This post originally appeared on LearnVest.
Despite the ups and downs of the economy, there’s one part of the American Dream that people still cling to: owning your own home.
But while the country’s financial outlook seems to be getting sunnier, homeowners are still feeling some lingering effects from the recession.
Last year, there were 1.1 million foreclosure filings for U.S. properties. And 56% of the home-equity loans that are about to reset — meaning higher monthly payments will kick in — are tied to properties that are already underwater.
The big-picture takeaway? Owning a home is a major financial commitment that a lot of people could use a little help with.
Enter the housing counselor.
These trained professionals aren’t brokers trying to sell you anything, although they do want to see you get — or keep — the keys to your home.
Rather, their mission is to help educate people on housing-related financial decisions — whether you’re looking to buy your first home but aren’t sure if you can afford it or are already a homeowner who’s trying to figure out how to tap into your home equity.
Although housing counseling isn’t a new profession, its visibility has increased: There are now some 2,168 housing counseling agencies, approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), across the country.
To get a better sense of what exactly a housing counselor does — and how this important resource could help you — we’re taking a peek into the profession.
Who: Marga Garza, a housing counselor in Phoenix for Take Charge America, a nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency
How I got here: “I worked in the financial/mortgage business for 40 years. Six years ago, I became a certified housing counselor to make the switch from the private sector to the nonprofit world.
I was looking for a career change, but I also really wanted to help educate people. There are so many different mortgage products and programs that can help clients, but most people don’t know what they are or how to navigate them.
Now that I’m in the nonprofit world, I can help people with a more unbiased approach, making the best recommendation based on what works for their circumstances — without giving thought to how it will affect the company. It’s all about the client.
A typical day: There are different areas you can specialize in within housing counseling, but personally, I wear three hats.
One is foreclosure prevention counseling, which means I help people who are having trouble making mortgage payments, as well as those who are already being threatened with losing their homes.
The second is prepurchase counseling for first-time homebuyers. The people who need this service are usually those who put down 5% or less on their home, and they may be required to work with a housing counselor in order to qualify for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or other government down-payment assistance.
I also do counseling for reverse mortgages, which are only for those 62 and older who meet certain criteria.
On a typical day, I meet with three clients for one-on-one sessions. Most of my meetings are brief, but for a complicated topic like reverse mortgages, I’ll block out two hours.
These can be complex and it’s important to make sure a client understands their terms, possible alternatives and the financial and tax implications of getting a reverse mortgage.
A good part of my day is also devoted to gathering and processing documents — a lot of combing through tax returns, helping clients fill out forms and interacting with banks and state agencies on their behalf.
I work with some clients over a long period of time, because certain mortgage-subsidy programs require meetings every three months for two years — so I really get to know them.
That means I sometimes play the role of life coach. I frequently have someone sitting in front of me crying because he used to be successful, but lost his job and now can’t make his mortgage payments.
Offering potential solutions is part of what I do, but you also have to be compassionate. I like to let clients know that I understand how they feel — that they aren’t alone.
Why I love my job: I’m passionate about educating others, so just telling clients about the various programs that are available to them is rewarding.
There are programs that so many people don’t know about, like Back to Work, an FHA program that helps people who’ve gone through a foreclosure — and whose situation has since improved — to buy again before the typical waiting period is up.
But I really feel the impact when I help people at a low point, which is often the case when I’m doing foreclosure prevention counseling. I aim to show clients that there’s a way forward — and I know that I’m making a difference because I can see the results.
I recently had a client tell me, ‘You helped us save our home, and now my kid can be in the backyard playing with the bunnies and planting flowers.’
What you should know before working with me: If you have any concerns about your finances with regard to your home, talk to a housing counselor.
And don’t worry about doing too much prep work, since the documents you’ll need — paystubs, W2s, bank statements — will vary depending on your needs. You might not even fully understand what your needs are until we talk.
HUD.gov can direct you to a HUD-approved counseling agency in your state. Once you connect with someone, you should expect to do a brief intake session, which might happen over the phone.
That’s when I talk to clients about their concerns, figure out what programs they might be eligible for and carve out an initial plan to help them get on track.”
Want more? Check out these articles from LearnVest:
Home-Buying Guide: 5 Ways to Prep Your Finances Before Signing on the Dotted Line
How I Paid $100,000 Off My Mortgage in Under 2 Years
6 Home-Buying Deal Breakers and How to Troubleshoot Them