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Talk to mortgage lender if worried about falling behind

Don't wait.

That's the most important advice for people who fear they could fall behind on a mortgage payment, according to housing experts and lenders.

The message is at the heart of a statewide campaign to prevent and assist with foreclosures, says Jacqueline Lampell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development. In tough economic times, a job loss, an illness or even an unexpected big car repair bill can cut into a homeowner's ability to pay.

"If you feel you are going to miss a payment, call your lender immediately," Lampell said. "Our experience has been that most people wait far longer than they really should to call the lender, to ask for help or for some understanding of the situation they're in."

When you do call, make sure you've already pored through your original loan documents to see what they say about missed or late payments. The terms can vary from loan to loan. Make sure to take good notes on your conversation - in case you do end up in foreclosure and need to follow up with a housing counseling agency, many of which are listed at www.mdhope.org.

M&T Bank is receiving more calls from worried mortgage holders, with the most serious problems involving unexpected increases in expenses or reductions in income, said Joseph Morrison, manager of the bank's Homeowner Assistance Center.

"If we can determine what the problem is, what is the customer's capacity to make payments ... that allows us to understand what we can do to structure a solution," Morrison said.

Options vary, he said. For someone who can't make the next month's payment but would be able to resume afterward, the bank might spread the missed payment over several months. For more than a single payment, he said, the lender might restructure terms of the loan, offer a lower interest rate, lengthen the term or add missed payments into the loan balance.

But any grace period approved by a lender will be only temporary.

"The bottom line is, you do owe the payments," Lampell said, "and there are no federal, state or private programs that are going to pick up your loan payment for you."

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