

But I call BS.

If you want something, work for it. If you know exercising is good for you and you don’t do it, then start.  You say you have no money, but do you really keep track of what you spend your money on?

I don’t call you out on enough of your BS.  I hear you say you want things but you don’t do what you have to do to have those things.  Please just be honest about WHAT YOU WANT MORE than the things you say you want.

If you want to lose weight, but you love chocolate chip cookies, and you keep eating the chocolate chip cookies, then you want the cookies more than you want to lose weight.  So don’t BS me about wanting to lose weight.

If you know you should exercise more but go home at night, eat dinner and then flop down on the couch and turn on the TV, then you want to watch TV more than you want to exercise.  So don’t BS me about not having the time or not being “able” to exercise.

You say you have no money but you stop to buy a coffee every day and buy your lunch at work and go shopping for clothes a couple of times per month or lend friends and family members the money you do have.  So don’t tell me you don’t have money—that stuff adds up.

I sound really harsh here because I have been spouting my own BS for a couple of years—I say that I want to help more and more people and have a large law firm but I haven’t done the work it takes to get more clients.  I’ve been BS-ing myself, my husband, my staff and even the homeowners out there who can’t find their way to me because I haven’t done what I need to do for them to know I’m right here, ready and able to help.

That BS stops now.  No more pretending to want something but then not taking the steps to have what I want.  No more saying one thing and doing another.  I invite you to call me out if you hear BS from me.

You ready to join me in a BS-free life?

99 Homes

A week or so back, I was at a conference table with another lawyer and a client. The subject was, of course, debt and a pending foreclosure. I’d known the attorney for some time, always thought of him as a sort of analytic, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of guy.

So, he shocked me when he, emotionally, started talking about the movie 99 Homes, several years old now, but … well, here’s what I wrote about it after it came out:

99 Homes is a kick in the stomach. It’s visceral, it’s brutal.

It sarahblogbegins with a court hearing in Orlando, Florida. A twenty second hearing during which a character, alone before a judge in a chaotic courtroom is told his paperwork is not in order and even if it was it’s too late and he will be evicted by the bank in the morning. Quick, devastatingly direct.

The subsequent eviction scene was tense and just heart-ripping. It was hard to watch.

Something really hit me in the brief moments before the sheriffs come –  it’s a quick, easy to overlook shot, though that it’s repeated later in the movie, a few times actually, albeit in different forms.

This is it: the homeowner’s sitting at a kitchen table buried in paperwork. He’s frantically burrowing through it while calling attorneys on his cell phone. It’s crystal clear he’s ignored dozens – at least – notices from the bank, court, and the sheriff’s office.

Later, as the movie takes some dark turns and heads toward the ’99’ homes of the title, it’s obvious that most of the people Michael Shannon (great in this, as in almost everything else) is evicting have done exactly the same thing – they’ve ignored notices, even ones stuck on their front doors by day-glo red tape.

99-homes-18It’s a theme I’ve explored more than a few times and really thought I had a handle on. But seeing it … was hard. There’s a natural reaction to wanting bad news to go away without having to do anything. There’s the depression that hits, the ‘nah, this isn’t really happening’ denial … well, really most of the steps normally associated with the grieving process.

Except here, as so vividly shown in the film, there is no acceptance, just sheriffs and a bank rep at the door to wrest the home away.

I’m still a little rocked by this but I’m pretty sure the next time someone hesitates before hiring me I’ll just tell them to watch 99 Homes and get back to me.

Picturing Foreclosure

Who do you picture when you hear the word Foreclosure?  Do you picture people sitting around piles of cash they have saved up because they haven’t paid their mortgage? Do you picture people going on vacation on the money they saved by not paying their mortgage?  Do you think they are sleeping soundly on a bed of sweet-smelling flowers and wake up to rainbows?

Maybe that’s what you picture, since we have been trained, as good Americans, to work hard and pay our bills.  So if someone isn’t paying their bills they must really be enjoying all the “extra” money they have hanging around.  If we all believe that paying your bills = good and not paying bills = bad, then of course you think there is some benefit to the person not paying their bills, that they have “gotten away with something,” and are getting rich in the process.

After years and years of working with people in debt, I can tell you not being able to pay bills comes with nothing but gray hair and sleepless nights.

I’ve been trying to figure out who is more likely to be in foreclosure so that I can “target” my advertising better.  I want to focus my advertising time, energy and money on that group. The problem is, there is no ONE group more likely to be in foreclosure.  I have helped doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, landscapers, painters, contractors, nurses, teachers, retirees, the disabled–you name it—who have all fallen on hard (or even harder) times.  The only common denominator is owning a home. Whether your mortgage payment is $3000 per month or $900 per month, your home is your castle.  

And hardship doesn’t discriminate.  

I have a list a mile long of the terrible things that happened to my clients before they fell behind on their bills, all which fall under the main categories of unemployment, divorce, disability or injury, having to care for someone sick, or death of a spouse or family member.  That stuff can happen to anyone.

Believe me no one who isn’t paying their mortgage fat, happy and sitting on a pile of cash.  They come to my office crying, depressed, sleep deprived and arguing with their spouse because of the stress that reduced household income and inability to pay bills causes.  Don’t think for a minute that the shame and embarrassment is any less for the house painter than the doctor, or that it’s any easier for the real estate agent than the nurse to reach out for help.

I was talking to a friend today who just went through a major health crisis, which got worse while he was in denial about the seriousness of his condition before finally going to his doctor.  His takeaway is that he feels we should all be talking about our issues and how they affect us and make us feel. He specifically said he’s seeing a counselor to get over the stress he experienced while getting urgent medical treatment, and he thinks the more we all discuss that the better we will all be, and that we will be more likely to reach out for help when we need it sooner.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve been saying that for years, I even had the Got Debt? logo imprinted on my business cards for years because when I showed it to people it would make them smile and more likely to discuss money problems.  In my experience, the sooner someone reaches out for help with their financial issues the more options they have. Nine times out of ten I’m told by clients speaking to me has helped them sleep much better immediately.  At the very least, reaching out for help sooner can make you feel like you’re sleeping on a bed of flowers.

Foreclosure Ten Years After the Collapse

Lehman Brothers collapsed ten years ago this week triggering the Recession, the effects of which are still lingering. I, certainly, see them almost every day.

The spate of foreclosures that closely followed Lehman and AIG’s collapses are still clogging courts across the U.S.. According to a few recent reports I’ve read, foreclosure filings won’t peak for another two years. All told, that’s at a dozen years of misery for a significant percentage of Connecticut homeowners.

The years since the collapse also happened to coincide – almost exactly – with the most prolific, almost instantaneous, exchange of information in human history.

So, it’s no surprise the Internet is alive with conspiracy theories about mortgages and foreclosures  – conspiracies involving banks, mortgage lenders, government entities, brokerage firms, real estate investment companies, hedge funds, foreclosure law firms, and a host more.

An entire industry has arisen around these theories, complete with handy solutions to ‘fix’ your foreclosure, maybe even get a ‘free house’ out of the deal  – a favorite phrase. Many of the sites offering these also offer a vast index of links to get you started. They usually start out free, then . . . well, you know.

This stuff is out there, they’re up there in the Google search rankings and pretty hard to miss, and, as far as I can see, have resulted in one, two max, ‘free homes’ in twelve years and millions of foreclosure filings. The lottery has better odds . . . I’ll also note that in one of those cases the legal fees – the case went to a state supreme court – exceeded the value of the home. By a lot.

What the preponderance of these sites, and all the ‘magic-erase-your-debt’ company sites, really does is bury the lawyers and court services and everyone else that can really help while obscuring the legitimate issues and solutions of the for89a3c0192640c5b0f17b47e53441975declosure process.

Case in point, a large foreclosure firm filed against a homeowner in southeastern Connecticut about a year ago. The homeowner skipped a response in state court and went straight to Federal District Court with a complaint that the court kindly referred to a ‘somewhat repetitive, verbose, and dense.’

The homeowner’s complaint was straight off several self-help websites. It attacked the ‘system’ while ignoring the nuts and bolts. The district court was not unsympathetic to some piece of the argument, tried several times to direct the homeowner toward something legally solid (the court, in fact, did everything but highlight the relevant passages in neon yellow), failed each time as the plaintiff merely regurgitated their first – and only – argument. Endlessly.

The homeowners missed the golden opportunities offered by the court; the foreclosure firm made a half a dozen procedural errors in their pursuit of the state foreclosure action that the homeowners – guided by the web-based conspiracy crowd – missed in their attempt to slay the giant.

After a long and tortuous process, the homeowners lost; the foreclosure firm touted it as a notable, precedent setting win on various industry web sites. (Every side is entitled to their own illusions).

Maybe there was (and is) a conspiracy (s), certainly a lot of really bad things happened to take down the economy. The thing is: none of that matters – the foreclosure process is not the place to blow the lid off any of that. It’s the place to work to either keep your home or stay in it as long as possible while you rearrange your life.

These websites and self-help programs offer a narrative for a confusing, stressful time. They do not offer realistic  solutions for going to court to defend a foreclosure.

They’re not going to save your house, they’re not going to keep you in the house while you plan, they’re not going to guide you through the pros and cons of each path, they’re not going to help you make an informed decision, and they sure aren’t going to present your best face to the Judge.

When Geoffrey Owens Played a Lawyer . . .

I posted something about Geoffrey Owens and ‘job shaming’ on Facebook last week because I saw in the ‘story’ of Geoffrey’s job at Trader Joe’s something I see regularly working with people going through foreclosure: the ‘debt shaming’ I write about often. It seemed especially poignant as all this was precipitated by Owens losing his steady income source, The Cosby Show residuals that went away when the show was pulled from syndication because of the sexual abuse charges leveled at Cosby.

Just like many of my clients, an unexpected change in income had a disastrous effect.

All that reminded me of a great Geoffrey Owens role as one of my favorite TV lawyers of all time: Gerald Watkins Mayfield in HBO’s Divorce.

Divorce is the story of a successful business woman, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her not quite as successful husband, Robert (Thomas Hayden Church) living in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, a pretty, upscale town on the Hudson River an hour or so north of New York City. The town, by the way, is pretty much a character.

sarahbloghboObviously, they have marital problems. They go through all the motions of therapy and reconciliation and mediation, it’s obvious six show or so in that they need to divorce and it’s going to get ugly.

They need lawyers. Robert’s not the type to ask around or spend time on Google, or, indeed, doing anything proactive. Eventually, though, a friend introduces him to  a relative who’s an attorney right in town and ‘does everything.’ That would be Gerald Watkins Mayfield and he is everything I’ve been writing for years.

He works out of his garage and his wife pops in every few minutes to remind him to ‘watch the oven, dinner’s in’ but, all in all, it’s pretty charming. Until he starts talking. Then it’s funny and chilling – if you’re a lawyer.

The scene (easily the funniest in the show, period):

“So, you do mostly divorces?”

“Nope, mostly wills, trusts, estates.”

“You do some divorces?”

“You know what, Robert? Basically, it’s all law.”

That’s it, in a nutshell, perfectly put by a great character. ‘Basically, it’s all law.’

It’s not, of course, but clients still buy into it. As Robert does. Disastrously. I’ll leave it to you to watch the show to see just how disastrously it is.

For now, though, just understand that if you need a divorce attorney, hire a firm that does family law; need an estate plan? Hire an estate planning firm; are facing a foreclosure? Retain someone who does exactly that most of her working day.

Foreseeing Effects

First semester of law school everyone takes Torts. It’s an interesting course, rarely boring as you’re reading about some pretty gruesome medical malpractices, product liabilities, personal injuries.

An important concept in tort law is ‘reasonable foreseeability.’ Basically -very basically – it boils down to ‘was it reasonably foreseeable that not having your two-ton truck’s squealing, grinding breaks fixed might eventually result in losing them coming down a steep hill and getting into an accident?

I thought of this earlier this week when I noticed a comment on the Facebook page. We had posted a whiteboard cartoon explaining the crumbling foundation crisis in Eastern Connecticut. The caption mentioned that HUD Secretary Ben Carson had just toured a home with a crumbling foundation and had promised some federal relief. The comment was brief and to the point: ‘Another thing to bail out, I’m sick of this state.’

I get this viewpoint, I really do – I pay taxes in Connecticut, too. And, I wish it were that simple. But, of course, it is not. Because while this crisis – and it is a crisis – snuck up on us over more than a decade, it’s effects – from here on – are most certainly foreseeable.

First, 34,000 homes in 41 towns in Eastern Connecticut may be affected. Homeowners insurance will not cover the condition, banks and mortgage companies have no solutions, the costs of repairs – if at all feasible – are usually prohibitive. Government resources and funds are needed.

To take a complicated situation and greatly simplify, it goes like this -dozens of homes in a small town have crumbling basements:

Instantly they lose whatever equity the homeowners have built up over the years;

The homeowners cannot, obviously, refinance or obtain a home equity loan to fix the problem – if it is fixable;

The house cannot be sold;

The tax assessment by the town drops like a rock;

The more houses – and, remember, there are 34,000 homes that may have this problem – a town has with the problem, the more it’s tax base drops;

The more the town’s tax base drops, the more cutbacks to services, the more cutbacks to schools;

Cutbacks in services and schools inevitably mean lower rankings for livability and schools;

The lower the rankings, especially for schools, the lower the desirability for new homebuyers;

The fewer new home buyers, the lower the assessments;

And we start all over again;

Except, by now, since this effects 41 towns, the consequences are seen on a statewide basis, as about one-third of the state can no longer contribute much to Connecticut’s already hurting economy.

If we don’t come up with solutions to this problem – wide ranging, creative solutions – the effects are all too foreseeable and they will be felt by everyone.

3:59.4

Sir Roger Bannister, 88, died last week. The man who broke the four minute mile in 1954. Accolades have been flowing around the world, a familiar story told and retold: a sub 4-minute mile was impossible; doctors and sports trainers believed breaking the 4-minute barrier would kill the runner; Bannister, a great cross-country runner, refused to listen to any of it and simply ran his guts out one cool, overcast day and proved all of them wrong.

Good story, but not really true and, as these things usually go, not as good as the real story. One of the best articles I’ve read over the last week or so was by Malcolm Gladwell, The Ordinary Greatness of Roger Bannister. 

Ordinary Greatness. You see, Roger Bannister was not an elite runner when he did the ‘impossible.’ He was a very good cross-country runner and a competitive miler – mostly because he was tall, lanky, and had a great stride. He was running for a club, sporadically because his real job was full-time medical student. He trained during his lunch hour. After a particularly bad week of training he took off with a friend to hike in Scotland. On the face of it, Rudy showed more single-minded intensity over a longer period to make his 15 second appearance for the Fighting Irish than Bannister did in pursuit of sports immortality.

That would be wrong, though. Roger Bannister knew exactly what he was doing every step of the way to 3:59.4 for the simple reason he planned every step. Literally. As a good, solid runner, Bannister knew what it took to run a 4 minute mile. Any halfway decent runner, then and now, knows what it takes because every halfway decent runner can run a 4 minute pace for at least fifty yards.

A 4-minute mile is 15 miles per hour. The mile is symmetric, four laps around the track. At a minute each, you have a four minute mile. In between med school classes, Bannister planned it all out. He studied the effects of 15 mph on the body and made adjustments to his diet, breathing, stride; he redesigned his shoes (at the time the spikes alone weighed more than track shoes today) and figured out a greasy formula that kept track cinders (all tracks were cinder tracks then) from sticking and clotting his spikes.

Then he plotted the race. It wasn’t about running just under a minute, four times over, it was about not being exhausted at the end and being able to utilize his long stride and big kick to maximum advantage … which meant figuring out the precise, optimum time to do so.  Go too early, run out of gas at the end; go too late, finish over 4 minutes with wasted gas still in the tank.

There was also the matter of the first laps and keeping, without going too far over or too far under, that one minute or so pace. It was 1954, times were kept by hand-held stopwatches, there were no scoreboards showing the time in illuminated digits. How, then, to insure he kept the pace he settled on in the first laps? He solved that problem by using ‘rabbits’ – friends who would pace him before dropping off.

The rest, of course, is history. He executed his plan, replicated that success three months later in Vancouver against Australian John Landry. Bannister improved his time to 3:58.9, Landry, also broke the 4-minute mark for the second time. Bannister then retired from running to devote all his time to becoming a neurologist.

If you’ve been a client, or read my book, you know where I’m going with this – it’s all about planning. Especially legal issues. Though it may not seem it to someone facing a foreclosure, or in the middle of a contract dispute, or a contentious divorce, or … well, you get the picture, take a moment to sit back, breathe, and plan with your lawyer. The big picture – 3:59.4 – and the little things – keeping your cleats from clogging.

That way, we can all achieve ordinary greatness.