Community tries to save elderly couple's home from foreclosure

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The Washington Post
By: Susan Kinzie
April 3, 2011

MARSHALL, Va. -- Frances and Clarence Corum moved into Frances's mother's house when they were married, raised children and retired there.

They drink frosty water from the well out front, simmer beans on an old potbellied iron stove and sit on the front porch, watching deer eat pears off the trees.

It's home, even though it was never much and has broken down over the years. The toilet is outside. A bad leak in the roof has torn a hole in one ceiling and blistered walls. Duct tape holds windows together, and plastic bags stuffed into cracks around the door serve as insulation. The porch's roof is held up with leaning two-by-fours. Fauquier County says the two-story, three-bedroom wood-frame house is worth $5,100.

And the bank might take it away: The Corums are behind on their mortgage payments.

Homes at risk of foreclosure dot the Washington region, but something about the Corums led people nearby to say: Not this house. Not here.

A team -- led by a banker -- wants to repair and save the tumbledown structure.

Laurie MacNaughton, a reverse-mortgage specialist, has assembled volunteers who have almost everything needed to help: A Warrenton church will provide and feed volunteers; college students are ready to pound out repairs; a group in Purcellville will gather leftover building supplies; and a Rotary Club is willing to provide an emergency grant.

They need time, but the Corums are so far behind on their loan that the bank could seize the house.

"No one wants to fix up this home if it's only going to go to foreclosure," said MacNaughton, a consultant with MetLife Home Loans, who learned about the couple through a lawyer they sought.

The Corums have been seeking a way to pay the roughly $5,000 that is overdue; they're trying to sell some of their three-plus acres and lower their bills. MacNaughton's idea was to find people willing to repair the house and get it into shape for the Corums to qualify for a reverse mortgage, which allows older homeowners to draw off the equity they have built. That income could help keep the couple in their home.

MacNaughton said her "heart sank" when she first saw the Corums' house; she immediately knew it was too broken-down to qualify for the reverse-mortgage loan. But "it's tidy as a pin -- they clearly have loved this home."

So she started calling churches. "It's just a matter of making a phone call and being willing to flap around enough so that the community is aware this is going on in their midst," she said.

She has done this before. The Thomas family had raised children and grandchildren in its house in the center of Leesburg. Over the years, the house's plumbing gave out, its wiring frizzled and its toilet sank into a collapsing floor. The walls became blackened with soot from makeshift kerosene heaters, and termites and carpenter ants ate the joists. One bid to haul away rusting junk, piled waist-high in the yard, was $17,000.

Now, a year later, volunteers such as Steve Simons, owner of a few Handyman Matters of Northern Virginia franchises, have almost entirely rebuilt the little house, donating supplies or working evenings and weekends. Nearly a dozen local companies have pitched in, doing the wiring, plumbing, insulation and so on, so that Virginia Thomas can move back into a safe, clean, heated home this spring.

"Once it's in your back yard, it's hard to have a blind eye to it," Simons said.

Unable to catch up

The Corums' house is in a quiet hollow, a pocket of poverty among the rolling hills and wineries of Virginia horse country. Former Supreme Court justice John Marshall's historic estate is a couple of miles away.

Clarence Corum, 78, worked in construction, helping to build schools and churches. Frances D. Corum, 67, is retired, too, after years of cooking and serving food to hospital patients.

"I wish I had kept on working," she said. "We wouldn't be in the situation we are in now."

Frances's diabetes has worsened worse in the past few years. "It takes a lot of money to be sick," she said. Insulin is $200 a month, and she and her husband live off Social Security payments, which are almost $1,500 a month.

The couple got behind on their mortgage and never caught up. The note was transferred from one bank to another, then to Wells Fargo. They sought a modified payment plan that lowered their monthly bill to less than $700 -- part of the Obama administration's efforts to help stave off foreclosures -- but they are still behind.

"It's a lot," Clarence said, rubbing his forehead.

Perhaps they could have saved more or spent less; regardless, the Corums are in trouble. They have missed seven payments. A son who works as a landscaper has given them some money, but he has a family and bills to pay, too, Frances said.

"These are responsible people that had problems," said lawyer Scott A. Weible, whom the Corums sought, hoping to see whether some of their land could be sold to raise money. "Their medical problems were unexpected and got worse. They got behind once. And once you get behind, it's hard to catch up.

"I think we can get the problem solved," he said, "but we need a little bit of leeway. We need [Wells Fargo] to not simply automatically enforce the strict letter of the agreement." If the bank does, the Corums would have to file for bankruptcy or lose the home.

"Given the small amount of the arrearages," Weible said, "that would be an injustice of the greatest measure."

Jason Menke, a Wells Fargo spokesman, said in an e-mail that it was "regrettable the Corums find themselves in this very difficult situation after we were able to provide them a substantial reduction in their monthly payment through a modification." Wells Fargo has been in contact with the couple to explore additional options.

"Foreclosure remains an option of last resort. . . . We are aware that members of the community have expressed an interest in assisting the Corums, and we plan on reaching out to those groups to see what support we can provide to their efforts."

Memories and hopes

The Corums didn't plant their gardens this year because they're unsure whether they will be at the house this summer, when the cabbages and tomatoes are ripe. Their electricity has been turned off a few times, and the phone keeps ringing with creditors. The oven broke last month, so Frances can't bake the fruitcakes her family loves.

But the cherry tree out back -- which used to be a little-bitty thing but now towers over the tar-paper-patched roof -- is blooming. Her red and yellow tulips are coming up. This was the Corums' home when Frances was pregnant and craving pickled pigs' feet. When their youngest son shot his first deer. When they had big family cookouts, where they played horseshoes and barbecued their own chickens and hogs. This was their home when their great-granddaughter was born.

They'll pay off the debt, Frances said. "We just have to. That's all."


kinzies@washpost.com

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