"Have you considered buying a home?" a stranger asked.
Cassandra Boone had considered it plenty of times. She had hoped for a house, prayed for a house. But it had never seemed possible.
At 44, she and her teenage daughter lived on Social Security survivors benefits and her $8.50-an-hour pay as a cashier at a party supply store.
But that day in August 2001, Boone chatted with a customer she'd never met, a woman who was a real estate broker.
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She invited Boone to a seminar: Buy a home with little or no money down. Free food, games and prizes.
The gathering was in a model home in the new Hamilton Oaks subdivision on Charlotte's north side, between I-77 and Beatties Ford Road.
Outside, Boone admired the hunter-green shutters. Inside, she spotted a fireplace in the living room corner. She had always wanted a fireplace.
"This is my house!" she remembers saying. "These rugs. These colors. These cabinets. I want this house!"
That evening, she joined about eight others. They played guessing games. She won a picture frame and a miniature lighthouse. She ate a deli sandwich and chips. She listened to the real estate broker, a mortgage broker and a builder's rep.
Then Boone went to an office in a bedroom and filled out an application.
The price for the 1,002-square-foot house was $105,000. For just $500 earnest money, it would be hers.
Later, she learned her loan payment would be $715 per month. That seemed affordable. She had an adjustable-rate loan that started at 9 percent, and she knew payments might go up. But she wasn't too concerned. The mortgage broker had mentioned refinancing in two years if the interest rate went too high.
At closing, there were stacks of papers. "They said `Sign this, sign this, sign this.' And I did."
One paper Boone signed was a second mortgage, at $150 a month. But she doesn't remember anyone explaining what it was.
She was excited. She had given notice at her apartment. Her belongings were packed.
"The plan was to live in this house for a long, long time," Boone says. "Some day, I figured I would leave it to my daughter."
Shocks come in waves
The first surprise for Boone and several of her neighbors came soon after moving in: the annual homeowners association bill for $75.No one had discussed a homeowners association, they say. They couldn't see anything it provided -- no streetlights, no playground, no pool, not even a sign at the subdivision's entrance. They went to an HOA meeting and complained. Some decided not to pay.
That's how they learned what a homeowners association can do -- levy late fees and attorneys' fees, file liens and foreclosures. Some eventually paid more than $1,500.
Bills for home insurance and taxes also appeared. Several homeowners had thought those were included in the mortgage payments.
Cassandra Boone also faced unexpected monthly payments for a second mortgage.
At least 75 percent of Hamilton Oaks home-buyers had easy-credit mortgage loans that are new to the market in the past 10 years.
Most took high-interest loans, designed for consumers with problem credit. A few got government-backed loans for lower-income people.
Both types are among the home loans most likely to foreclose in Mecklenburg County.
Boone and others say now they should have read and studied more before buying a home. But they also trusted real estate professionals who they say promised to work everything out for them.
Losing game of catch-up
In January 2003, less than two years after the subdivision was built, the first bright yellow foreclosure sign went up in Hamilton Oaks. Two more followed that year.
Then the pace picked up.
By 2004, payments were climbing for most homeowners who had adjustable rate loans. Some struggled. They also heard disturbing rumors about property values.
Janice Keaton worked as a billing clerk for a large corporation when she bought her first home in Hamilton Oaks. She got a high-interest loan. Her first and second mortgages added up to at least $200 a month more than she had hoped to pay.
She worried she couldn't afford that. Then she had to replace her old car. She juggled credit card bills and other payments. Keaton, then 53, decided to refinance to lower her mortgage payment. But she heard discouraging news from a neighbor who already tried.
"They told her it was going to be hard because this area was depreciating. It has a lot of foreclosed homes," Keaton says.
25% foreclosure rate
By early 2005, 14 homes -- 25 percent of the Hamilton Oaks subdivision -- had foreclosed. Those owners were gone. Sales of their houses were final.At least two more owners had foreclosures pending. One was Cassandra Boone.
A health problem had forced her to quit her store cashier job in June 2004, she says. That fall, she was late with her mortgage payments.
She tried to catch up.
A year later, she got a new job as a home health care attendant, but she was too far behind. The lender had moved to foreclose.
One option might have been for Boone to sell her house and use the money to pay off her loan.
But she didn't want to sell. And she believed she couldn't get enough money to pay off her loan. Similar houses had sold in foreclosure for $30,000 less than she paid.
Last spring, one of Boone's neighbors called Charlotte consumer protection lawyer Andrea Bebber.
Bebber defends against foreclosures and attacks what she believes are predatory mortgage loans. She reviewed Boone's paperwork.
"This is a really ugly loan," Bebber thought. She thought it carried too many fees and expenses. And it offered an adjustable interest rate at a time when interest was low. Rates and payments could only go up, she thought.
The lawyer started negotiations with Boone's lender last summer to work out a payment plan. Talks broke down before a foreclosure hearing scheduled for Nov. 18.
That day, a hearing officer ordered the house sold and set the date.
`Going twice ... sold'
On Dec. 9, in the entrance of the Mecklenburg Civil Court Building, a company called Default Real Estate Specialized Services showed up to sell Boone's house and three others.
An agent stood behind the curved podium and spread out a thick sheaf of papers. She read aloud from a "Notice of Foreclosure Sale." She identified the house, owner and terms.
No one showed up to outbid Boone's lender. That's typical unless a house has a particularly attractive location or substantial equity.
As usually happens, the lender bought the house for the debt amount, plus court fees and costs. That added up to $107,426.69.
"Going once, going twice ... sold," the agent said.
It took less than four minutes from start to end.
Bankruptcy a risk, too
Under N.C. law, Boone had 10 days after the sale to save her home. She could pay off her loan. Or she could file for bankruptcy. Otherwise, sheriff's deputies would come to remove her from the premises.
On Dec. 16, lawyer Bebber filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in Boone's behalf. That halted foreclosure for at least a few weeks.
A Chapter 13 bankruptcy hurts homeowners' credit for a few years but allows them to keep their homes. Experts estimate at least 15 percent of foreclosures in the Charlotte area are stopped because the homeowner files for bankruptcy.
Even so, the outcome for Cassandra Boone is uncertain.
"It was always a dream of mine to own a house," Boone says. "If I do lose it, I won't be the first."
Her best hope is for a bankruptcy judge to confirm her plan. She would pay back house and car debts, and at least some of what she owes to other creditors.
Worst scenario is the judge rejects the plan. Or Boone can't pay back her creditors as promised.
The house would go to auction again.
The foreclosure rate in Hamilton Oaks would climb.