Just 10 days before Christmas 2009, Ganel Appolon found an envelope taped to his front door. He and his family were being evicted from their Tamarac home.
Appolon had fallen behind on his mortgage payments, and the lender repossessed the property under terms of his bankruptcy filing.
Despite the financial setback, Appolon vowed to own again.
He spent the next four years saving money and rebuilding his credit. Last fall, he qualified for another mortgage and in December bought a three-bedroom home in Fort Lauderdale for $177,500.
"I feel free," said Appolon, a 46-year-old electrician. "My kids are really, really happy. They kept saying, 'Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Daddy.'"
Appolon's experience may give hope to tens of thousands of people snared in a housing collapse that hit South Florida particularly hard. Many of those people thought they'd never own again – or at least have to wait a decade or longer to even think about it. Instead, South Florida lenders and real estate agents say many former homeowners are recapturing the American Dream, as "boomerang buyers."
"Time will heal everything, and that's what's happening here," said Jim Flood, regional manager for Supreme Lending in Plantation. "I think it's great that people are getting a second chance. Don't we all want that in life?"
How many are getting that chance? No one knows. The government and housing industry don't track it. But lending titans such as Bank of America and community banks and credit unions typically follow the guidelines from government-run mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together insure about half of the nation's home loans.
Fannie and Freddie require someone with a previous foreclosure to wait seven years before qualifying for a new mortgage. But if the foreclosure was included in the bankruptcy – as it was for Appolon – the borrower has to wait only four years.
A person who unloaded a home before the bank foreclosed – such as through a short sale – must wait two years to get another Fannie or Freddie loan.
A consumer seeking a Federal Housing Administration-backed loan can qualify three years after a foreclosure or short sale.
Former owners who lost a home because of at least a 20 percent cut in pay may be able to qualify for another mortgage after only a year through FHA's Back to Work program.
Catherine Perez used that program to buy a four-bedroom home in Pembroke Pines in November. Three years ago, she lost a Davie townhome in foreclosure after her adjustable-rate mortgage payment jumped $400 a month to $2,200.
Perez, 32, lived with her mother for a year to save money and then rented. She signed up for a credit restoration program through the nonprofit agency United Financial Counselors, raising her credit score by more than 100 points to 672 – enough to get a mortgage. A perfect score is 850.
Perez and her fiance ended up qualifying for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at 4.375 percent. They put down about $18,000 on the $335,000 purchase.
"I'm so relieved," she said. "I wanted to have a home for my future kids."
The nation's housing meltdown slammed many in South Florida. Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties finished 2013 with the country's highest foreclosure rate, at one in 25 homes, according to the RealtyTrac listing firm.
More than 167,000 homeowners in Palm Beach and Broward counties have lost their properties to short sales or foreclosures since January 2007, RealtyTrac data show. That pool of potential buyers could help bolster demand just as last year's frenzy cools, analysts say.
"We're about three years past the peak of the foreclosures, and that's about the time when most people would qualify for another loan," said Daren Blomquist, spokesman for RealtyTrac in Irvine, Calif. "The market really needs boomerang buyers to maintain the current recovery."
Some boomerang buyers are required to make down payments of at least 20 percent, while others can put down as little as 3.5 percent or 5 percent — much the same as people without credit problems.
In Appolon's case, he ended up qualifying for favorable loan terms: a 5 percent down payment (about $13,000, with closing costs) and a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with a 4.5 percent interest rate, according to his lender, Stephen B. McWilliam, head of Florida State Mortgage Group in Fort Lauderdale.
When Appolon applied for a mortgage last fall, his credit score was 700. He is not sure what his score was at the time of the bankruptcy, but a person in similar circumstances probably would have had a score of 550 or less, McWilliam said.
Kevin Maher, community outreach coordinator with Debthelper.com, a West Palm Beach-based counseling agency, said the best way to rebuild credit is to pay credit cards and other bills on time and not add new debt. People who take those steps can see their scores rise significantly within a year, he said.
"It's very easy to rebuild your score up to what you need to get back into homeownership," he said. "You just have to stop the bleeding and start something positive."
Ryan Paton, head of Capitol Lending Group in Fort Lauderdale, said he frequently hears criticism about giving mortgages to people who have short sales or foreclosures in the recent past.
But lenders are willing because they realize a large group of otherwise responsible borrowers were trapped in an extraordinary housing debacle not likely to be seen again, he said.
"As long as they've saved money and re-established their credit, they're fantastic buyers," he said.
Doug Leever, mortgage sales manager for Tropical Financial Credit Union, said the Miramar-based lender is willing to work with boomerang buyers who don't qualify for government-backed loans. He said Tropical considers each case individually, evaulating a person's debt, income and expenses.
"We do not want to get back into the same situation we had several years ago," with people buying homes they could not afford, Leever said. "But we have an open mind for the right scenario."
Palm Beach County resident Jeff Bell said he always had an excellent credit score – once as high as 809. But his credit rating dropped by about 100 points after a 2011 short sale following a divorce and the collapse of the housing market.
The 43-year-old father of two said he knew the short sale meant he'd have to wait two years before he could qualify for another mortgage. As the two-year anniversary approached last year, he contacted Paton.
Bell ended up qualifying for a 30-year, fixed-rated mortgage with an interest rate of about 4.6 percent. He put down 20 percent on a $200,000 house near Loxahatchee.
Despite his previous housing struggles, Bell said he always planned to own again.
"When you rent, you're just giving your money to someone else," he said. "Homeownership is about having a solid foundation for your family. It builds a sense of pride."
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