It took Michael Percell just six days in 2008 to find and purchase his dream home in Lexington County for $200,000, at an incredible 1 percent interest rate.
Two years later, his employer, National Cash Register, packed up shop and moved to Peachtree City, Ga., leaving Percell with an $850 monthly mortgage payment, a severance package and a puny unemployment check.
It wasn’t enough money to cope, despite a couple of successful efforts to refinance his 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath home. And it wasn’t long before the foreclosure letters started arriving in his mailbox — and the stress began mounting.
“That stress was more than anything I’ve ever had in my life. It hit pretty hard,” he said.
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Today, Percell, 46, is in an information technology training program that guarantees him a job when he finishes next year. And his mortgage is current, thanks to a state program that few South Carolinians with troubled mortgages have discovered.
Percell is one of only about 1,200 homeowners in the state who have turned to SC HELP, the South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program. It’s a federal/state partnership put together to help eligible applicants avoid foreclosure — even if they already are delinquent.
Thousands more have fallen behind on mortgage payments and risk losing their homes in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Obama administration program has pumped close to $300 million into the state to help those at risk of foreclosure keep the roof over their heads or move into a more manageable living arrangement.
Homeowners can get up to $20,000 to catch up on missed mortgage payments and bring the mortgage current. Those who are still struggling to find a job can get up to $36,000 in forgivable funds to make monthly mortgage payments for a period of time — until their financial situation improves.
For those whose mortgages are in so much trouble they cannot be salvaged, the program offers up to $5,000 in assistance in reverting to renter status.
The money is made available by funds repaid from the U.S. bank bailout. In South Carolina, the $295 million pool of money for foreclosure avoidance was based on the state’s high unemployment rate — among the worst in the nation in the last couple of years.
Counties with the highest unemployment rates when the program was announced in 2010 get the highest loan caps and longest periods of assistance.
But few people are applying for the funds, even though they are available in each of the state’s 46 counties, state housing officials say. The money is available through 2017, or until it runs out, officials said.
“In the rural counties, the numbers (of applicants) are not very high at all, based upon the fact that I think people are just not aware of the program,” said Tanya Dash, housing counselor coordinator for South Carolina Legal Services, an arm of the South Carolina Housing Finance and Development Authority.
Some homeowners also are hesitant, she said, because they are leery.
“Some people get foreclosure notices and they just sit on it,” she said.
In 2011, 28,513 foreclosures were filed in South Carolina, according to state figures. Yet only 1,200 residents have been approved for the program since it started in January 2011.
The program has had some problems. Qualifying requirements were loosened last fall to open it up to more homeowners, such as the self-employed or underemployed.
And while most major institutions have signed on to participate in the program, such as Bank of America, Chase and others, some lending institutions in the state, such as TD Bank (formerly Carolina First), have shunned the program, officials said.
TD Bank officials have said the bank has its own programs in place to help struggling homeowners.
Percell, who purchased his home through Bank of America with the assistance of NACA, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, managed to get his mortgage lowered twice in his initial efforts to stave off foreclosure.
The former NCR help desk specialist also sold off assets and dipped into his retirement funds to cope, he said.
But it was the SC HELP funds that finally got him back on firm footing with his mortgage and promises to keep him there.
“This is a blessing from God, I believe that wholeheartedly,” Percell said.
The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News contributed.