Real estate agent Jennifer Hernandez knows about the squeeze that military families, faced with a transfer to a new place of duty, are feeling these days because the homes they bought during the housing boom are "upside-down" — worth less than the balance owed on their mortgages.
These families don’t have the option of just staying put — a service member can’t just say "no thanks" to a change of station, as it’s known in the military — so they face the prospect of a short sale or foreclosure because a normal sale probably wouldn’t yield enough to pay off their loans.
Hernandez hears their stories. She advises them of their options. But she’s more than just a sympathetic professional: She’s in the same boat.
And she’d like to get the word out that this is a widespread problem for military families today.
"People who serve this country can’t have the same American Dream as the ‘normal’ American family," said Hernandez. "They’re reasoning, why in the world did I ever buy a home? Why didn’t I rent?"
Hernandez, an agent with Liz Moore & Associates in Williamsburg, Va., specializes in working with military clients stationed at the numerous military installations in the Hampton Roads area.
Her husband, Tony, is an Air Force officer, and the couple have moved 16 times in the past 20 years. In a few months, he’ll transfer to a base in Alabama, but this time she’ll stay behind at least for a while, she said — not only do they want to keep the kids in the same school, but they’re significantly upside-down on their own home. They’ve elected to wait it out.
"I know at least 20 people who are in this position, just in the Hampton Roads area," she said.
And she’s heard from many, many more from around the country and around the world since she was quoted about this particular financial bind in a local newspaper article — that report was picked up by numerous other news outlets.
Hernandez is gathering their stories, to be passed on to Holly Petraeus (wife of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus), who recently was appointed to head an effort to start an Office of Servicemember Affairs, which will focus on the financial aspects of military life as a part of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"I’m involved with the National Military Family Association (a private, advocacy organization), and she and I got into a conversation in a meeting in February," she said of Petraeus. "I told her about my own situation, and I told her about how many active-duty families were in the same situation.
"She said she wanted to hear any kind of stories that I could forward her to bring to the Office of Servicemember Affairs," Hernandez said. "I’m trying to bring to light how many people this is happening to.
"There’s no viable solution for this problem right now, but I’d like to get people realizing that it’s a national problem, not a local problem."
Some transferring military personnel in upside-down real estate situations do have access to aid from the federal government, she said.
The Department of Defense’s Homeowners Assistance Program, or HAP, has funding to reimburse qualifying service members for part of their losses from their home sales, if they don’t have funds from a sale to pay off their mortgages, or assist in the event of a default, she said.
And though that program has helped thousands of homeowners, she said, it has a catch: It’s available only to military personnel who bought their homes before July 1, 2006, and were reassigned between Feb. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2010.
"Most everybody here that I know bought their homes in 2007 and 2008, when the local market was at its height," she said. "There’s a bill in the House of Representatives to extend the dates of the program, but it doesn’t have a lot of support right now."
Hernandez said she’s not looking for a large-scale bailout to aid military families, but to expand the current law’s scope to help those who are obligated to move.
"Most of these families would have to come to the closing table with $30,000 or $40,000 if they were to sell," she said.
The real estate needs of military personnel are much different from those of average consumers, Hernandez said.
"A service member moves every two to four years," she said. "They don’t have a choice on the time or the location."
And the whole process can happen very quickly and with its own set of tensions, said Hernandez, who said she became a real estate agent two years ago, as she often found herself offering practical advice to other military families because of her extensive experience with the process.
"A lot of times, the military families find out they’re moving and have only days to fly out somewhere and rent or buy a home," she said. "You’ll usually just get one of the two spouses (looking for a residence), because the other one has to stay home and get ready to move."
Plus, most military families can’t afford to have both spouses go on the hunt: Though the military grants the transferring service member time off to go house hunting, it doesn’t cover what might be a pricey airline ticket for the search.
Hernandez said that real estate agents who are knowledgable about military life could find themselves in demand.
"When I came to Virginia, I couldn’t find an agent who had an understanding of military members," she said. "You want somebody who understands your needs. They’re going to start talking in acronyms, and if you don’t have a clue, it’s not going to help them."
"The military is my niche — it’s my passion, and I understand it," she said.
She blogs about the real estate concerns of local military families at WilliamsburgMilitaryInsider.com and she is on a "military team" at her brokerage, which is also developing a rental program targeted toward service members.
"I’ve had military members come into the area who told me they were going to buy, but as soon as they decided to go into a rental instead, their agents dropped them," she said.
With the economic downturn and with the hard lesson of upside-down mortgages, "rentals are becoming a hot item these days in this area," she said.
She’s advised almost all of the transferring military families who have sought her counsel that they should consider whether to rent out their homes and hire a property manager. Short sales, apart from being very time-consuming, can hurt a homeowner’s credit score — which can be additionally damaging to military personnel who have to maintain security clearances, Hernandez said.
How the military is going to regard those particular credit dings from this recent real estate phenomenon isn’t entirely clear at this point, she said.
"It’s a new issue — nobody knows the effects," she said. "I tell people, ‘Are you going to take that risk?’ "
Hernandez’s husband has high security clearances, which affected their whole approach to homebuying; he needed to avoid significant debt, she said.
"We did a (Department of Veterans Affairs) loan, we don’t have a second mortgage, we bought down our interest rate," she said. "We did the research and we did it conservatively, but we’re still upside-down."
So, he’s off to Alabama while she stays behind with the kids and the house, she said. If they don’t sell it in a year or so, they’ll probably rent it out.
"We could get a loan (to make up the difference to sell our home), but we’re not going to incur the debt, and we’re definitely not going to do the short sale because it would affect our credit," she said.