Delaying foreclosure can lead to ethical 'heebie jeebies'

A report released this week showed that lenders filed 4,586 fresh foreclosure lawsuits in September against Tampa Bay homeowners. Banks auctioned or repossessed another 2,100 homes.

Associated Press

A report released this week showed that lenders filed 4,586 fresh foreclosure lawsuits in September against Tampa Bay homeowners. Banks auctioned or repossessed another 2,100 homes.

You have to give lawyer Mark Stopa points for bluntness.

He's one of a number of Tampa Bay foreclosure defense attorneys who have been marketing a simple strategy:

If you suspect foreclosure is imminent, stop making your monthly house payments. Hire a lawyer to frustrate the bank. Use the yearlong delay to build a nest egg with the deferred house payments. Enjoy living in the house mortgage-free.

"The biggest mistake homeowners make is to keep paying when they know they're in trouble," Stopa said this week.

When I wrote about this break-the-bank-and-save-a-bundle strategy online this week, a surprising number of readers gave Stopa cyberspace kudos for taking lenders down a notch.

The bitterness is understandable.

A report this week showed that lenders filed 4,586 fresh foreclosure lawsuits in September against Tampa Bay home­owners. Banks auctioned or repossessed another 2,100 homes. Each month presents a similar picture.

But the premeditated freeloading advocated by Stopa gives many people the ethical heebie jeebies. If you can't afford the mortgage, it's your duty to unload the house. In fact, about 90 percent of homeowners view foreclosure as a fait accompli and throw themselves at their lenders' mercy.

But Stopa made a compelling, if self-interested, case for resisting. His prime delaying tactic is asking a judge to dismiss a case under the loophole that the originating lender isn't the same one initiating the foreclosure. It can take bank attorneys half a year to sidestep the legal minefield.

Stopa assumes bankers are more amenable to modifying and refinancing mortgages once they've been slapped around a bit. He said lenders have stiffed consumers of their share of billions of dollars of stimulus the government poured into the banking system.

Stopa charges a $1,300 flat fee, though he admits that handling the initial paperwork consumes little more than 15 minutes of his time. More time-consuming legal wrangling sometimes comes later. So is it worth the money to hire a foreclosure attorney? It depends on how legally savvy homeowners are.

Lawyers make grand claims about fending off the foreclosure wolves, but remember that Florida's overstretched judiciary hasn't exactly been breaking speed records. I know a guy in Tarpon Springs who hasn't paid a dime on his mortgage in two years. The homeowner has no legal representation, but the sad sack lender has yet to give him a well-deserved heave-ho.

A foreclosure task force commissioned by the Florida Supreme Court concluded in August that both plaintiffs and defense attorneys sometimes play fast and loose.

A handful of Florida law firms — known as "foreclosure mills" amongst their detractors — handle 90 percent of cases for banks. Such assembly line processing inevitably invites errors.

But the task force also had tart words for the foreclosure rescue community. Defense attorneys are apt to file "boilerplate motions to dismiss" meant only to delay rather than illuminate.

The Supreme Court supports mandatory mediation when foreclosure threatens a principal residence. In the Florida courtrooms where it's been tried, lenders and homeowners have settled out of court 73 percent of the time.

Where does that court-unclogging recommendation leave attorneys like Stopa? Best not to worry. Fifty-thousand Tampa Bay foreclosure cases a year provide plenty of pickings.

Delaying foreclosure can lead to ethical 'heebie jeebies' 10/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 12:19am]

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