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Staving off a zombie home: 'It's nerve-wracking'

Lori and Dwayne Bell of Derby have been scared out of their minds for almost 10 years.

Luckily for them, they have not been scared out of their home.

The Derby couple has spent a decade living in a home that has been stuck in foreclosure and is in perpetual danger of becoming a "zombie" home. Much like the "walking dead" creature that inspired the term, their foe has been relentless and insatiable. But they are determined to stay there, rather than leave a vacant and abandoned property to drag down the neighborhood.

"We've been going through utter hell, every day, wondering if we're going to have our home," Dwayne Bell said.

When financial problems forced the Bells to miss mortgage payments, they started down a path trod by tens of thousands of Americans in the wake of the housing market collapse and financial crisis of 2008. Other regions of the United States were hit much harder than Western New York by the crisis, forcing thousands of families to abandon their homes. But the Bells have managed to stay in their home through perseverance — and by reading the fine print.

Experts advise not to leave your house when you get a foreclosure notice. Many people move out, and when banks don't complete the foreclosure, the house stays empty, with no one to maintain it.

Hence the term "zombie home."

While the economy has improved, the threat of zombie homes continues. The number of foreclosures filed in Erie County went from a recent high of 2,759 in 2009 to 1,668 last year.

"It's nerve-wracking. People think it's easy to sit here and not make a mortgage payment. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy," Lori Bell said.

Kate Lockhart, of the Western New York Law Center, which works on preventing foreclosure, said the Bells' experience is a common one.

"Most of the time these families have tried everything in their power to work with the bank to come to a resolution," she said.

The Bells and their five children moved into the $110,000 Peppertree Drive home in May 2007. A block from Lake Erie, the three-bedroom home in Derby was a welcome move from their last home in Sloan. Their mortgage was for $108,000, and was through Countrywide Home Loans, which at one time was the largest mortgage provider in the country.

But in 2009 as the recession and housing crisis loomed, Dwayne Bell, who was a printer, had his pay cut.  The mortgage had been transferred from Countrywide Home Loans to Bank of America, so the Bells contacted Bank of America for help.

"We weren’t in default or anything yet, we were still making payments, but we could begin to feel it because he did take a pay cut at his job," Lori Bell said. "We knew we weren't going to be able to hang in there much longer."

They called the bank at least twice a month between August 2009 and May 2010. Finally, they went into a bank branch to pay the mortgage. They were told the bank could not modify the payments until they stopped making payments and went into default.

"So we had to go home and deliberate, what are we doing here, do we try to keep this going, try to go for modification?" Lori Bell said.

They decided to stop paying the mortgage and ask for a loan modification. They missed their first payment in June 2010. In August 2010, they received an acceleration letter: The bank was calling in the loan. The Bells asked for a loan modification. But they were denied, because of insufficient income. They asked several more times, and were turned down.

Foreclosure papers came in June 2012.

The bank and servicing company had changed, and they were told the financial institution wanted to work with them. The initial principal, interest and escrow payment totaled $1,180. At one point they were offered a loan modification for $1,400, more than the original payment.

The Bells were offered another three-month loan modification: pay $1,400 down and $1,030 a month, but they turned it down because it was only $50 less than their original payment. And if it did not work out, they felt they would have lost their home.

"If we were to give them any money at all, then we would be right back into this mess again. We have given them nothing," Dwayne Bell said.  "Because of it, we're still in our home."

That's the advice experts give the property owners: stay in the home. It keeps the family in the house and prevents a vacant house from becoming a blight on the neighborhood.

But it's hard on the owners.

"Nobody wants to be in this sort of limbo phase where you don’t know if you will be able to keep your house," Lockhart said.

By this time, the house was in need of repairs. The roof leaked, the windows were bad and the driveway was falling apart. Lori Bell found a program through the Federal Housing Administration, and they got a $23,000 loan to fix up the house. Through the program, a lien was put on the house, and it will be paid when the home is sold.

Over the years, the mortgage was reassigned to various banks. The Bells fought the foreclosure on the grounds the bank holding the mortgage could not produce the note that promises to repay the mortgage. And they won when the case was dismissed in March 2017.

'We were ecstatic," Lori Bell said.

But it didn't last. Two weeks later, they got another pre-foreclosure notice.

Dwayne Bell, now out of a job, is looking for work. And they are continuing their fight for their house, eight years after they stopped making mortgage payments.

"We're scared out of our minds right now. We don't know what to do any more," Dwayne Bell said.

"We've fought too long now to give up," Lori Bell said.

Turning the corner on zombie homes

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