Just when you thought the worst of the foreclosure bloodbath was over, banks and mortgage lenders are increasingly filing to force people out of their homes, says RealtyTrac, a firm that follows foreclosure trends.
RealtyTrac reported a record level of foreclosure filings for the month of March, up 17 percent from February and 46 percent from a year ago. Foreclosure numbers were the highest since the firm began keeping numbers in 2005.
"What you had were a couple of months where the numbers were artificially low," said Rick Sharga, a senior vice president of RealtyTrac, in an interview with ABC News. He said lenders held off on foreclosure actions because of promises of help from Washington and state governments. "Now we're seeing the pressure that built up behind the dam."
But that does not mean it is impossible to avoid foreclosure. Financial advisors remind homeowners that a foreclosure filing does not automatically mean you will lose your house. The Obama administration has announced a plan to help up to 9 million borrowers but, even without a White House rescue, advocacy groups say there is help for people in trouble, and much of it is free.
"The good news is that there is a way to help people," said Bruce Marks, CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, or NACA, a nonprofit organization for homeowners. "Make it affordable, make it permanent, end of story."
Marks and others say more than half the people threatened with foreclosure end up staying in their homes.
Boston-based NACA steps in to negotiate settlements between cash-strapped homeowners and troubled lenders. It has been known for in-your-face tactics, such as demonstrations outside bank executives' homes. But they and other advocates say they often get results for people.
"We determine their net income and what their expenses are, to come out with a mortgage payment that you can afford, and then we restructure that loan to make it affordable forever," Marks said.
HOPE NOW, a Washington-based foundation, is one of the largest agencies offering help for worried homeowners, and operates a 24-hour hotline: 888-995-HOPE. The service, which is backed by mortgage companies and advocacy groups, and recommended by the Federal Trade Commission, is free.
Hope Now said today its call volume is up, but calls are being answered within a minute and a half. "When people call, they're not going into a black hole," said Kara Ross, a spokesperson for Hope Now. She said people can also go to the organization's website, HopeNow.com.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can recommend other services. It has an automated toll-free number: 800-569-4287
Why do lenders go along? Because their little secret is that, as much as they want you to pay what you owe, it is worse for them to foreclose, throw you out -- and be stuck with your house.
"It's expensive for them to go through the process of foreclosure and then try to sell your house," said Faith Schwartz, executive director of HOPE NOW. "Lenders don't like people to have to leave their homes. It also ravages a community, and drives down the value of other homes."