Saturday, November 20, 2010

A cancer victim's chilling foreclosure story

Hazel Nitis was about to fall behind on her mortgage in March and so she did the responsible thing. She called Wells Fargo to see about modifying the loan on her Mesa condominium.

It's hard to keep all the financial balls in the air when the floor starts buckling, and the floor underneath Nitis this year felt like a water slide.

For seven months, the 66-year-old widow says, Wells Fargo representatives assured her that they could work something out. Then the bank auctioned off her condo.

On Tuesday, Nitis faces eviction.

She has lots of company. An estimated 4,500 Valley properties will be foreclosed on and auctioned off this month. Nitis is likely better off than many who lose their homes. She owns other property elsewhere and says she could have sold something had she realized what was about to happen.

"I was foolish to believe them," she said. "I was going through chemotherapy and didn't have the strength to fight, so I believed them and I trusted them. That was my mistake."

I put off telling this story for several days, at Wells Fargo's request. A spokesman wanted time to respond so I waited because I wanted the bank's side of the story. I had a hard time believing that a bank - my bank - would foreclose on a cancer patient - especially one who hopes to be back at work early next year and able to resume her payments.

I had a hard time understanding why a bank owed $136,000 would settle for a fraction of that at auction. I wanted to see how putting Hazel Nitis out makes sense - if not from a humanitarian point of view then a financial one.

Finally, on Thursday, Wells Fargo got back to me with its response: No comment.

Nitis lived in California and bought the two-bedroom Mesa condo as a second home in 2006. She put down $35,000 and took out a loan for $135,920. She was here last November when she found the lump on her arm.

The diagnosis: lymphoma. Nitis decided to stick with her Arizona doctors to fight the cancer. She took a leave of absence from her job and turned her California home over to her sister. The bills mounted quickly because she had to pick up the full cost of her health-insurance premiums while living on lower disability pay. By March, she realized she would soon be unable to pay her $798 mortgage and called Wells Fargo's loan-modification division.

Over the next months, she says, she talked to a dizzying array of Wells Fargo representatives, all of whom assured her that they could work it out. She says she offered partial payments but was told that wouldn't help.

Alarms should have begun ringing wildly in August, when the bank's lawyers notified her that her condo would be auctioned on Nov. 2.

But she was sick and says she believed the bank when its employees continued to reassure her that they could work something out until the final hour. "I had 48 years as a customer of Wells Fargo (and a predecessor). I had no reason not to believe them," she said.

That is, until Oct. 22. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Friday when the call came. Her request for a modified payment was denied. Her condo would be sold in 11 days.

She went to several attorneys but didn't have $10,000 for a retainer. If she'd had $10,000, she wouldn't have needed an attorney.

Finally, she went to court on her own and got a temporary restraining order but it came too late to stop the sale. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 2, BAC Investments LLC snapped up her condo for $37,000. Within hours, the investors taped a note on her door. "Written Demand of Surrender and Possession," it began.

So now comes her eviction hearing, at 8 a.m. Tuesday in East Mesa Justice Court. She is scared, but mostly she is angry.

She should be. Had the bank told her sooner that they wouldn't work with her, Nitis says, she could have sold her rental property.

Had they given her a few more months, she says, she could have resumed her payments when she returns to work in January.

Her cancer is now in remission, although she is still getting follow-up treatment.

Instead, she will likely be tossed out Tuesday.

I don't know what Wells Fargo would say. That is, if they responded with something other than silence. I can only quote from the banks' last communication with Nitis, a letter written by a guy in default-operations support, just one day before the bank put her condo on the auction block.

"We're happy to have you as our customer," the letter said, "and look forward to helping you with your financial needs."

by Laurie Roberts The Arizona Republic Nov. 20, 2010 12:00 AM

A cancer victim's chilling foreclosure story

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