The last 2 1/2 years have been lousy for Morissa P. Wiley of Souderton, a single mother with two children.
As a trained nurse working for a hospice that couldn't guarantee her the same number of hours week to week, Wiley, 30, was receiving wildly fluctuating paychecks. "One week, it was 60 to 70 hours; the next week, it could be less than 20 hours," she said.
Then, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had surgery, recuperated, and, instead of returning to nursing, got a full-time job with Cemcolift Elevator Systems in Hatfield. "Yes, I build elevators, another girl and I," she said.
But her return to work wasn't quick enough. Wiley was months behind on the home loan she and her estranged husband took out in 2004 through the rural mortgage program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the mortgage payment grew from $948 a month to more than $1,150, Wiley sought help on the Internet and contacted New Hope Modifications of Bellmawr, which promised to work to modify her loan and save her house.
For $1,800 up front.
"My friends told me not to, so I told the person at New Hope that I'd send $500," she said. She mailed New Hope the check - and, eventually, about $800 more.
"They kept telling me that everything was OK, that they were working with my lender, and not to worry," she said. "They never called me; I always had to call them, and I started getting suspicious."
Shortly after the last reassurance from New Hope, she found a notice that her house was destined for sheriff's sale.
"I got on the phone and called New Hope," Wiley said. "I wanted to know if they were really working with my lender or if I should start looking for an apartment for me and my children." Her contact "was always off or out on leave." A supervisor declined to return the money she had sent.
Someone advised Wiley to call a bankruptcy lawyer, so she contacted William D. Schroeder Jr. of Colmar, who filed a Chapter 13 petition halting the sheriff's sale.
In the meantime, her lender agreed to work with Wiley to modify the loan. On April 22, she and Schroeder will meet with a bankruptcy trustee. Typically, petitioners with regular income propose a plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years.
If the petition is granted, Wiley will give her lawyer two checks every month: one for the trustee to pay her debts, the other for her mortgage.
As her prospects have improved, New Hope Modification's have suffered. The New Jersey attorney general sued it and Hope Now Financial of Cherry Hill on March 12, accusing the firms of selling loan-modification services that never materialized and asking the court to shut them down.
Eighty consumer complaints had been filed against New Hope and 23 against Hope Now, involving more than $100,000 in payments. "I guess we'll have to sue to get it back," Wiley said.
The bottom line: Be careful. If you need help with your mortgage, go to http://makinghomeaffordable.gov/.
"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home-improvement columns appear Fridays in Home & Design.