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Rural Homes Foreclosed, But Not Near Number Of Urban, Suburban Home Losses

    
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Rural Homes Foreclosed, But Not Near
Number Of Urban, Suburban Home Losses

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Foreclosures, which have roiled housing markets across the state and the nation, have had a smaller impact in Pennsylvania's rural communities, where subprime loans were rare and lenders and borrowers work hard to avoid defaults.

"Because of the nature of the rural buyer, they tend to be more conservative in how much debt they carry," said Dan Duffy, chief executive officer of United Country Real Estate in Kansas City, Mo., one of the largest rural real estate agencies in the United States.

Also, lenders who specialize in serving rural communities keep most of those mortgages on their own books rather than sell them on the secondary market. Thus, they will go to greater lengths to help property owners avoid foreclosure.

For the most part, the lenders tend to be small outfits, often nonprofit organizations with relatively few accounts. A large number of rural home loans are handled directly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can provide 100 percent financing for a home purchase and even subsidize the interest to make those loans more affordable. The agency also provides substantial help for borrowers who fall on hard times.

Federal records show the USDA filed 269 foreclosure cases in Pennsylvania in fiscal year 2007 and 324 foreclosure cases in the state in 2006. This year's foreclosures represent only 2.96 percent of all rural mortgages the USDA funded in Pennsylvania.

"Foreclosure is the agency's last servicing option," said Frank Wetherhold, housing program director for USDA Rural Development.

"Our mission statement is reflected in that approximately 97 percent of our single-family housing borrowers are successful homeowners."

If a borrower has trouble making payments due to job loss, an accident or illness, the federal government can suspend monthly payments for up to two years.

In some cases, the government will reamortize the loan when the borrower's situation improves. The principal, interest, missed payments and other charges are all rolled into a new balance with a new monthly payment allowing the borrower to have a fresh start.

"Our numbers do not mirror the current subprime crisis because we are an affordable housing lender," Mr. Wetherhold said.

"If a borrower gets [himself] into trouble [he] can come talk to us and we can assist [him] in keeping [his] account current."

Most of the foreclosures on the government's books, he said, result from divorces where neither party has an interest in saving the property.

As of Sept. 30, the USDA had 9,081 outstanding rural housing loans in Pennsylvania. Of those loans, 98 were granted a moratorium on payments because of financial hardships and 230 of the accounts were under delinquency payment agreements.

Although the number of rural foreclosures is relatively small, those figures are not always reflected in data that tracks the record number of families who are losing their grip on the American dream.

Statewide, there have been 29,273 residential foreclosures this year up to November compared with 38,333 Pennsylvania foreclosures in all of 2006, according to Realtytrac, an Irwin, Calif.-based company that publishes the largest and most comprehensive database of foreclosed properties in the United States.

But Realtytrac reports only those foreclosures filed at the county level in urban areas. USDA foreclosures, for instance, are filed in federal court.

"There's a chance some of those rural foreclosures will fall through the cracks," said Daren Blomquist, a spokesman for Realtytrac.

"Our numbers are slanted to urban areas because it's easier to get data. There are some gaps in rural areas in our coverage."

Over the years, the dynamics of rural property ownership have changed from full-time farmers to people who want to live rural lifestyles yet work in the cities.

"These are urbanites and suburbanities trying to find a peace of America where they can have the house on the lake and enjoy the beautiful sunsets," Mr. Duffy said. "I call them hobby farmers.

"Since Sept. 11 [terrorist attacks] we've seen an uninterrupted interest in people seeking a nice place in the country. They're looking to secure a more peaceful lifestyle with less stress, low traffic, low crime, affordable homes and land."

In Pennsylvania, rural property appreciated 5.9 percent overall last year, and 6.3 percent annually for the past two years, Mr. Duffy said. "A lot of people are making investments in rural America."

Bill McCabe, president of Shamrock Appraisal Group in Bairdford, said any foreclosure was bad for a community -- including rural areas.

"In a rural setting, it becomes a property that basically becomes vacant and falls into poor repair," Mr. McCabe said. "It affects the tax base and becomes a burden to the community."

Many rural economies often already are stretched because they are tethered to a single large employer or to one type of business, such as coal mining or farming. If that sector declines, the whole area goes into a tailspin.

People living in rural neighborhoods are more likely to have lower incomes than urban dwellers, less formal education and less experience with the banking system.

But at the same time, residents of small towns and backwoods communities place a high value on individuality and self-sufficiency.

They are more likely to blame themselves for financial failure and are less inclined to blame the system.

"Usually in small towns people know each other, and you might have help from relatives. Plus you have the stigma of not wanting people to know you've lost your home," said Darla Wise, north central chapter leader for the Pennsylvania Mortgage Broker's Association.

The smaller populations in rural communities naturally lend themselves to closer personal relationships, she said.

"In a city, you can get away with being foreclosed on and people not know. That might be a reason why rural foreclosures might not be as high," Ms. Wise said.

"Also, in small towns, people are more inclined to help out their neighbors."

Mr. Duffy said historically the only time he had seen substantial foreclosures in rural America was when there had been a long economic downturn that impacts rural economies, such as the commodities market for grain.

Lenders in rural and farming areas are aware of the irregular cash flow of their customers, and that often means giving them a break on payments, said Scott Owens, executive vice president of Agchoice Farm Credit, a credit union owned by the farmers it lends to based in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

Mr. Owens said his company would make about $120 million rural lifestyles loans this year and sell about $35 million to $40 million of them into the secondary market.

The company will keep the rest in its own portfolio.

"We only have about a half-dozen foreclosures on our books throughout the state, which is a far cry from what you see in the news on residential foreclosures." Mr. Owens said.

"We don't have a problem because we're not lending to people with a 500 credit score.

"Generally speaking, what you are dealing with in rural Pennsylvania are people who are very honest about their situation. If they can't pay, we try to find a solution. There's a difference between can't pay and won't pay."

Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.
First published on December 9, 2007 at 12:00 am

United Country Real Estate is the only national real estate and auction franchise system
specializing in residential, farm and ranch, commercial, retirement, second home and recreational properties in small cities and towns across America. The company currently publishes nine niche real estate magazines and executes a marketing program that attracts more than 925,000 visitors
a month to: www.unitedcountry.com, the leading real estate web site in its market. United Country reaches more than 90 million homes each week through its national advertising of franchisee-listed properties in various local, regional and national print media outlets. With a heritage that dates
back to 1925 and headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., the company supports more than 675
franchisees in 44 states and markets a national database of properties at www.unitedcountry.com.

NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS
2820 NW Barry Road, Kansas City, MO 64154
816-420-6200  www.unitedcountry.com


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