Wealthiest Americans aren't immune from mortgage crisis
The International Herald Tribune
By Christine Haughney
Published: April 24, 2008

GREENWICH, Connecticut: With the mortgage crisis still spreading, even homes in one of the wealthiest towns in the United States can fall into foreclosure. But to be in charge of auctioning off such homes to the highest bidder is a far greater challenge here in Greenwich than in most other places.

Just ask John Thygerson, who parked his Jeep sport utility vehicle in front of an empty $1.6 million, 4-bedroom colonial on the flawless spring Saturday last week. As a foreclosure auctioneer, he was scheduled - for the third time since January - to sell the house. But the owner, a construction business owner who has fallen on hard times, made a last-minute mortgage payment and the foreclosure was postponed yet again.

So Thygerson was there to shoo prospective buyers off the property, nod at inquisitive neighbors and stake out a new spot for a fourth set of foreclosure signs - if that were to be needed - after the first three had been mysteriously torn down.

"We never had a case that had gone through three separate sales attempts," he said, still dazed that the auction failed to take place. "Greenwich being Greenwich, foreclosures are a rare occurrence."

Rare, perhaps, but not unheard of, either, as the housing industry collapse and Wall Street troubles that have followed in its wake claim some victims among the affluent, too. Personal traumas play a role in the dramas as well.

The town, which typically has about a half-dozen foreclosure notices each month - much lower than the national average - recorded 34 filings in January, according to RealtyTrac. Though they have since returned to a more typical level.

But even the most financially distressed of Greenwich homeowners have generally been able to ward off actually losing their homes.

RealtyTrac data show six homes receiving foreclosure filings last month in this sheltered enclave - where the average single family home sold this year went for $3.1 million. They all, however, were pending because their owners had missed a few payments and were still hoping to rescue their position.

In the past 30 days, none of the three Greenwich properties listed for auction actually were sold.

As millions of people across the United States face the very serious threat of losing their houses, the few Greenwich homeowners in trouble are tapping into other resources that most people cannot call upon to help prevent the ultimate indignity.

The town had 121 foreclosure filings last year, according to RealtyTrac. That translates into less than half of 1 percent of Greenwich's 24,511 households, compared with a rate of over 1 percent nationwide.

The Greenwich cases stand out in a town that has been mostly insulated so far from the economic troubles spreading through the country's middle and working classes.

Already one of the richest cities in America in 2000, when the U.S. Census Bureau recorded a median household income of $99,086 - more than double the national average - the town has become far wealthier in recent years with the exponential growth of many of the hedge funds that have set up business here.

A new generation of wealthy Wall Street executives has moved in as well.

By 2007, the Connecticut Economic Resources Center reported that the median household income had risen to $122,849, meaning half made more, some much more.

Tearing down existing homes to make room for new ones has continued despite the mortgage crisis that erupted last summer. And while prices and sales volume are dropping, Greenwich is not suffering as badly as nearby towns.

Through mid-April this year, 160 co-ops, condominiums and single-family homes sold for $290,000 to $30 million. That compares with 240 sales, ranging in price from $290,000 to $12 million, for the period in 2007, according to the Greenwich Multiple Listing Service.

But with the financial system straining under extreme pressure, some Greenwich residents may be facing tougher times in the near future. The New York Independent Budget Office predicts that Wall Street will lose more than 20,000 jobs by the end of 2009. Some start-up hedge funds are having trouble raising capital.

But lawyers working on Greenwich's early foreclosure cases predict that most will never reach the auction stage because their homeowners almost always have other options.

Burt Hoffman, a lawyer in Stamford, Connecticut, is helping one such Greenwich homeowner sell his property as a "short sale," in which the price is expected to fall short of the value of the mortgage securing the home. He is also trying to buy three troubled Greenwich homes before they are sold at auction and fielding calls from clients hoping to pick up a bargain.

Similarly, Eileen Pate, a Greenwich lawyer, recently helped one client avoid foreclosure by arranging a short sale with his bank, which agreed to accept payment over time for the difference between the outstanding mortgage and the price the house fetched.

As for the four-bedroom colonial that just avoided going on the block, Zbigniew Skwarek, the 41-year-old owner, came up with his own money to postpone the auction.

Court records show he stopped paying on his $1,557,617.77 mortgage on Feb. 1, 2007. But three days before the scheduled auction, he gave his lender, Countrywide Financial, a check for $50,000.

Skwarek may not live in one of Greenwich's most coveted neighborhoods, but like many residents here, he owns other properties, including an apartment in town and a home in Florida, and he can tap into that equity.

"I don't want to lose this house," Skwarek said by telephone.

Skwarek has still not figured out how he will hold onto his home. He said he would try to rent it, as he did once before. If that does not work, he plans to move in and rent out his apartment.

He remains optimistic that foreclosure will never happen and that his lender will help him find a way to escape his financial trap.

"They want to work with people like me," he said.

Thygerson, the auctioneer, agrees that he may never get a chance to do his job. "You look at this place," he said, "and foreclosure does not come to mind."

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