When his lender started to foreclose in 2003, Jeffrey DeMauro appealed for time to resolve his financial problems.
"I sincerely want to work this situation out and get back on track and save my home,'' DeMauro wrote to Pinellas County court officials. "I have two children and do not want to be put out of our house and on the street.''
The DeMauros are still in foreclosure. But by declaring bankruptcy 11 times, they have managed to hang on to their house and to continue living there — seven years after they made their last regular mortgage payment.
Though an extreme example, the couple's story is an increasingly common one among distressed Tampa Bay homeowners. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are staying in their houses long after defaulting because they declare bankruptcy, challenge the foreclosure or simply sit back as their cases grind through an overloaded court system.
In theory, the time between the start of foreclosure and the sale of property on the courthouse steps can be as little as three months.
But in Pinellas, 485 of the 1,009 people whose homes were scheduled for auction in January and February still had ownership at least a year after foreclosure proceedings began. Another 155 had retained ownership at least two years, 19 for three years and four for six or more years.
Of Hillsborough residents facing foreclosure sales in January and February, 829 people — almost 50 percent of the total — still held title to their places a year after the bank started to foreclose. Nearly 170 had hung on for two years and 19 for four years or more.
Pinellas Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino cautions that some of the homeowners might have walked away or deeded the property to another party.
"These are people who might appear on the tax assessor's roll, but that doesn't mean they're still living in the house,'' says Rondolino, who handles foreclosures. And, he adds, while "it may look like the homeowner dragged out a case for five years, it could equally be said: Why didn't the lender do something to move this action along?''
Whatever the reason, critics say these drawn-out foreclosures are prolonging the time it will take the nation's housing market to stabilize and recover. But others find at least one advantage to homeowners who stay put.
"On a societal basis, it's better to have your neighbor still there and the neighborhood still stable instead of a vacant house trashed and vandalized,'' says Matthew Weidner, a St. Petersburg lawyer active in the booming field of foreclosure defense.
Weidner says he can keep clients in their homes "an indeterminate time'' by challenging the legality of foreclosure suits. During the real estate boom, millions of mortgages were bundled into securities and sold to investors, creating a potential nightmare when it comes to determining who has the right to foreclose.
"I've sat here in mediations with dadgum (lenders) saying, 'Because of the mess in the files, you're not going to get this house back for a year or two years,' '' Weidner recalls. " 'And even if you get it scheduled for sale, my client will file bankruptcy.' ''
Chapter 13 of the federal bankruptcy code can be a lifeline for homeowners who have regular incomes but are struggling with mortgage payments. Filing a Chapter 13 petition automatically stops the sale of a house in foreclosure and gives the debtor as much as five years to catch up on late payments while making current ones.
Some homeowners make frequent use of the system.
DeMauro would not comment for this story. However, court records illustrate how he and his wife have clung to their home for seven years even as the amount they owe grew from $84,600 to $101,856 because of late charges.
In his 2003 letter seeking time to get a loan modification, DeMauro noted that he and his wife had "stable employment'' with the Pinellas school system and were starting to emerge from an unspecified financial crisis.
"We have strived to work things out the correct way and not go the easy route of bankruptcy,'' he wrote.
But in 2004, the DeMauros filed their first Chapter 13 petition just before the house was to be sold at public auction. A judge soon dismissed the case, but the sale already had been stopped.
Over the next few years, the DeMauros were in and out of bankruptcy as new sale dates were scheduled. Their 11th and most recent filing came Jan. 25 — a day before the house again was to go on the block.
Bankruptcy officials have a name for debtors like the DeMauros: "serial filers.''
"We are sensitive to serial filers and our system was set up so we could catch them right away,'' says Catherine Peek McEwen, a Tampa bankruptcy judge.
Under a "three-strikes and you're out'' rule, debtors on a third filing get no relief from foreclosure if they had two cases pending in the previous year. In addition, judges are giving banks and other creditors more opportunity to request a one- or two-year ban on filings by those who seem to be abusing the system. And judges can order serial filers to appear in person and show cause why their case should not be dismissed.
"So we now actually have three methods of attack,'' McEwen says. In a recent case, she told a woman on her third Chapter 13 in seven months that she couldn't file again unless she had a lawyer.
Though homeowners can stay put for years by repeatedly declaring bankruptcy, isn't it stressful to spend so much time and energy fighting off foreclosure?
"It's horrible,'' says Paul Stenstrom of Palm Harbor. "But this is our home, it's not just a house.''
Stenstrom says his problems began when he lost his job in broadcasting and a company he started foundered in the post-9/11 recession. After the mortgage holder began foreclosing in 2002, the Stenstroms filed the first of what would be nine Chapter 13 petitions.
The couple want to stay in their upper middle-class community, where they are active in church and their three daughters attend good schools. The Stenstroms are optimistic they eventually will be able to repay their loan, which has swollen from $185,400 to $351,143. Sharon Stenstrom, whose work career was cut short when she was nearly killed by a drunken driver, has returned to college to get a degree in counseling. Her husband has developed an epoxy coating that he thinks will sell well once construction picks up.
To outsiders, Stenstrom knows he appears to be gaming the system by staying in a house eight years after he last made regular payments. But he says he's only doing what he legally can to keep a roof over his family.
"I don't like living this way so if I didn't have any hope, I wouldn't do it. We've suffered a lot of judgment from some who haven't been through this — yet.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]