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Foreclosures rising in Tri-State area

August 15, 2009|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

TRI-STATE -- Every day so far this year, on average, at least one family, business owner or landlord has lost ownership of property in Washington County.

The large foreclosure notices in the back section of the daily newspaper have become so common, you almost can forget they affect real people.

Now, new figures show the toll of the ongoing recession in neighborhoods throughout the Tri-State area.

In Washington County alone, the number of properties sold at the courthouse or taken back by lenders since Jan. 1 reached 319 last week -- 44 percent more than in the same period a year ago.

Put it this way: Sunday is the 228th day of 2009 and already this year, 319 properties have been lost to foreclosure. Most of them have been people's homes.

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The situation is even worse in some other areas of the region.

Consider:

o In Berkeley County, W.Va., the number of foreclosure sales jumped 70 percent to 480 properties lost so far this year.

o In Jefferson County, W.Va., a total of 574 properties, a 29 percent increase, have been lost thus far this year.

o In Franklin County, Pa., while exact numbers aren't available, indications are that foreclosure sales are up there, too.

Part of the reason for this year's surge appears to be the region's continuing high unemployment rates.

Nearly double last year's rates, the jobless rates for June, the most recent month for which figures were available, were 10.5 percent in Washington County, 10 percent in Berkeley County, 8.3 percent in Jefferson County, 9.9 percent in Morgan County, W.Va., 8.4 percent in Franklin County and 15 percent in Fulton County, Pa.

"Something that was not the case two years ago are the job losses," said Sharon Disque, executive director of the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership Inc.

"So now, we're seeing the loss of income, plus the loss of the value of the home, so people will be upside-down," meaning they now owe more than their property is worth, Disque said.

"It's a sad situation," said Sandy Barron, chief deputy in the Berkeley County Clerk's Office, which posts foreclosure notices for residents who come in to check their cases. "Like I said, with the economy like it is and people losing their jobs, I know it's rough. You try to help them. Sometimes, it's kind of hard to explain what they're going through. I know it would be hard for me."

The wave of foreclosures doesn't seem to be cresting anywhere in the area except, perhaps, Franklin and Fulton counties.

In Franklin County, a court clerk there said, lenders have filed for a total of 290 foreclosures thus far this year. She said 288 were filed in the same period a year ago.

That pales in comparison to the growing number of cases being filed in Washington County.

So far this year at the courthouse in Hagerstown, lenders have started 593 foreclosure procedures -- nearly double the 318 they initiated in that period a year ago.

Disque said she is seeing signs of the growing trouble.

"June was the highest we've seen," both in the number of foreclosures and their total value, she said.

A growing caseload

Disque's independent, nonprofit organization has seen the situation worsening, especially since spring.

Through its Hagerstown Home Store program, the work of her downtown Hagerstown office includes counseling families facing foreclosure, as well as helping first-time home buyers.

As the numbers have increased, the office hired a second housing counselor so one of them could work most of the time with the families in financial trouble, Disque said.

"And even with that, at times, we're looking at a three- to four-week wait even to get foreclosure clients in," she said. A year or so ago, it was "a one- to two-week wait," she said.

Her office also has been tracking the number of cases in which people lose their foreclosure cases -- and their properties.

The process often takes several months because after a lender files a case, it can be delayed while negotiations continue or bankruptcy is sought.

In January, for instance, 29 foreclosure properties in Washington County were sold, according to Disque's records. Such properties usually are bought back by the lender because private buyers at such auctions are scarce.

There were 22 sales in February, 25 in March, 31 in April, 36 in May and -- the highest yet -- 55 in June. Disque didn't have figures yet for July.

"There was only one month in '08 where we broke 30 and that was June of '08," when the number hit 32, Disque said. So the growing numbers this past April, May and June appear to be another sign the situation is worsening.

Another way of tracking this is to look at the value of the properties homeowners are losing, she said.

In June, that value surged to $12.3 million -- nearly twice the value of those sold in May and more than double the value of those sold in June 2008, according to a tracking company Disque uses.

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