For both first-time homebuyers and consumers who are anxiously eyeing the specter of foreclosure, housing can be a bewildering maze of regulations, jargon and paperwork.

Yet there’s help out there for cutting through those thickets, and not only is it often free, it comes with no hidden agenda. Consumers in both situations might find a neutral, knowledgeable resource through the hundreds of counseling agencies that have been certified through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For both first-time homebuyers and consumers who are anxiously eyeing the specter of foreclosure, housing can be a bewildering maze of regulations, jargon and paperwork.

Yet there’s help out there for cutting through those thickets, and not only is it often free, it comes with no hidden agenda. Consumers in both situations might find a neutral, knowledgeable resource through the hundreds of counseling agencies that have been certified through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Run by not-for-profit community groups, HUD-certified housing counseling agencies typically offer pre-purchase and mortgage counseling for first-time homebuyers, foreclosure prevention counseling and other related services, according to Lynette Briggs, a counselor for the DuPage Homeownership Center in Wheaton, Ill.

"’HUD-certified’ means that we meet the criteria that HUD has established. It guarantees that we’re a not-for-profit and that we’re following a certain protocol in our services," Briggs said.

Five things to know about housing counseling from a HUD-certified agency:

1. People tend to presume that the agencies’ services are for low-income clients only, but that’s not necessarily true, Briggs said.

"There’s no income ceiling — we don’t have any restrictions," she said of her own organization.

HUD’s website (HUD.gov) guarantees that its sponsored counselors offer advice for free or at low cost. Housing counseling agencies participating in HUD programs aren’t permitted to charge for foreclosure counseling. However, they may charge "reasonable and customary fees" for other kinds of counseling services provided certain income criteria are met, the agency said.

2. The agencies can teach consumers about the homebuying process, mortgages and post-purchase realities, such as maintenance costs, property taxes, etc., she said.

The approach may vary from organization to organization, but Briggs said hers is typical of many these days: Would-be homebuyers seeking counseling there first attend group workshops that cover the basics of the buying process. Then, individuals meet with counselors to discuss their specific situations.

"In individual counseling, we review their credit report, we review income and how it’s going to be assessed by a lender," she said. "We will assess their debts and what funds they have available for a downpayment. From there, we compare and contrast what types of programs would be available to them for purchasing.

"If they’re eligible for (government-assist purchase) programs, we’re going to talk about those, and show them examples of what affordability is," Briggs said. "You could get a conventional (loan), Federal Housing Administration (insured loan), or you might be able to qualify for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program."

If the counselor and client conclude that an individual is going to face obstacles qualifying for a loan or keeping a home, the organization creates an action plan that might set a target for saving for a larger downpayment or for clearing up credit history problems, she said.

She stresses that HUD-certified programs don’t push homeownership.

"We can only go over the pros and cons," she said. "We can’t make decisions for them. That’s in their court."

3. HUD-certified organizations also offer foreclosure prevention counseling. Briggs said a few years ago, her organization handled about 50 foreclosure cases annually. In 2010, it probably will see about 1,000, she said.

Because of the volume, her group has set up "homeownership preservation" workshops that explain the foreclosure process, much the way it handles basic consumer education about homebuying.

"And we strongly point out how to avoid scams," Briggs said. "No one should be paying for counseling to save their home. You can be charged for services by an attorney (during foreclosure), that’s legit. But you should avoid anyone else who’s asking to save your home, saying, ‘I can guarantee you a loan modification.’ No one can guarantee that. President Obama can’t even do it."

In confidential sessions, the counselors pull a credit report and go over the client’s budget.

"That’s the most critical element, helping them to organize themselves and create a budget and get organized," she said. "You have to know how much you’re spending on groceries, utilities, insurance for your car. All of these things affect how much is available to pay your loan.

"If all your other expenses only leave $200 for a housing payment, something’s got to give," she said. "They will have to change spending habits or their income or start thinking about where they’re going to live."

They also can deal directly with the client’s mortgage servicing company to help work out a loan modification, she said. Although counselors often face the same telephone bureaucracy as consumers do when trying to break through to the right person at a mortgage servicer, sometimes they can "cut in line" because certain servicing companies have dedicated phone lines for professional counselors, she said.

Another potential edge: Counselors aren’t carrying the emotional baggage of consumers threatened with losing their homes, she said.

"The advantage we have over the borrowers is we understand, cold, what their options are," Briggs said. "We speak the language. We can look clearly at the numbers and make rational arguments.

"Lenders appreciate talking to a counselor because we’re keeping out of the discussion the part (that homeowners tend to interject about) ‘This is the home where my children grew up,’ " Briggs said. "We know that these are the numbers and what is available to make it work."

4. Some HUD counselors may offer other services, such as education about reverse mortgages, and rental and homelessness assistance.

Briggs said that consumers should understand that it’s the agencies that are certified by HUD, not the individual counselors, though those counselors might have specialized training and certification through outside groups.

She said counselors’ backgrounds and training can vary. Counselors tend to have backgrounds and education in either the mortgage industry or in social services, she said. Consumers should ask their consumers to explain their qualifications.

5. For more information, visit HUD.gov for a state-by-state listing of certified housing counseling agencies. Or call 1-800-569-4287.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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