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Facing foreclosure? Don't be caught unprepared

You know this country is in the midst of a housing crisis, but do you know what to do if you find yourself in a trouble? TODAY's Jean Chatzky offers tips for homeowners facing housing problems.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

You know this country is in the midst of a housing crisis. It's been the headliner on the 6 o'clock news and the front-page story in all the papers. But, do you know why so many homeowners — about 250,000 every three months, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association — are facing foreclosure? More importantly, do you know what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

I know, I know. It's not going to happen to you. I truly hope that's the case. However, more than half of foreclosures are brought on by things you may not be able to control, particularly in this economy. The Homeownership Preservation Foundation found that about 32 percent fell behind on payments after a job loss. For another 25 percent, a health crisis brought on the situation. Bottom line: It never hurts to be prepared.

So, I called Mark Zandi, Chief Economist and co-founder of Moody's economy.com, and author of the new book, "Financial Shock," to find out what steps you should take if you fall behind:

Speak up
If you know you're going to miss a payment — or even if you've already missed one — the absolute worst thing you can do is stick your head in the sand and wish your debt away. "As soon as you feel you're going to have a problem, you need to pick up your mortgage statement, call the phone number on it, and ask the folks on the other side of the line what they can do to help you out," says Zandi. Trust me, they've heard it all before. A foreclosure is nearly as much trouble for your lender as it is for you. Banks are more than willing to do what it takes to help you get out of this mess.Know your options
The first thing a mortgage service will do, according to Zandi, is put you on a repayment plan, which will likely involve either suspending or reducing your payments for a few months. That doesn't mean you're off the hook — whatever you don't pay will be rolled back into the mortgage for repayment later on — but it does give you a chance to find a job, if you've lost yours, or save up enough money to get back on track.If the repayment plan doesn't help, the company's next offering will probably involve an interest rate modification. "Suppose you have an adjustable-rate mortgage that is going to adjust up. They can freeze it or even lower the interest rate to keep your payments down," explains Zandi. This can make a world of difference when it comes to the amount of money you're forking over on a monthly basis. Seek outside help
If you're not satisfied with the response from your lender, there are other resources out there. Your first call should go out to Hopoe Now, a non-profit alliance of mortgage services, counselors and investors (888-995-HOPE). "Some borrowers prefer to deal with counselors face to face, and others prefer to deal over the phone. Our goal is to provide more mediums," says Larry Gilmore, the program's deputy director. The call is free, and you'll be referred to a counselor who can go over your options and work with your lender to help you keep your home.From there, you can turn to a credit counseling service if you need additional help. You want to find one with a housing counselor on staff. A quick search on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Web site, hud.gov, will turn up a list of HUD-approved counselors in your area.  Consider a short sale
According to Zandi, nearly 10 million homeowners are under water, meaning the value of their home is now less than the mortgage debt they owe. If you're in this situation, your best bet might be to convince the lender to allow a short sale. Essentially, you're selling the home for less than the mortgage amount, handing over the money, and moving to an apartment or house you can afford. Again, that's a negotiation that starts with a call to your lender. There, you'll get details of the hoops you have to jump through to qualify.Learn your lesson
If one good thing has come out of this housing situation, it is that it has served as a not-so-gentle reminder of the importance of having a well-padded savings account. Having money you can reach for in an emergency means you'll be less likely to fall behind if you come up short one month. In addition, it also means you won't have to reach for the credit cards and rack up unnecessary and expensive debt. "Going forward, saving is going to be very important. Over the last 20 to 25 years, we've had a nice tailwind behind us in the form of lower inflation and interest rates, and that's helped push stock values and housing prices up and made us all wealthier. We can no longer count on that, and it's going to be much more important for people to save in a disciplined way," says Zandi.It's easy to do if you let the bank handle the work: Just sign up to have a certain amount automatically transferred from checking to savings each and every pay period. You won't have to think about it, nor will you have a chance to spend it.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .