Some days Melissa Eisele wishes the bank would take her home already.

It has been nearly two years since she and her husband, Chuck, received the first letter stating that their mortgage lender - then Countrywide Financial Corp., now Bank of America - intended to foreclose on their Waterford Township home.

Chuck Eisele, 36, a construction worker, has been unemployed since the fall of 2006. Melissa Eisele, 32, lost her job 10 months ago. And they have been denied a permanent loan modification. But they have not received a court notice from the Camden County sheriff, which means the house is not legally in foreclosure.

New Jersey's foreclosure rate looks bad - 6.28 percent as of the second quarter of this year. But as bad as that is, it does not include homeowners like the Eiseles.

They are among the additional 4.26 percent of homeowners who were at least 90 days behind on payments but not yet in foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Together, the figures make up the state's rate of "serious delinquency" and provide perspective on just how distressed homeowners are: 10.54 percent in the second quarter, the sixth-highest rate in the country.

The uncertainty about what will happen to the Eiseles' house, or to their dream of raising a family on the edge of Wharton State Forest in the town where she grew up, has consumed Melissa Eisele.

She tears up as she talks about the strain it puts on her marriage. She worries about whether she's shielding her 2-year-old daughter, Savannah, from the stress. She wonders if the family would be better off declaring bankruptcy and starting over.

"Just tell me," Eisele said, shaking her hands at the sky as if the bank authority that rules over her home could hear. "If you want me out of the house, just tell me."

Eisele is in "limbo land," where her home is still her home, but maybe not for long. It's a situation more common in New Jersey than in nearby states.

New Jersey's rate of serious delinquency was well above the national average of 9.11 percent in the second quarter. Pennsylvania was at 6.44 percent.

In the first half of this year, New Jersey inched past even shell-shocked Michigan, where the August unemployment rate was 13.1 percent.

How did it get so bad?

Some experts say homes may be languishing in a lengthy court-foreclosure process, keeping the delinquency rate high even as foreclosure filings slow.

New Jersey homeowners who contest their cases have access to a state mediation program started in 2009, which adds some speed bumps to the process. With mediation, the timeline from a lender's court filing to eviction - a process the Eisele family has yet to start - is statutorily designed to take about 15 months. But some advocates say it can take months longer.

"In a way, it's a good statistic," said Jerry Keelen, director of single-family programs for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. "It shows that what's happening is people have a longer time to get their affairs in order."

Ira Goldstein, director of policy solutions for the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia, said more than just a court backlog sets New Jersey apart.

Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York, unlike some states, also require foreclosures to move through a court process. In Pennsylvania, according to a state report, that can take up to 13 months - and more in some cases.

"Something else is going on," Goldstein said.

The disparity matters, he said, because "the larger that [delinquency] group, the more troubled the pool of debtors is."

At the start of 2007, homeowners in Pennsylvania were 50 percent more likely than their New Jersey counterparts to find themselves in serious delinquency. That gap narrowed, and the balance tipped in early 2008.

Ask experts such as Goldstein or real estate analyst Jeffrey Otteau, president of Otteau Valuation Group, for the reasons and they will rattle off possible causes: New Jersey has the highest unemployment rate in the region, at 9.6 percent in August; the notoriously high cost of living in the state burdens struggling homeowners; predatory and subprime lenders targeted low-income residents in cities such as Newark and Camden.

Also, the inflation of housing prices was greater in New Jersey during the good years, so they had farther to fall as a result.

Neighborhood that wasn't

In Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, one major factor has been build-out.

Between 2002 and 2006, one of the most reckless eras for lending and what Otteau called the "go-go years," large swaths of farmland were converted to homes.

"We had an influx of housing development," said Kellie Maul, senior foreclosure-prevention counselor with Affordable Homes of Millville Ecumenical, or AHOME, which serves much of South Jersey. "They were overbuilding, and they were giving pretty much anybody a mortgage."

When townhouses replaced cornfields in Lumberton's Country Estates in 2005, the development came at the end of a boom that began in the 1990s and converted the rural Burlington County township into a bustling bedroom community for Trenton, Philadelphia, and what is now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

Records from American Foreclosures, publisher of njlispendens.com, show that nearly every Lumberton neighborhood has been affected by foreclosure, but none more so than Country Estates.

Just before the market crashed, newer townhouses were added on to a 1980s neighborhood and sold in the mid- to high $200,000s. Young families and investors jumped at the opportunity to buy. The neighborhood offered rentable units in a town with good schools that was nearly built out.

Five years later, these streets with sweet names - Sassafras, Rosemary, Peppermint - have failed to develop into the community buyers envisioned.

"It just doesn't feel like a neighborhood," said Mike Johnson, 36, who bought his first home with his wife on Sassafras Drive in 2005. "We noticed that families that are in our boat, our age, have either come in and left or never got here."

Johnson figures that is at least partly because many tenants are military families, who move often. But the economy is a factor.

Homes around Johnson's stand empty, bank notices taped to the windows and hedges obscuring the front step. Some units, bought on the edge of the market crash, were never filled, neighbors said.

Mayor Michael Mansdoerfer said he didn't believe the township's foreclosure trouble was any worse than that of surrounding communities. He pointed to a yearly pace of about 12 sheriff's sales.

But not all homes that enter foreclosure end up at a sheriff's sale. And not all homeowners in trouble are in foreclosure.

'It's so frustrating'

Chris Hutchins, 25, of Marlton, hasn't received a court foreclosure notice. In 19 months of asking, he hasn't gotten any real answers from his lender, Chase, about whether he qualifies for a loan modification, either.

"I've lost hope," he said. "I have no thought in my mind that thinks this will ever go through."

Hutchins knew his commission-based job at an auto dealership was unreliable. He had already been laid off and rehired once by March 2009, when he first applied for a loan modification.

Interest rates had dropped from the 6.5 percent he had secured when he bought his four-bedroom home in Marlton for $290,000 in 2006.

Month after month, he checked the status of his request and struggled to make payments.

"Every time you call, you think someone's going to help you," he said.

Month after month, he was told that the case was waiting on a review by an underwriter, or that paperwork needed updating, he said. Some representatives told him that they couldn't help until he was behind on his payments.

In January, he stopped paying. Still no answer.

The wait for answers can be extremely stressful for homeowners, said Stephanie Bittner, community outreach manager for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley.

"If someone tells you that you're going to lose your house in three days, you know what's coming," Bittner said. "When you're in limbo, you don't know: 'Do I move? Do I save up? Do I pay?' It makes it a little harder to make an educated decision about the best way to move forward."

Constant changes in the system, as new programs come on line and lenders are scrutinized, complicate things more. Some banks announced this month that they would freeze foreclosures as they looked into allegations of "robo-signing," the practice in which representatives sign documents they never read.

Bank of America was one of them. The freeze provided the Eiseles with a bit of relief. But the bank has said it may begin moving forward again.

Meanwhile, Melissa Eisele simultaneously plots how to leave - "I already have it all in my head, what I'm taking out of this house" - and how to stay. "Eventually, things are going to get better," she said.

The Eiseles didn't have money for a down payment when they bought their home in June 2005 for about $235,000. They signed up for what is called a piggyback mortgage, securing a loan for 75 percent of the purchase price and a separate loan to cover the rest, with an 11.12 percent interest rate.

Years ago, before the world shifted, the idea was that a house would increase in value and homeowners could use the equity to refinance and get rid of the smaller mortgage and its high rate.

"We wanted what everybody else wanted, to own a home," Eisele said.

Soon after buying the house, the Eiseles took out a home-equity loan and used it to get married. And they refinanced for lower monthly payments, which came with even steeper interest rates.

The couple eloped to Jamaica in September 2006. Two months later, Chuck Eisele lost his construction job. At first, they figured it was temporary. The industry is a seasonal one.

But spring came and went with no work. By late 2007, they had begun maxing out credit cards. The first letter came from the bank in November 2008, just months after their daughter was born.

In January, Eisele, pregnant again, lost her job as an insurance claims representative. She attributes her miscarriage to the stress of facing a life on two unemployment checks and battling the bank.

Despite everything, Eisele said, she and her husband talk about having another child. She doesn't want Savannah to be too far apart in age from her sibling.

Photographs lining the Eiseles' hallway show the makings of a happy family - the couple, fresh-faced and younger, with arms wrapped around each other or posing for portraits, nose to nose with their infant daughter.

Eisele said she had hung the frames only about a year ago.

"It's so frustrating," she said, "because it finally feels like a home."

Worried About Foreclosure?

Find a counselor in your county who is certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency website has a list in its "Fast Facts" brochure; click the "Foreclosure" link at www.state.nj.us/dca/hmfa.

Contact your mortgage lender at the number on your monthly mortgage bill.

Call for help on the 24-hour Homeowner's Hope Hotline, run by a national nonprofit, at 1-888-995-HOPE (4673).

Sign up for mediation if you have already received a foreclosure notice from the court. Find out more at njforeclosuremediation.org.

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