- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

The military is on the move — not just in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in bases across the United States and overseas. About one third of the military makes a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move each year, and more than half will make that move during the summer months. During a PCS move, service members receive orders to change duty stations and must report for duty on a designated date for their new job.

Yet many now face the prospect of moving in the midst of a housing downturn. For military personnel moving for the first time in three years, the homes they purchased at the peak of the housing bubble have declined steadily in value. As a result of short notices to relocate, some soldiers have a very small window of opportunity to sell or rent their homes, causing financial hardship.

“Under these conditions, everybody turns out to be a bad target market,” said Rick Sharga, senior vice president with RealtyTrac Inc., a company that tracks real estate foreclosures. “Only recently have foreclosures due to job loss started to occur.” Mr. Sharga said it is hard to track the exact number of military members who have had foreclosure actions against them, but his company has nonetheless compiled statistics of foreclosures in the ZIP codes surrounding military installations.

RealtyTrac calculated foreclosures at 1,299,444 nationwide between January and May 2009. This was a 20 percent increase compared with the same period in 2008. In ZIP codes surrounding military installations, there was a 24 percent spike in foreclosures.

“Military are disadvantaged by complicated financial situations,” Mr. Sharga said. “If they move, they may be stuck with a loan they can’t afford and a piece of property they can’t refinance.”

The contrast between searching for a home in today’s market and searching for a home three years ago is very stark, say military families who are obliged to move. “When we moved [to Fort Campbell], there was a long waiting list on-post. Everyone was returning from a deployment and housing was scarce. We were originally going to rent off-post, but nothing was available, so buying was our next option,” said Amanda Billings, a military spouse whose husband, Spc. Scott Billings, is currently stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“My husband re-enlisted during his tour in Iraq last fall and we decided to stay here at Campbell instead of moving to a different Army post. We bought our house February 2007 and now are trying to sell it,” Mrs. Billings said. “Now there seems to be an abundance of houses and nothing is selling.”

“If you are a military seller and have owned the home you are trying to sell for less than three years, you’re not going to make a ton of money,” said Stacie Huck, a real estate agent from Norfolk, Va. Mrs. Huck has worked with many military families since becoming a real estate agent six years ago. “Most [military] are grateful to just break even and not be upside down due to home values declining in the previous 24 to 36 months.”

“It’s PCS time again, and the market has gone south,” said Michael Doorbal, a financial readiness program manager at the Army Community Service Division (ACS) in West Point, N.Y. ACS offers solutions to Army living by providing a broad range of educational opportunities to soldiers. One aspect of Mr. Doorbal’s job is to help soldiers and their family members become better informed consumers. In one case, Mr. Doorbal saw homeownership contribute to a soldier’s bankruptcy. However, he now sees a ray of hope for warriors who struggle with the housing downturn.

The Department of Defense has recently expanded the Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP). Since 1966, HAP has assisted eligible service members and federal civilians who face financial loss when selling their primary-residence homes in areas where real estate values have declined.

Part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has allotted $555 million for the expansion of HAP, with specifics still to be determined. The bill is intended to help a wide spectrum of military personnel and their families. Extended HAP is intended to help relocate surviving spouses of those who died in the line of duty post-Sept. 11, 2001, and those forced to sell homes because of PCS orders or the currrent realignment of bases.

“We have over 3,100 applications, and about 98 percent are PCS service members,” said Don Chapman, assistant program manager for HAP. It is expected that only homes purchased prior to July 1, 2006, will qualify for the extended HAP program. “Anyone buying their home after that date was buying into an already declining market,” Mr. Chapman said.

• Janine Boldrin is a writer and Army spouse living in West Point, N.Y.

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