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At moments during our house hunt, I felt in my gut that something wasn’t right. We’d go to open houses for $400,000 homes and see lines of couples in their late 20s — younger than we were — waiting to get inside. I kept wondering where all the money was coming from. How did all these people make so much?” Carl Richards

Then, the sickness set in. The pain would start in my stomach, and then I’d spend six hours vomiting. It happened once, then three months later it happened again, then one month later it happened yet again. Eventually, it was happening every couple of weeks. The doctors couldn’t find a physical cause.” Carl Richards


EDITOR’S COMMENT: Carl Richards is a financial adviser who lost his home. He fell into every trap the Banks set for him. What chance did you have? Before you go beating yourself up over how you got in “over your head” consider this: The Banks were selling cheap payments on bloated loans thus flooding the economy with cheap money. Nobody told them to do that. It was their own policy because there were huge profits in making loans that were weird.

Carl Richards wrote the article below and I suggest you read it carefully because it recites not only the numbers game that the Banks are playing but the personal side — the profound damage done to our national psyche by this PONZI scheme from the Banks. It is our shame and discomfort with revealing how bad our situation is that is enabling the Banks to continue their march toward owning much of the real estate in this Country and abroad.

It is their shameless misrepresentations in and out of court that is enabling them to take homes in which they have no money, risk, or interest. It is our underlying shame that paralyzes us and stops us from helping our neighbor fight the foreclosure because we know we are next or that his foreclosure will sink your own home in value.

How a Financial Pro Lost His House


ONE night a few years ago, when the value of our home had collapsed, our debt was out of control and my financial planning business was shaky, I went to take out the trash.

There was this enormous window that looked right in on the kitchen table, and through it I could see my wife, Cori, and our four children eating dinner. It was dark outside, so they couldn’t see me, and I just stood there looking at them.

After a while, I pulled up a bucket and I sat on it, just watching my children eat. I found myself wishing that I could get back there, connected to the simple ordinary stuff of my family’s life. And as I sat and watched, filled with longing and guilt, two questions kept arising:

How did I get here?

And how am I going to get out of this?

There are many stories these days of people who lost their financial bearings during the housing boom and the crisis that followed, but my story is a bit different from most.

I’m a financial adviser. I get paid to help people make smart financial choices, and I speak and write about personal finance issues for this publication and others. My first book comes out in January, “The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things With Money” (Portfolio, a Penguin imprint).

The thing that few people know, though, is that I learned a lot of this from experience. I made a bunch of mistakes, the very same ones that I now go around warning people to avoid.

So this is the story of how I lost my home, the profound ethical questions that arose along the way, and what my wife and I learned from the mistakes that led us to that point. It made me better at what I do, but it wasn’t much fun getting there.

Like most financial stories, this one is personal. It starts with me getting into the financial services industry more or less by accident. I answered an ad in 1995 that I thought was for a job related to “security” (as in security guard) but was in fact related to “securities.” That’s how little I knew about the stock market. A few months later I found myself working a phone at a Fidelity Investments call center.

Things went well, and by 1999 I was a Merrill Lynch financial adviser and a certified financial planner. By then, we also owned a house in Salt Lake City. We’d bought it two years earlier, with a $25,000 down payment.

A few years later, an opportunity arose to form a partnership with a successful Merrill adviser in Las Vegas. The place was on our top 10 list of never-move-to cities because we had always associated it with the Strip. But Cori and I were looking for an opportunity to have an experience somewhere else, and we met some great people when we visited the city. I took the job, and we moved down there.

That was May 2003. Housing prices were already crazy, so we rented. But our neighborhood had zero character and lots of cookie-cutter houses. Within a few weeks, we were looking for a place to buy.

I felt we could afford around $350,000. We called a real estate agent named Mitch, who had signs on all the bus stops: Talk to Mitch! He picked us up in a gold Jaguar, and suddenly we were looking at houses that listed at $500,000 or more.

It felt a little crazy to be shopping for houses that cost half a million dollars, but my income was growing rapidly. Everywhere I looked, people were being rewarded for buying as much house as they could possibly afford, and then some. There was this excitement in the air, almost like static. I started to think that if I didn’t buy a house right then, I would never be able to afford one.

At moments during our house hunt, I felt in my gut that something wasn’t right. We’d go to open houses for $400,000 homes and see lines of couples in their late 20s — younger than we were — waiting to get inside. I kept wondering where all the money was coming from. How did all these people make so much?

But prices just kept rising, and when people kept buying, that made it seem safer. I knew from my work as a financial adviser that following the crowd could be costly. But like everyone else, I felt safer in a crowd.

We didn’t find anything we liked with Mitch, but one day in September 2003 Cori spotted a for-sale-by-owner sign in a really nice neighborhood. We ended up buying the house and paid the asking price of $575,000. (When we tried to negotiate on price, the owners were amused; it just wasn’t that kind of market.)

We borrowed 100 percent of the purchase price. In fact, I was told I could borrow even more if I wanted. I had perfect credit and a solid income that was growing. But even so, when the lender approved us at 100 percent, it was more than I had expected. I remember thinking something like “Wow. I guess if they’re willing to lend it to us it must be O.K.”

I should have known better. No matter how well things are going, borrowing 100 percent of the purchase price of a home is not a good idea. I shouldn’t have relied on someone else to make that calculation, let alone the guy who was making money putting me in the loan. I was a financial adviser, and I never sat down to figure out what it would take to make this work. I just wanted to believe him. And it was so easy to believe he had been right, at least at first. We loved living there. The children went to an awesome public school, and we made some great friends. I could ride my bike to Red Rocks, the wilderness area outside of town. And for a time, the real estate market erased any doubt I may have had. It just kept going up.

One evening in 2006 comes to mind. My sister-in-law was thinking of moving to Las Vegas, and a real estate agent told me about an open house for a new Toll Brothers community. This wasn’t a come-by-for-cookies type of open house; it was held at a Las Vegas hotel ballroom. I arrived to find a line that led down a flight of stairs and out of the front door. Before I got to the front of the line, they stopped admitting people. Then people rushed the door, like it was a rock concert.

The market’s continued strength meant we could borrow even more. It was easy. In late 2004, a year after buying the house, we refinanced our mortgage with World Savings Bank, which later ended up in the hands of Wells Fargo, using one of the pick-a-payment loans that let you choose your own payment each month.

We picked the lowest possible payment, the one that added to our balance each month instead of subtracting from it. And we added a line of credit with Wells Fargo.

The extra borrowing power was important, because while my income was growing rapidly it wasn’t enough to support all our expenses. Around that time, I left Merrill Lynch to become an independent financial adviser, so it was easy enough to convince ourselves that we were borrowing to pay for the start-up costs.

There was some truth to that, but we were also borrowing against the house to finance our lifestyle. The line between business expenses and personal ones is sometimes hard to draw when you run your own business, and during those heady times it seemed even harder. But in hindsight it is clear that we were spending more than we should have on things like recreational gear and family trips for ourselves and our four children.

It was extravagant, but it seemed modest compared to what some of our neighbors were doing. Our house was the smallest model in the neighborhood (though at 3,500 square feet it was hardly tiny), and we drove a Chevy and a VW. Cori and I and some of our friends had a lot of conversations comparing our spending habits to those around us. How can so-and-so afford a boat? How are people buying new trucks and four-wheelers and 5,000-square-foot homes? Do they know something we don’t know?

At times, it seemed as if maybe they did. I knew a builder of custom homes who urged me to buy one of his houses for close to $2 million. I told him there were at least a million reasons why I couldn’t do that. He looked at me like I just didn’t get it. He assured me the house was appraised for $200,000 more than the asking price, and that after I lived there I could take out a line of credit to live on while the house went up even further.

The crazy thing is, he was right. The place eventually sold for more than $3 million. When I heard that, I felt a little silly that we hadn’t taken that risk.

As for our spending, we told each other that we’d catch up later, as my income and the value of our home continued to rise. As late as February 2006, a comparable home in our neighborhood sold for $998,000. We made the classic mistake of projecting recent trends — even extreme ones — into the future.

But slowly — and then increasingly — we began to have a different kind of conversation, “When are we going to stop and just get on top of this?” The solution was always making more money, not cutting back. The fact is, it’s much easier to set a goal of making more money in the future than it is to buckle down and cut back today.

We never really worried that things would go to pieces the way they ultimately did. But then came the collapse in the stock market. I had clients calling in tears and breaking down in my office. People who had never worried about their portfolios were calling me from their vacations. It was like talking people in off a ledge virtually every day, maybe three times a day, for maybe 90 days in a row.

The range of potential outcomes had gotten so broad in people’s minds that it now included the end of the world. What they wanted and needed more than anything was reassurance that things would be O.K. and that they should stick with the investment plans we had created together. Providing that reassurance had been my job for 10 years or more, but this was the first time that I really wondered if my advice was right.

It was my job to assist them, but I found it incredibly stressful. It didn’t help that we were in increasingly dire straits ourselves. My income fell about 20 percent because my take-home pay depended on the amount of money I managed. At the same time, our cost for health insurance and property taxes kept increasing, and the payment on our mortgage reset higher as well.

By then, housing prices in Las Vegas were falling quickly, and the bank had cut off our home equity line of credit. We quickly got rid of a car and stopped taking trips. I moved into a smaller workspace and cut back on my administrative and marketing costs. Even so, we found ourselves using credit cards as emergency stopgaps.

Then, the sickness set in. The pain would start in my stomach, and then I’d spend six hours vomiting. It happened once, then three months later it happened again, then one month later it happened yet again. Eventually, it was happening every couple of weeks. The doctors couldn’t find a physical cause.

Right around that time, it became clear that we might need to get back to Utah, where 90 percent of my (still nervous) clients lived. We spent the summer of 2009 living in my in-laws’ basement in Salt Lake City, while I tried to stabilize my financial planning business. By that fall, I was convinced we had to move back permanently to save the business. But that meant we faced the question of what to do about the house.

By then, we owed over $200,000 more than our original loan balance.

Borrowing that much had seemed to make sense when the value of the home was still rising substantially every year, taking our net worth higher with it. But at that point, there was no way we could sell the home for anywhere near what we owed. Some of my friends were already doing short sales, where the bank agrees to let you sell the house for less than your loan balance. I was also aware you had to be three months behind in your payments before the bank would talk to you about the possibility.

At first, I dismissed the idea of a short sale. Late that summer, I sat down with a really close friend in Las Vegas, someone I looked up to. He cut to the heart of the matter right away: Why, he wanted to know, were we still making the payments?

Because I have a moral obligation, I said. You pay your debts.

He proceeded to explain that I didn’t have a moral obligation to the bank. I had a moral obligation to my family. I had a contractual obligation to the bank, along with a clear moral obligation to be honest in my dealings. What he was asking was this: Which is more important? Your contractual obligation to the bank or your obligation to your family to preserve your ability to make a living?

I had never thought of it that way. But it made sense. I summed it up to myself like this: I have a contractual obligation to the bank (as well as a moral obligation not to skirt the consequences of breaking it: losing my house and wrecking my credit score). But my moral obligation to my family trumps the contractual obligation to the bank.

Cori and I thought about this for months, but we finally decided to let the house go and stop making payments so we could pursue a mortgage modification or a short sale. The fact was, we didn’t have a choice. We simply couldn’t afford it.

I remained troubled by the ethical implications of what I was doing, but I soon started seeing some of my friend’s arguments echoed in the work of Brent T. White, a law professor at the University of Arizona. He and others were arguing that homeowners should act more like companies — taking into account legal and economic reasons for stopping a regular payment rather than “perceived moral obligations.”

That was reassuring in the dead of night while I sat in front of the computer trying to make sense of the world financial markets and my own personal situation. I remember being relieved at discovering a way to frame my decision.

But we didn’t know what would happen in the harsh light of day, and we were scared to death. Would we be kicked out of our house? What would the neighbors think? What would the children think? We worried about the stress on our relationship and even the survival of our marriage. I felt like a complete failure.

We looked into a mortgage modification, thinking it might let us keep the house and rent it out after we moved. But the offer from Wells Fargo, which owned our loans by then, was too modest. That meant we could either walk away from the house or work with the bank to do an orderly short sale.

A bank representative came to the house and met with us. He was such a nice guy. Cori had treated it like an open house, and the place was spotless. The guy said he’d never met anyone more qualified for their short sale program.

Somehow, even in that horrid market, we sold the home for $531,000. That was in late August 2010. In exchange, the lender released us from both our first and second mortgages. Today, Zillow estimates the home’s value at $505,000.

We were pretty low when we packed up to leave. We hadn’t told anyone about the short sale — not family and only one or two friends. But we sensed that people knew anyway.

We borrowed a truck from a friend who owns a wood mill to move our belongings. Back in Utah, we found a house to rent— much to my relief and after months of being terrified that we’d never be able to find a landlord willing to take a chance on us. I had to tell the owner what had happened. He looked at our personal references and let us lease the house anyway.

We love where we live now. Still, there are consequences. We lost our home. It’s not clear when we’ll be in a position to become homeowners again.

But the worst thing was my sense of complete failure and powerlessness when I realized that things were out of control and that it was my fault. These days, there is still a sense of genuine regret that I screwed up and hurt myself and other people. I still worry about what others think of my behavior, which is one reason I haven’t shared this story with many people until recently.

We have a friend who is under water on his mortgage even though he has lived within his means and done everything right. He’s sticking with his mortgage for as long as he can.

Someone recently asked me what I’d say to people like him. I guess I’m saying it now. As I was writing this article, I pulled behind a truck with a bumper sticker, “Honk if I’m paying your mortgage.”

I thought about that for a while. I guess one of the ideas behind that bumper sticker is that people like Cori and me who couldn’t afford to pay off our mortgages are to blame for the financial crisis and the bank bailouts that followed. This isn’t the place to explain the causes of the economic slump, and I’m not the guy to do it.

Still, the questions linger. As I ponder all this — and I think about it a lot — it occurs to me that we are a nation of risk-takers. Some of us were overoptimistic; some were ignorant; some were deluded; some were greedy; some just had bad timing. We erred to different degrees. Our experiences varied; each story is different. Now you know mine.

The experience has changed just about everything about how I do financial planning and the advice I give in public. For one thing, I am less quick to judge other people’s financial behavior. I’m also more inclined to take into account personal factors that determine how people behave around money.

I have a friend who is going through a tough time financially. He has a high income, but is burdened by debt from a few real estate deals that went south. He continues to take fairly expensive ski trips. That would seem irresponsible in his situation, and maybe they are.

But I now realize that it is not that simple. Maybe those trips are keeping the guy alive, or saving his marriage or keeping him sane enough to work.

I have another good friend who borrowed against his house to pay for a therapist. Unless you were walking in his shoes you might think that was stupid, but it saved his life and changed his career. It ended up being one of the best investments he ever made.

The process of making financial decisions is about more than building a spreadsheet to calculate the answer, because life rarely fits cleanly into a spreadsheet. Our decisions often appear irrational until we understand the whole story.

I’ve also learned some things about risk. Risk is an arbitrary concept, until you experience it. And I’ve noticed myself focusing more on the consequences of something going wrong than just the probability of that happening. As a result, I tend to urge my clients to make decisions that err on the side of caution.

As for Cori and me, things are much better now. Moving back to Utah clearly was the right choice. The business is doing well, and we’ve managed to pay down most of our debt. It would be easy to say that we’ve learned our lesson, that we’ll never screw up again.

But it’s not that simple. At times I’m absolutely clear about what makes sense. Then ordinary life choices arise, and things can get cloudy. Should our children play sports that cost money? What kind of family vacation is O.K.? How much is enough?

We’re still working on that last one. But we are asking the question, repeatedly. And the temptation to overspend, to go for it, to tell ourselves that things will work out in the long run, is tempered by a feeling that something big is at stake.

All I have to do to remind myself of that is to remember what it felt like to stand outside the kitchen window two years ago, looking in on my life, and thinking I might not get it back.

Carl Richards’s book, “The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things With Money,” will be released on Jan. 3.

11 Responses

  1. Wonderful Article by Mr. Richards!

    I know my husband and I have felt these exact same feelings. It is hard to believe this has happened to our family. The stress has been overwhelming and as far as our moral compass it has been challenged at every level. I agree with the writer do not judge until you are in the homeowners shoes, I wish more people would be brave enough to speak up as Mr. Richards has. I know for us our community would be stunned if they knew we lost our home so we live with shame and secrets. I am sick of living this way!!!!

    Carie I agree with you…falsified documents and no proof of the real
    creditor is not going to fly with me!

    Enraged I am 2nd your opinion. I could care less about this house it has brought nothing but stress and greif to our family but now it is about the principle! I will fight them in court all the way if we do not who will!!

  2. carie,

    Yes —- And, also the words of Judge Schack in NY.

  3. I felt like the writer for quite some time. I nearly lost my mind. And then, i remember what the Bible teaches: the temptor is guiltier than the temptee. They tempted us by proving to us by A + B that we had nothing to worry about, even though we had that weird feeling in the pit of our guts when listening to what they were selling us. They caused duress with their relentness at selling their scheme. They pushed and pushed and pushed. They called to sell it, they sent mailings, they were ruthless. And they would not take “No” for an answer.

    That cured me from guilt and shame and that gave me the incentive I needed to go on the attack, not to keep the damn house but for the principle of it. I couldn’t care less about the house. I want my days in court. We all should.

  4. In 2004 – 2005 there were 4 “flipping property” shows on cable TV.

    They should have kept those shows running past the time that these “investors” were then being foreclosed upon. Then a new spin-off TV show about foreclosed homeowners, (amateur f/c fraud sleuths, activists and guru’s, the f/c defense attorneys, mill attorneys, robo-signing doc prep companies, judges, legislators, wall-street/bank lobbyists, banksters, law enforcement, prosecutors, and regulators) could then be produced.

    It would be a comedy of sorts and would have been very popular.

    (I’m in.)

  5. I have no problem with someone legally taking my house.


  6. awesome article. Its exactly how I feel and most people I know. Thank you

  7. Just be aware that many of us did put down over 20% and had low mortgage payments, buying a property we renovated to the tune of over 6 figures and are also in the same situation. My payments is $704.00 and I have sold all of personal items to continue to try and pay them. It is my belief; this situation is intentional and nothing will change the outcome. My regret, selling a lives collection of personal items, some very sentimental, for a home I cannot ever hope to keep. The banks get the benefit of all the upgrades (to me they don’t belong to them), the continued upkeep and the ability to sell my home and keep all the proceeds. The only thing that keeps me sane is the fight. That’s all I have left. At least fighting I know I have done all I can…that has to be enough. Good Luck to everyone who finds themselves here! It is an emotional vacuum.

  8. I was charged 1% of the balance for every percent I wanted to buy down plus closing costs and fees, so off the top 2.5% was charged to get me to 6% for 7 years, and all the fees they charge to close on a loan including a full appraisal

  9. Geesh. I’m not a financial advisor. I bought less house than I could afford even though the broker tried to get me into more house. I never took out a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). I never used my home as an ATM. I Refinanced from an 8.5% interest rate in 2000 to a 6% for 7 years in 2001 after the Sept 11 disaster happened. In 2007, I contacted the bank…some one I dealt with in 2000 and 2001 and told them I wanted to lock in a rate and not wait for the 7 years to be up. I got 6.25% for 30 years. I never expected to start over at 30, but the entire time I had paid for the home, since I bought less home than I could afford, I was slamming extra payments against the home and reduced the principal a lot. The 2001 refi set me back a bit on my down payment and extra payments cause I was charged 1% of the balance of the home to ‘buy down’ 2.5% of the interest for 7 years. It was called a 7/23 conversion. I paid the same fees as if I was buying the home and all those took away my first year of downpayment/overpayment and started me over at 30 years (6 yrs interst at 6% and it could go up by 5% in the 7th year via a conversion for 23 years). Not wanting to predict the future, I decided to lock in again, but the 30 year start over and really reduced the monthly payments. It was for a longer time and I owed less money. I was proud of myself for managing my finances so well. Then I see the anguish of people who experienced a side of the refinancing I didn’t dream of.

    Weird thing is we all had our homes taken.
    Mine was due to National City Mortgage taking the money over the 10 years and walking away. I know, without the interest that makes the home 3x’s more than we pay for it, that I paid National City Mortgage the entire promissory note and then some before they walked away. I believe that is why they never made a mortgage assignment, because they were satisfied by the promise to pay and the per anum interest rate but didn’t keep the deal throughout the per anum length (30 years).

    No one had a claim to my home but me. PNC servicer popped up. On National City Mortgage letterhead I got a letter telling me to stop paying National City Mortgage on November 6th and pay PNC Mortgage on November 7th.

    That’s when I did my due diligence on trying to find out how a 10 year Deed of Trust could be over-written by a letter on company letterhead that is not a contract – A contract has an offer, an acceptance, consideration, and a meeting of the minds. This thing was missing everything. It was a demand.

    I wrote them, and they ignored my letter and there is a rule that they have to respond in so many days. When I wrote again with evidence they did not respond within the allotted time frame, I got a phone call. But after the call I got a letter that tried to say I said things on the call I didn’t say. It was like, we have no employee named Ralph, we did not promise you we’d settle the account and return the title…kind of stuff. After enough of that where I wanted the assignment on file before I ‘gifted’ them any money, I was being referred to a law firm, and in a non-judicial state, 21 days after they touch a file, they are “stealing your home” outside the courthouse.

    My satisfaction in all of this was as I watched RICO (The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) play out, I knew that unless I could get before someone who could protect me from the economic coercion I faced, the home would be stolen.

    Every step of the way, from the courthouse, county clerk recording a sale not of a business with an assignment or proof of a relationship ( I remembered the stories where they’d say a lawyer would see a NOD, notice of default on file, and sell a home and had no right to do so)…yep…saw that with my own eyes, except these lawyers had no right to file any document based on what PNC gave them. My best guess is before National City Mortgage left, they handed over their mailing list…I mean client database…to PNC who began to contact those customers to say, hey, you owed National City Mortgage and we know what you owed them so pay us the rest.

    When I asked to see evidence of the payments I made to National City, they sent a printout and for the year where they supposedly wanted payments starting in Nov, they had modified the information to show I was making payments to them that entire year. I assure you, National City Mortgage got my last payment and I never paid PNC Mortgage. Never. There’s not a check floating around in this world with my name and PNC Mortgage’s name on it…paper or electronic.

    I knew then I had a right to my property and the only way I would not have it is that it would be stolen.

    To see the court system and how the judge responded. To have that loud green notice posted on the door, a clear indication to the world that on a particular day at a particular time some activity was going to go down an my home, and to get the heck out of there because I didn’t want anyone to put their hands on me but I didn’t want to leave either and had no choice, and see that the Real Estate agent was there in the wings to declare the home abandoned and squat on it was…well…this plan was thought through long before it was implemented.

    IRS is part of it too, because of how they handle 1099A. The last one received is considered the most accurate one, so they never raise anyone’s eyebrow that two businesses are declaring their self the creditor of the loan that they want considered abandoned for some back door accounting purposes. I got two forms, one from Fannie Mae, and one from PNC Mortgage. I kept them both. See how they deal with not writing off this supposed asset they supposedly loaned me when there was no contract or meeting of the minds. I’m not going to perjure myself sending in false tax forms. If I got one from National City Mortgage I still wouldn’t send it in…I never abandoned my home.

    I left for fear of my life and my offspring. Evidential proof that my fear for my life was real, is contents of the writings contained of the writ of possession. Someone being able to put their hands on me with impunity means any injury are harm caused against me would be an act that is not punishable because I had been noticed by the big GREEN sticker on the door where I lived when I was home. No one in their right mind would receive a public threat to their right to life and sit there and wait for the injury.

    It was not abandonment. It was war.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. ”

    Judicial is a branch in a form of Government.

    I like how those people knew that the definition of State is People.
    They called themselves the united States of America. The united People of America.

    They also called themselves Free and Independent States.
    Free and Independent People.

    Can I get a witness?

    Light and Love,
    Trespass Unwanted, corporeal, life, Free and Independent State, jure divino

  10. I am just tired of PUBLICITY STUNTs of politicians…
    Fannie and Freddie will unwind in ten years. However, look what is happening with Ginnie…. I am really sick of it. Do you think MERS is going away along with Fannie and Freddie?



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