Dear Harry: A few years ago, we bought a home in Philly and got an adjustable-rate mortgage. Like a lot of other people, we never considered the possibility that our interest rate would go up and so would our payments. That happened in October when our payments were hiked by $212 a month. That's more than we can afford. We went to our bank to try to arrange for some relief. They said that their policy was to do nothing with mortgages where the payments are not delinquent. I couldn't believe my ears! However, a neighbor got the same answer from another bank. Are these vultures out to ruin my credit first? There has to be some way to get them to adjust our payments so we can afford to pay them. If they're going to do it when we get delinquent, why not now? That will help keep us above water with other debts because they'll raise their rates if our credit score tanks. HELP!
What Harry says: Loan modification is an increasing problem with adjustable-rate mortgages and other nonstandard loans. Too many loans were made to persons who could not qualify for fixed-rate amortizing mortgages. Some loans were given for as much as 100 percent of the appraised value of the homes. And some appraisals were deliberately way out of line. There were many loans in which payments were for interest only. And how about those loans whose payments for the early years were set so low that negative amortization took place? They didn't even cover the interest so the shortfall was added to the principal. There are many lenders who will insist on delinquency before making modifications of the mortgage terms, but there are others that will try to help before that happens.
This mortgage problem won't go away on its own. There has to be some legislation to help those in trouble before foreclosures hurt more homeowners and decimate our economy. I can only suggest to you that you try hard to find a new lender. Good luck!
Dear Harry: I filed my tax return for 2002 owing taxes of $345. Late in 2003, IRS sent me a letter telling me to pay up fast. Unfortunately, I was incarcerated at that time, so I could hardly afford to send them the amount due. I did send them some money every time I got a new bill, but I obviously can't do much on the roughly $30 a month I am able to earn here. I am indigent. I asked them to put a hold on any additional interest and penalties while I'm still here, but they refused my request. The last statement showed a balance (even after my payments) of $532. Is there no way for me to do something about this? Has IRS no heart?
What Harry says: IRS does have a heart. It's not always beating regularly, but it's there. You should file an Offer in Compromise. You have to get a Form 656 package. If you're able to call, the number is 800-829-3676. If not, write to IRS at the address where you mailed your return. The form is straightforward, so you should have little difficulty in filling it out. There is a $150 filing fee that can be waived for you because your income is far beneath the "poverty level." I suggest that you accumulate $100 and offer that as full payment of your current liability. I hope your incarceration will not prejudice the IRS reviewer against you.
Dear Harry: I'm in my sixties and do not have any valuable skills. I work very hard, but I'm not able to do what I once could. I hope to retire next year on a small pension and my wife's and my Social Security. We have almost no assets other than our home. However, we have a mortgage and a home-equity loan. We do have a lot of equity in the house. We were thinking of getting a reverse mortgage to pay off these two debts and give us a little extra income each month. With all the horror stories about mortgages, we want to know if these reverse mortgages are OK or just a new way to cheat homeowners.
What Harry says: You are in a position where a reverse mortgage makes sense. However, as you suggested, there are plenty of schemers and scammers out there. Get proposals from each of your present lenders. Then pay a visit to the bank where you maintain a savings or checking account and get another proposal. Before you sign anything, have it reviewed by a lawyer. This will keep you from getting hurt by the fast talk and fine print.
Dear Harry: My son is a freshman in college. The tuition was a tough nut for us to crack, but we saved over a lot of years to be able to make it. The big surprise was the cost of books. We paid $811 for the first semester. Most of them will be usable for his second semester, but he will need some new ones. One of his friends told him that he heard that it was possible to get the books he needs with very large discounts. Any ideas?
What Harry says: First and foremost, he has to be sure that anything he buys will be the exact ones that he needs. Profs do change requirements, and sometimes an old edition is not good enough. The best source of advice on getting used books is upper-classmen. However, let me give you a shot first. He might try the Internet. Booksoncampus.com for example, matches buyers and sellers on campus. In many cases, new international editions are obtainable at abebooks.com and other Web sites.
When I was in college (before the advent of the Internet), we looked at bulletin boards, which had little ads from fellow students. Of course, some used books are badly abused, so he'll have to be careful.
Dear Harry: Back in 2005, I bought 16 windows from a large national chain. Every month I received a statement with a return envelope, which I used to make my payments. Some months ago, I didn't get a statement, but I made my regular payments anyhow. The checks were cashed. My last payment was returned with a note from the Postal Service that said, "Box closed. No forwarding order." I called the customer-service unit for the store and was told that the company had changed banks, and that's what caused the problem. Still no statements. I don't know where to send my payments, and I certainly don't want to get behind on a bill that's almost paid in full. What should I do?
What Harry says: I had to read your letter more than once to try to understand why you didn't ask the customer-service rep for the new address. Call again. If that doesn't work, get to the local store manager and ask for the new address. Finally, try the company's Web site. I feel virtually certain that the first step will get you on the right track.
Dear Harry: I bought a $100,000 life-insurance policy in 2002. The premium was $512. The latest premium notice demanded a premium of $761. When I called to find out what happened, the company sent me a copy of one of the pages of the policy that seems to be a lot of gobbledegook. I'm sending you a copy hoping that you can you decipher it and tell me why I should be subject to such a big increase after only five years?
What Harry says: What you have is a five-year renewable term policy. The company cannot deny you renewal all the way to age 80. However, there is a paragraph that specifies that the premium is scheduled to change every five years, and that it may be changed if the entire class of policyholders is adjusted. I would like to suggest that you see if you can obtain a similar policy with a better premium and with better terms. However, do not surrender the existing policy until you have the new one tightly in your little fist. *
Write Harry Gross c/o the Daily News, Box 7788, Philadelphia, PA 19101. Harry urges all his readers to give blood - contact the American Red Cross at 800-GIVE LIFE.