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Via: WRAL

Raleigh, N.C. — A program launched a year ago has helped more than 2,500 North Carolina homeowners avoid foreclosure, officials said Monday.

More than 5,000 other homeowners have met with nonprofit housing counselors to get free advice and assistance in dealing with their finances and mortgage problems under the State Home Foreclosure Prevention Project, officials said.

Tiffany Birdsong, who lost her job as an accountant for Caterpillar Inc. in March, is among the growing number of people who have been able to stay in their homes because of the program.

Birdsong said bills have piled up in recent months, and she has missed the last few mortgage payments as she struggled to make ends meet. She said avoiding foreclosure was her one Christmas wish this year.

“This is what I dreamed of my whole life, to have my own home,” she said. “I got my Christmas gift early. I’m ecstatic. I’m happy.”

Foreclosure filings in North Carolina are up 14 percent this year over 2008 because of the economic downturn and job losses, compared with an 18 percent increase nationwide, officials said. Yet, the state’s foreclosure rate ranks 36th nationally, according to RealtyTrac’s latest foreclosure report.

“We are thrilled our program has given so many homeowners the tools they need to avoid foreclosure,” Mark Pearce, the chief deputy commissioner of banks, said in a statement. “At the same time, the current economy has led many homeowners to struggle for the first time to pay their mortgage and other bills. We urge these homeowners to call our state hotline to get help from experienced counselors.”

Pearce and other officials estimated that avoiding foreclosures on 2,500 homes so far has prevented $218 million in losses to neighboring property values and in losses to the financial system.

The State Home Foreclosure Prevention Project uses 34 nonprofit counseling agencies across the state and one national nonprofit phone counseling agency to provide assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure. Homeowners seeking help can call 1-866-234-4857 toll-free from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Harriett Reynolds, a counselor with Triangle Family Services, said she’s helped dozens of clients qualify for assistance under the state’s Home Protection Program. The major guidelines to qualify involve credit and employment history, she said.

“It was put into place to help people who lost their jobs through changing economic conditions,” Reynolds said.

Birdsong will now receive mortgage assistance, including payments for property taxes and homeowner’s insurance for at least the next nine months and could benefit for as long as two years. She said she’s most relieved that her three children will be able to spend the holidays at home.

“Each one of them has their own room. They’re like, ‘It’s mine,'” said Birdsong, a widow. “I wouldn’t want to take that from them. They’ve had enough problems already.”

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