I was twenty-six years old and life couldn't be better. Fresh out of grad school, I landed a job with a manufacturing firm. I'd just gotten married. We had a baby -- Cody -- on the way. It was high-time I moved out of my apartment and did what all the other respectable grown-ups did. It was time to buy a house.
The real estate agent showed us a three-two bungalow on the fringes of the county. It was a brand-new neighborhood. Some of the houses on our street were in various stages of construction at the time. My wife fell in love with it at first sight, and while it wiped out our life savings, we snapped it up at a bargain price. We qualified for special mortgage financing through a local bank. The deal was too good to pass up.
Then the savings and loan fiasco hit. Practically every local builder in the state went belly up, and many of the houses on our block remained unfinished.
The bank that had financed us hit hard times. They got swallowed up by bigger banks, and then even those banks were swallowed up. Every day we'd get mail informing us to redirect our mortgage payments to the successor banks. When all the dust kicked up during the financial mess had finally settled, our loan had come to rest in the hands of a national bank headquartered in New York City, thousands of miles away.
The first piece of correspondence the bank sent us was a "welcome" letter, introducing themselves to us. It was nothing short of a punchlist setting out the documents they needed from us to sort out the financial mess they'd inherited. Their letter closed -- politely enough -- with a reminder that we would occasion an immediate default and foreclosure if we failed to cooperate. By then we were eight years invested in the home, so we weren't in a position to take their request lightly. We mailed back a thick envelope chock full of everything they asked for.
Weeks passed. Then got this letter from a finance company we'd never heard of. As it turns out, the bank that owned our mortgage note also bought up the insurance company that wrote the policy on our home, and changed its name soon after. The letter explained that the insurance company was cancelling our policy due to "irregularities" pertaining to the title to our home, and that the bank would be following up with another letter soon.
The bank never wrote back. Instead, it got its high-powered New York attorneys to do that for them. The lawyers said we'd defrauded the predecessor bank by getting a mortgage on a tract of land that -- get this -- did not exist.
We didn't have any money to hire an attorney, so I did the best I could on my own. I took a few days off from work to investigate exactly what had gone wrong. County records revealed that our neighborhood sat in an unincorporated sector of the county. The post office where our mail was processed was located in a city twenty miles south, but since our neighborhood was lumped into the same mail route, it was assigned the same geographic code as the city, despite being nowhere near each other.
That was just the tip of the iceberg my research uncovered, although, in retrospect, I did get carried away. Those couple of days I took off work turned into weeks. My dismissal letter had been sitting on the dinner table in a jumble of other mail before I even knew I'd been fired.
With no money to pay the note, it was a sure thing that the bank would take us to court. Nonetheless, I was ready. I'm no lawyer, but I did one heck of a job. You should have seen the look on the judge's face. He laughed those bigshot lawyers out of court when he heard them trying to foreclose on a property they said didn't exist. But, as if to add insult to injury, the bank rigged things so that nobody -- not me, not the bank, not the county recorder's office, nobody -- can say for sure who really owns the land now, and it'll be a long time before anyone can sort it out.
My victory, if you can call it that, was bittersweet. Luanne left the house one day while I was out at the labor exchange. She'd taken Cody with her. We don't talk much. Things are awkward. Still, she is good enough to let me spend time with Cody every other weekend.
The neighborhood hasn't changed. My neighbors -- if you can call them that -- are still bombed-out shells of never-built houses. I still draw water from a hand pump well in the backyard. The roof is falling in, and since I can't show proof I legally own the place, I can't refinance to pay for repairs.
But for what it's worth, the house is mine. I live here, I fought for it, and no one's taking it from me. Even when a man's got nothing left, he's got to keep his principles.