Mortgage Woes Pock Irish Landscape

The housing bubble burst in Ireland some time ago, but empty homes and half-finished developments still litter the country. NPR's Philip Reeves profiles some Irish who've been left high and dry by the financial meltdown.

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Many lives are being turned completely upside down by the eurozone crisis. That's especially true in Ireland, where they're still clearing up the mess left when the property bubble burst. Thousands of homes lie empty and unsold. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, some people have been left with colossal debts.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Step, for a minute, into the strange world of Jill Godsil. She lives among the farms and villages and rolling hills of Ireland's Wicklow County. The countryside's spectacular.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

REEVES: So is her house.

JILL GODSIL: So, this is the original drawing room. It is a fantastic old Georgian style with the two large picture windows, sash windows. We bought the chandeliers separately. They're Polish crystal.

REEVES: It's a gloomy winter afternoon. The old house is cold and empty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

REEVES: Godsil can't afford to put the lights on. She can't afford to live here at all. She's stuck with the place.

GODSIL: There's eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms. We have three reception rooms, and then we have kitchen utility.

REEVES: In Ireland, house prices have more than halved. Lots of homeowners now have very large negative equity. If you have a job and can afford the mortgage payments, you can just stay put and hope that the market will bounce back. But what about those who have to sell up and move to find work, or who just can't make the mortgage because they've lost their income or a partner who was earning? Godsil says a few years back it would have been impossible to imagine the trouble she's now in.

GODSIL: I thought I had the dream house, the dream life. You know, I had two kids, I was church warden, Sunday school teacher, you know. I was sort of very much involved in the community and loved it very much. And I enjoyed my work. I was very good at my job, you know, I thought I had it all.

REEVES: Those were years when Ireland was the Celtic tiger. Godsil's small PR company was flourishing. The property market was roaring. Godsil wanted to invest in it. Why not? Everyone else was, says realtor Keith Lowe.

KEITH LOWE: People were hooked. They wanted houses. Every dinner party on a Saturday night in a house, it was all the discussions were around property.

REEVES: Lowe says the Irish were bargain-hunting all over the place.

LOWE: They were buying in schemes in the likes of Turkey and Eastern Europe. They were putting deposits down on properties, and multiple properties - one, two, three, four, five houses - without even the properties being built.

REEVES: Godsil and her husband bought their house pretty cheaply before the boom. Then they had it revalued and found its worth had soared to $2 million. Godsil's bank was only too happy to use the house as collateral and give her a second mortgage to buy a couple of places in Portugal.

GODSIL: It didn't seem crazy at the time. We bought decent property. We thought, well, over time that also will rise. So, it made sound sense at the time.

REEVES: What was sensible then sounds crazy now when you hear how much money she owes.

GODSIL: It's about a million now I think.

REEVES: A million?

GODSIL: Yeah, I think so.

REEVES: One million euros is $1.3 million. Godsil blames several disasters that happened at pretty much the same time: the eurozone crisis came barreling through; her business ran into trouble, and her husband left her and left Ireland. The deeds on her house made her jointly and separately liable for the mortgage. Put simply, that means it's her responsibility to pay it. She can't. A couple of months ago, bailiffs turned up at her company, waving an unpaid tax bill. That was the turning point, says Godsil.

GODSIL: It was very funny - a friend of mine came and said, Jill, you have now officially reached rock bottom. I went yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GODSIL: 'Cause you know what that means - when you hit the bottom, there is only one way and that's up.

REEVES: Up is not easy. Godsil and her two teenage daughters have moved into a two-bedroom cottage. In Ireland, you can't walk away from a mortgage. Your debts follows you. Last year, Godsil didn't pay the mortgage at all. Now, she's begun making tiny payments of under a hundred dollars a month. So far the bank's not tried to repossess her house. She's finding it tough scraping by.

GODSIL: I actually was wondering, how will I put food on the table? That is actually a scary, scary thought, especially for a professional career woman. That is very, very scary.

REEVES: Godsil's trying to get her business going again. She gets a modest amount of alimony from her ex, plus a little welfare, and her mum helps out. She's amazingly upbeat about the future.

GODSIL: The experiences that I have lived through have opened my eyes totally. So as an individual, as a person, I have gained hugely from the last five years. I am angry and I've been saddened and I've been upset, and I've been, you know, ah, heartbroken, but I have also been excited and elated. And I am going, wow, OK, there's so many things that I want to do.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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