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Homebuyers program helps first-timers in Camden County

Sharonah Duckett-Thomas was shopping for a home, not a house to flip for profit. She was looking for steady mortgage payments, not increasing rent.

Sharonah Duckett-Thomas hugs son Keenan Wideman in their new home, with daughter Tyra Wideman and friend James Walker.
Sharonah Duckett-Thomas hugs son Keenan Wideman in their new home, with daughter Tyra Wideman and friend James Walker.Read morePETER TOBIA / Staff Photographer

Sharonah Duckett-Thomas was shopping for a home, not a house to flip for profit. She was looking for steady mortgage payments, not increasing rent.

But she had a problem.

Like many first-time buyers in Camden County, she needed help in overcoming a hurdle: the down payment and settlement costs.

Duckett-Thomas is among 178 residents who since 1996 have received support from the county's first-time buyer program, one of dozens of similar, federally funded programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The social worker and Army reservist took a 32-hour course on money management and home-buying - and received $10,000 toward down payment and settlement costs. She moved into her Pennsauken house on Oct. 13.

The classes "really helped me budget and manage money," said Duckett-Thomas, 34, who works for the county Social Services Department in Camden.

"I have two children and now they have a home, not an apartment," she said.

Between $100,000 and $150,000 in federal funds is made available annually for the program, administered by Housing and Economic Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit in Westmont, said Beth Pugh of the county's Department of Community Development. The level of funding is expected to remain steady, she said.

Ten people a year used to receive aid, "but it's been increasing," Pugh said. "We've already have had 14 since January, and we'll probably have 10 to 15 in 2009."

A series of classes - two-hour night sessions for 16 weeks - begins monthly and costs $95 to $299, depending on the participant's income.

More than 30 people are expected to attend a Jan. 8 information night about the course at the Wachovia Bank building in the 600 block of Cuthbert Boulevard in Westmont.

The course is designed for low- to moderate-income residents, Pugh said, but anyone can attend. Many participants have experienced credit problems during the economic downturn. They are behind on bills, and need help to steer their way out of debt.

To qualify for mortgage aid, prospective homeowners must learn how to budget, clear up their finances, and save $1,666 toward a down payment and closing fees, Pugh said.

A single aid applicant can earn no more than $41,600 annually. A household of four can earn up to $59,000.

"If they stay in the house five years, the $10,000 is forgiven," Pugh said. "But if they sell, they have to pay back the whole amount."

Only a couple of the 178 aid recipients have sold early, Pugh said. And not one has gone into foreclosure.

"One lady got married and she and her husband both had children," she said. "They sold to get a bigger house."

Participants are looking for "a home for their families, as a legacy," said Sheila Robinson, executive director of Housing and Economic Opportunties Inc.

"They want stability for their children, they want homes in safe neighborhoods and good schools," she said.

While the country has faced a credit crisis that has helped bring the economy to its knees, the county program remains a quiet success.

Its students' mortgages "are underwritten very carefully, and no one is underwritten unless they are really qualified," Robinson said.

Buyers can choose their lender but also are provided a list of recommended institutions.

The program "is wonderful," said Cheryl Suess, an assistant vice president and loan officer at Susquehanna Bank, a lender on the list.

Its graduates "have had extensive counseling, helping them to be credit-wise and preparing them for budgeting and the responsibilities of home ownership," said Suess, who is in the community development office at Susquehanna's corporate office in Camden.

"Lenders want a program like this. The more educated the homebuyer is, the better it is for everyone," she said.

Maria Isabel Lopez of Pennsauken received help sorting out her credit history.

"I didn't have that much debt," she said. "But there was stuff in my credit report that I was not aware of."

The first-time buyer program "helped me clear it up. They told me to put money aside for savings, bills, holidays and rainy days."

Lopez and her children - son Louis, 12, and daughters Angelic, 11, and Jamilet, 9 - moved from their Camden apartment to a three-bedroom single Pennsauken home on Thanksgiving. She purchased it for $120,000 with help from the program.

"It's worked out well," said Lopez, 31, an assistant manager at Budget Car Rental in Cherry Hill who rented for eight years.

Duckett-Thomas' home on Remington Avenue in Pennsauken originally was listed for $250,000, but she purchased it for $184,000.

Instructors "helped me see my credit report and determine what I needed to pay off," said Duckett-Thomas, who lives with her children, Keenan Wideman, 16, and Tyra Wideman, 12, and a friend's child, 16-year-old James Walker.

"My children are happy, too. They have a roof over their heads."

Duckett-Thomas left the Pennsauken home she rented because of a heater that released dangerous carbon monoxide. She moved in temporarily with her parents, who "live around the corner" from her new place.

"It was time for me to do whatever I could to have a home," said Duckett-Thomas.

The homebuyers' prep course "works if you work for yourself. You have to have self-discipline."