- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

Household debt is now at a record-high level relative to disposable income, according to the Federal Reserve. This latest bit of news explains why there is "no early end" in sight to bankruptcy filings as consumers recover from their debt-incurring binge of the 1990s, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) in Alexandria.

"A high level of indebtedness among households could lead to increased household delinquencies and bankruptcies, which could threaten the health of lenders if loan losses are greater than anticipated," ABI reports about the more than 1.5 million bankruptcies filed in the past 12 months.

Homeowners are right up there with their own Chapter 13 bankruptcies the section of bankruptcy favorable to homeowners. There are alternatives to filing for bankruptcy or allowing your house to go to foreclosure.

To find out how you stack up with national figures on indebtedness and spending habits, click by the CNNMoney Web site spending calculator at https://cgi.money.cnn.com/tools/instantbudget/instantbudget_101.jsp.

Consumers have many online resources to make a gut check on their credit, although some don't need to check, they already know they're in trouble.

Be forewarned: Many unscrupulous people market bankruptcy as a quick fix for consumers who find themselves over their heads financially, whether they just got careless with credit cards or got hit with a job loss or illness. Healthy alternatives exist to filing bankruptcy, however, and here's where you can go to find help.

First, you need to know what organizations are safe to approach to help you get out of debt and fix your credit. Therefore, I strongly suggest you start with the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Web site (www.hud.gov).

The problem with the larger real estate Web sites on the Internet is that they are so voluminous that it would take a couple of paragraphs just to explain to you how to get a certain page. This list of consumer credit counseling offices approved by HUD is of no exception: https://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hccprof14.cfm. Now, to get this link to you by describing how to eventually click your way through the HUD Web site would take longer than for you to copy down this link. Here's a suggestion to any HUD staff reading this: How about a simple link, such as www.hud.gov/consumercreditlist. It sure would be easier.

On this list, you'll find links to all the HUD-approved agencies to help you with your credit mess. Unfortunately, the file is a plain old text file, meaning it's not interactive. Not all the agencies have Web sites, and if they do, you need to copy the site onto your clipboard and paste it into the Web browser to get access to it.

A second place to start your search to fix your credit and reduce debt is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling Inc.'s Debt Advice Web site (www.debtadvice.org). To go straight to NFCC's member locator, try https://www.debtadvice.org/takethefirststep/locator.html.

This organization was founded in 1951 and claims to be the nation's longest-serving national nonprofit network providing premier consumer counseling and education services on budgeting, credit and debt resolution. There are more than 1,300 community-based agency offices nationwide. These state/local agencies are often known as Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) and can be identified by the NFCC member seal.

NFCC member offices can be reached nationwide at 800/388-2227. The NFCC member locator is very user friendly just plug in your ZIP code, and it looks up offices with all contact information within as many miles as you designate. I found six within a 10-mile radius of my home.

Fannie Mae one of the largest providers of money for loans in the country has a searchable list of housing/credit counselors on its site (www.fanniemae.com). Click "Homepath," then "Housing Counselor" (in the middle of the text on the page). Then search by state.

The Federal Home Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac), has a home-buying, interactive section called CreditSmart, (https://www.freddiemac.com/creditsmart/home.html), but no list on credit counseling. The site refers visitors to the NFCC site.

M. Anthony Carr has written about the real estate industry for more than 13 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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