CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Not all the foreclosures emptying homes across the Carolinas originate from banks and lenders. Increasingly, the institution doing the foreclosing is made up of neighbors who run the homeowners association–known as the HOA.
Consider one family’s story:
Michelle Roberts’ parents helped her and her husband buy their first home in Gaston County in 2003. Even though she and her husband Darin paid the mortgage, her mom and dad signed the note. Their names are on the deed. That means her parents are on the hook now that the home is in foreclosure and the courts have ordered her family to pack up and leave this week.
“We're going to have to move back in with mom and dad for a while,” Michelle said, sitting among boxes in her living room. “We have no choice.”
This is not one more bank foreclosure–one more mortgage gone bad. No, the Roberts are losing their home to their neighbors–their HOA.
“We just wanted them to work with us,” said Michelle. “We didn't neglect paying them on purpose. They neglected to notify us.”
The Mountain View Community Association off of Spencer Mountain Road near Ranlo, North Carolina and its management company, Hawthorne Management of Charlotte, did not send a bill to the Roberts for years.
“Not one word for six years,” said Michelle, “Not one word.”
The HOA lost track of the Roberts lot and two others when the builder transferred the property to their family. Then in May of 2009 the HOA sent Michelle’s parents a statement asking for almost six years worth of dues at once–$945.
“I don’t know how we would pay that, and I don’t think it’s fair,” said Michelle’s husband Darin Roberts.
At first the Roberts say they called a neighbor who served on the board of the HOA.
“She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll work it out. It’s not that big of a deal,’” said Darin.
That was before the lien notices and threatening letters began arriving from the HOA’s law firm.
“We were blindsided,” said Michelle.
So the Roberts tried repeatedly to work out a payment plan.
“They wanted a $444-a-month payment and refused to accept anything less than that,” said Michelle.
“I had my daughter selling brownies on the weekend,” Darin said. “I borrowed from my sister. I did overtime. I’m a middle class family dude that tries to pay his bills and feed his family.”
The Roberts made payments totaling $888 last May–which sounds like they’d paid off the bulk of their original HOA debt.
“You would think wouldn’t you?” said Michelle. “You would think.”
By that point, the HOA’s attorneys were involved. And they charged far more than the original debt in fees and court costs to try to collect it all. Court records show the Roberts whole payment went to legal fees–not to the HOA.
In fact, the paralegal working for the law firm e-mailed the Roberts that, “Your account will be charged $45 for every payment plan request” even if the lawyers refused to accept the terms.
“It’s just burying us deeper and deeper,” said Michelle. “Trying to fix the problem is just making it worse. Every time they touch it, every time they pick up the phone, we’re getting billed again.”
The Roberts gave up. The HOA and its law firm foreclosed.
“Now it just seems like the HOA’s can do whatever they want anytime they want,” Darin said.
And that original bill of less than a thousand dollars? T he attorneys added almost $6,000 in court costs and legal fees.
“The people that are benefiting are the attorneys,” said Michelle. “They’re getting five times what the original bill was.”
The people who are not benefit ting from this HOA foreclosure? The neighbors. Because the foreclosure means the HOA–the neighbors–now own the Roberts home.
“I don't know what good that is,” said Michelle. “People can't sell their homes who legitimately want to sell their homes now.”
Foreclosures can drive down property values for the neighbors since would-be buyers look to comparable nearby properties – known as “comps” – to gage the price they should pay. And foreclosed homes often sell at fire-sale prices, dragging down the neighborhood average.
“The HOA will get their $975,” said Michelle. “But they’ll also have an empty house along with the others they’ve done this to.”
The I-Team searched through Gaston County Register of Deeds records and found six more foreclosures in the last year and a half in the same Mountain View neighborhood from the same Hawthorne Management company and the same law firm: Sellers, Hinshaw. (Click here to read an e-mail from Sellers, Hinshaw)
“We try to work with people,” attorney Tim Sellers told the I-Team in an earlier interview.
Sellers refused to speak on camera about Mountain View and the Roberts.
“The vast majority of the ones we deal with if they’re not in compliance we work to get ‘em in compliance,” he said.
Sellers sent the I-Team a five page time line (click here to read) detailing two years of back-and-forth with the Roberts concluding, “Collection action was authorized only when the Association received no response from the owners or after the owners defaulted on the written agreement for installment payments.”
The Roberts say they made a good faith effort to try to pay an old debt during trying times and lost their home in the process.
Sitting on her couch before loading it on the truck, Michelle summed it up: “We’re like every other family. We’re struggling. We’ve had to take three pay cuts in the banking industry just to keep a job. My business was cut in half. My father has a rare and aggressive cancer.”
Michelle’s father, Dennis Hiatt, said he may go bankrupt. Between breaths from an oxygen tank he says: “It may be legal what they’re doing but it’s just not right.”