Fighting Foreclosure: Filings Surged in March but There's Free Help

That doesn't mean you can get out of paying, but you may be able to negotiate a more favorable deal. Perhaps you can get more time to pay off the mortgage or a lower interest rate. If your financial problems are not getting better, you may have to sell your house and rent a place to live, but even that is better than foreclosure.

"What doesn't work are payment plans where people pay more every month to make up for what they missed," Marks said. "If you couldn't afford your existing payment, you can't afford a higher one.

"What does work is restructuring -- changing the terms of your existing loan," he said. "In virtually every case it's better to restructure than foreclose."

It is important to call your mortgage company promptly if you realize you are in trouble, say counselors. Depending on state laws, a delay of 90 to 120 days -- three to four missed payments -- can lead to a "foreclosure start," the legal notification that your lender has begun foreclosure proceedings against you.

"If you don't reach out, you will go to foreclosure," Schwartz said. But she says her group has found that if people do call their lenders, and can demonstrate they're facing financial hardship, fewer than half end up losing their homes.

"It sounds easy, doesn't it?" she said. "But it's amazing how many people are afraid to pick up that phone."

Counseling Services for Struggling Homeowners

Counseling services, especially those with agents approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, can help people get organized before they make that daunting first call.

Organizations reached by ABC News said to be suspicious, though, of scam artists who charge upfront fees or trick people into signing over the deeds to their houses. "Some of these companies even use names with the word HOPE or HOPE NOW in them to confuse borrowers," the Federal Trade Commission warned.

Avoiding Foreclosures

Yes, says RealtyTrac, the numbers sound scary; foreclosure filings were reported on 341,180 properties in March.

Sharga said rising unemployment numbers explained some of the increase. "For every six to 10 jobs lost, you'll see a new foreclosure action," he said.

He said that in fairness to the Obama administration, the White House foreclosure-aid program was only announced March 6, and is not likely to affect total numbers for several months.

"We do think this year is probably going to be the peak," said Sharga.

Meanwhile, help does exist, and need not cost anything. "While it's not perfect, there's a lot of reason for hope," Schwartz of HOPE NOW said. "A lot of people, in the end, are relieved."

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