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Sale of forgotten possessions can ease finances in tough times

Remember when low-interest rates solved so many problems?

Homeowners could refinance to lower monthly payments, easing the monthly debt load and household anxiety at the same time. Lower mortgages allowed families to pay bills not even associated with the home’s principal, interest, taxes and insurance.

We were in that emotional boat many times, including once in the early 1980s when double-digit inflation had us waiting for a home-loan rate of less than 12 percent. When rates came down even more, we refinanced again to make the monthly load even lighter.

However, we were never forced to leave our home because of default or foreclosure, never had to downsize because we couldn’t make ends meet on the housing front.

I can’t imagine the feelings of hurt, frustration, anger and embarrassment of today’s borrowers who are no longer able to afford the roof over their heads – especially for those who knowingly bought more home than they could afford with mortgage money that was way too easy to get.

Just where would we be if today’s interest rates were closer to 8 percent than 6 percent? Consumers have been lulled into thinking “historic” low rates would simply remain and become common; no more peaks and valleys. There certainly are extremes and stops in between. Our first home, a two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a sales price of $37,500, carried an interest rate of 9 percent.

While lenders are taking back homes, they are not entitled to the furnishings and other belongings that could have considerable value to the owners. While there are horror stories from real estate salespeople and lenders describing how upset owners, pushed from their homes by foreclosure, have taken or damaged items that did not belong to them – curtains, faucets, toilet seats and light fixtures – most borrowers are humiliated by their plight and pack up without ever estimating the value of their possessions. In some cases, cash from seemingly worthless belongings can buy you extra time in the home that could bridge the gap between desperation and a permanent solution. Alternatively, a few extra dollars could help with the rental payment for temporary housing or storage.

“I suggest to anyone facing foreclosure or downsizing to have an estate sale before they move,” said Cathye Boileau, owner and operator Hannah’s Attic Estate Sales. “They may be leaving their home, but at least they’ll end up with something.”

I grew up with six other siblings in a home that my parents lived in for 46 years. While repairing plaster in an old detached garage, a friend found an old cedar chest tucked into the corner of the attic. The chest, apparently left or forgotten by the previous owner, contained four woven Navajo baskets that ultimately paid for two years’ college tuition for one of my sisters.

“I tell people to really look around and not throw away anything,” Boileau said. “There could be real value in what they might view as garbage. Old purses, compacts, jewelry, furniture could get them some money that they truly need.”

Tom Kelly is a former real estate editor for the Seattle Times.