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Navigating the housing market

It seems ages ago when signs dotted McHenry County advertising new homes for sale in neighborhood after neighborhood that were rising from former meadows and cornfields.

The sound of hammers and power saws on wood fueled the local economy.

If you told homebuilders a decade ago that the industry would screech to a halt and they would be scrambling to make ends meet, they likely wouldn’t have believed you. Same goes if you told an investor a decade ago that 2008 would mark the end of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Wachovia.

Today, the signs popping up on lawns – some manicured, others unkempt from neglect – offer deals on foreclosed homes. Many homeowners live near half-completed homes, monuments of raw lumber and Tyvek to the bursting of the housing bubble.

Our new reality, like past crises, has peppered our language with new terms: Short sale. Underwater. Bailout. Too big to fail.

There have been 10,703 foreclosure filings countywide from 2008 to August 2011. To put that number in perspective, think of emptying out all 10,741 housing units in the entire city of McHenry of every last man, woman and child.

Some of those foreclosures are against irresponsible borrowers who never should have asked for or received home loans. Others are against homeowners who should have resisted the urge to use their homes as credit cards to pay for the finer things in life. Yet others are against responsible people who lost their jobs and their
incomes in the wake of the economic catastrophe.

The housing crisis is a story of how lenders who should have known better, who were not watched by a government that ignored the warning signs, gave out loans to people who had no business getting them. Many of the banks behind the debacle got propped up by the taxpayers, including just under half of the 30 banks that have McHenry County branches. To add insult to injury, taxpayers also ended up paying contractual bonuses to reward the “talent” that brought the U.S. to the economic brink.

It’s a story of families struggling to keep their homes, buoyed only by the fact that eviction can take years because of the huge backlog the banks and the courts face. Our home values have dropped, many people owe more on their homes than they are worth, yet we pay the same or more in property taxes, prompting at least 5,900 parcel assessment appeals as of last month.

And it’s a story that is far from over, because the boom that went bust just keeps on busting. But starting today, the Northwest Herald is publishing a five-part series to help you make sense of the problem’s scope and help you get through it.

“Housing Road Map: A Survival Guide” runs today through Thursday in five special sections aimed at answering the numerous questions our journalists and editors have received over the years. How did we get here? How can we avoid foreclosure? How can I buy or sell a home in this market? Can I get my assessment reduced to fight my property tax bill? What needs to happen for housing to recover?

And if you’re facing any of these issues, you’ll learn that you are far from alone.

We can’t sit around and wait for government to make everything better. Taxpayers apparently aren’t too big to fail. Hopefully, these stories will help you help yourselves.

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