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Anytime you buy an old house, you may wonder about the people who lived in those rooms before. NPR's Emily Harris had a special reason to wonder about the house she bought five years ago in Portland, Ore. She knew a bank had foreclosed on previous owners. And that was all she knew, until she received a visitor.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Richard Wingard showed up on our porch one night a couple of years after we moved in. His wife, Rebecca Wingard, had sent him over to deliver a paper sack full of creamy, thick envelopes that she couldn't use anymore. Their old address - now ours - was engraved in delicate, pink script on the back. Rebecca sent a note saying she couldn't bring herself to throw out the envelopes.
She included a phone number so eventually, I called. She agreed to come over, back to the house she lost in foreclosure.
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HARRIS: When she rang the bell, I was nervous. Rebecca had lived in this Craftsman-style home nearly 27 years before losing it to the bank. Once inside, she took a long look around and remembered the first time she'd walked in.
REBECCA WINGARD: I can't remember what I thought I was looking for, but I had been recently divorced; no children. I knew I didn't want to waste money on rent.
HARRIS: So she bought it, for $69,000. That was in 1981.
WINGARD: Of course, people thought I have a ton of money, but I bought it on a contract because I couldn't qualify for a loan on my own.
HARRIS: The contract called for the full purchase price to be paid in five years. Divorced, working as a dental hygienist, Rebecca wasn't sure how she would pull that off. But she knew how to get things done. Take remodeling...
WINGARD: I decided to have a Super Bowl party. You know, we watched the football game, and drank and ate. And I said - you know, you guys - and a couple of big bruiser, cowboy types - and I said, you know, I really need to take up this carpet and pad, and I really can't do it myself. You want to cut up the carpet? Yes! Yeah! And so in about 10 minutes, we had that carpet cut up, rolled up; out the front door onto the porch.
WINGARD: We sprinkled cornmeal on the floor, cranked up the music - and we danced.
HARRIS: It's clear Rebecca had a lot of fun in this house. She told me about the nice, stable guy she remarried; and how their kids rode blankets down the steep staircase, and performed plays on the long window seat in the dining room. She built the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in what is my favorite room. That was a gift for her third husband, Richard, the guy who first brought over the envelopes.
WINGARD: And he had a chair in here - and I had a little chair 'cause a lot of times, we will read to one another. I remember sitting in here one night, and it was a stormy night. And he was reading "The Hound of the Baskervilles," which was so appropriate. (LAUGHTER)
HARRIS: Out loud to you.
WINGARD: Out loud, yeah.
HARRIS: Rebecca's second divorce - before Richard - seems to have paved the way to foreclosure. The house was actually almost paid off, but had gone way up in value. So Rebecca had to take out a big loan to buy out her ex-husband. Richard had divorce debt too, and they needed cash for a rental property business they'd gotten involved in. Rebecca says they refinanced three times in three years.
WINGARD: Every time we'd refinance, you know, then our monthly mortgage payment is really high. (LAUGHTER) And so we got behind in payments.
HARRIS: Months behind. Her husband eventually borrowed money from a friend. Rebecca went to overnight a payment to the mortgage company that would catch them up. She called, to make sure it would get there in time.
WINGARD: And she said, oh, just a moment, ma'am. And she said, I'm sorry, ma'am, that property sold in foreclosure this morning, at 10:30. I said, what? I said, well, it's my house.
HARRIS: It wasn't her house anymore. An investor now owned it. Her family had 10 days to leave. I asked Rebecca how she got over this loss. She said it helps to think about people who were worse off than she was.
WINGARD: Mentally, at least, I had started making a shift, you know, thinking that the time will come to move out of this home 'cause we need to downsize. And that was my pat response when people would say, you know - well, we had an offer we couldn't refuse, which was the truth.
HARRIS: Fortunately, they didn't end up on the street or on a friend's couch. A rental property they owned was empty because they had had to evict some difficult tenants. They moved there.
WINGARD: It was miraculous because we would never had gotten all of that money out of the house. I mean, we ended up - we made so much money on this house and we would never have been able to do that. It sound bizarre but oh, thank you, Lord.
HARRIS: More than five years after losing the home where she raised her children, Rebecca counts the experience of foreclosure as a blessing. She's probably in a small minority in that, but she has moved on. She's opened up the attic for a big bathroom remodel in her current home. And she has new stationery; her address, once again, engraved on the envelopes in a delicate, pink swirl.
Emily Harris, NPR News.
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