After she lost her job more than a year ago, Deborah Stevens knew she would not be able to keep her Galloway home.
She didn’t know she would be locked out of the home while she still had title or spend seven weeks trying to reclaim her possessions.
“I had a good job, a good income,” said the 47-year-old former medical-office manager. “This is so hard on me. And then not being able to get into my house, it’s horrifying.”
Stevens finally got the keys to her house in southwestern Franklin County, and last week she removed the last of her belongings.
But her tale offers a dramatic illustration of life in the foreclosure trenches and highlights the growing significance of an obscure clause in home mortgages.
Stevens is angry and upset, but she doesn’t blame her bank, Flagstar, for losing her home, which she purchased in 2001 for $127,510. She readily acknowledges that she stopped paying her mortgage in July 2008, after severe rheumatoid arthritis landed her on medical disability.
This past fall, as foreclosure became imminent, she began moving some belongings to her boyfriend’s home in Canal Winchester. She spent more and more time there as she approached the sheriff’s sale of her home, scheduled for Friday.
On Oct. 20, she mentioned to a Flagstar attorney that she was considering turning off the utilities, because she could no longer afford them. She thought she was doing the bank a favor with the notice, but in fact, it initiated the steps that pushed her from the home.
Flagstar, based in suburban Detroit, contacted another suburban Detroit company, Wolverine Real Estate Services, which secures foreclosed properties for lenders.
On Oct. 30, Wolverine’s crew removed the screen from Stevens’ dining-room window, jimmied open the window, entered the home and replaced the locks.
In addition to a pile of door locks and handles, the workers left a notice pasted to the window: “Attention: entry by unauthorized persons is strictly prohibited.”
More than a week later, Stevens found her home locked.
“I was just blown away by them coming over here and breaking in, with all my stuff still in there,” she said.
Mark Dorr, a manager with Wolverine, said he wasn’t familiar with the details of Stevens’ case. But Dorr said his firm enters a home only after authorization from the lender, which typically happens after the lender secures title or thinks the house has been abandoned.
“It’s not something you want to do. It’s something you have to do. You can’t leave a property abandoned,” Dorr said.
Stevens wonders why the Wolverine people didn’t recognize that someone was living in the home, because many of her possessions remained, including furniture, appliances, clothing, pictures, jewelry and tools.
Dorr, however, said it’s common to find belongings in abandoned homes.
“You’d be surprised what people leave behind,” he said. “It’s hard to tell exactly when someone is all the way out.”
Stevens insists that she received no notice of the lockout. Brad Howes, an investor-relations manager with Flagstar, said the bank would not comment about the case or about how it handles foreclosures.
Flagstar and Wolverine appear to have jumped the gun in this case, said Rhett Plank, a Reynoldsburg attorney who teaches real-estate law at Columbus State Community College.
“It sounds to me like they basically took a step quicker than they should have,” he said, adding that real-estate companies do not have the legal authority to evict people.
But, Plank noted, lenders are entitled to protect their investment.
Stevens’ mortgage contains sentences that are echoed in all conventional mortgages: “Lender may inspect the property if the property is vacant or abandoned or the loan is in default. Lender may take reasonable action to protect and preserve such vacant or abandoned property.”
The explosion of foreclosures has added relevance to the boilerplate language, as banks seek to protect their assets.
In fact, it is common for lenders to secure properties in foreclosure before they have title, said Tania Leeatoa, assistant director of the Columbus Urban League’s housing department.
“If they don’t see life, and it doesn’t look like anyone is living there, they will change the locks to secure the property,” Leeatoa said. “Remember, we have people moving into these homes and destroying them, especially in wintertime, when pipes can burst.”
After spending seven weeks on the phone with Flagstar and Wolverine trying to get access to the house, Stevens received a set of keys on Dec. 18, allowing her to remove the last of her things.
“This is just a little something for them,” Stevens said last week as she carried a lamp from the home. “But for me, it’s everything.”