SAN DIEGO -- Empty homes, for-sale signs and the term "short sale" have become commonplace in this military town since the collapse of the real estate market. The foreclosure crisis has hit Southern California hard, profoundly affecting the region's military families.
Foreclosures rose 32 percent in ZIP codes near military towns over the last three years, from 2008 to 2010, compared with 23 percent nationwide, said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of RealtyTrac in Irvine, Calif.
Eight Southern California cities ranked among the top 20 towns near military bases with the nation's highest foreclosure rates in 2010, according to RealtyTrac. Half of those -- Murrieta, San Diego, Oceanside and Fallbrook -- are by Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base.
Young soldiers who may have been first-time homebuyers were vulnerable in recent years, especially since many military families bought homes at the peak of the real estate bubble, Sharga said. California, and several of the towns where soldiers bought, lead the nation in overall foreclosures.
Terese Gibney, 28, knows firsthand how the real-estate downturn affected property sales. She and her husband, who is in the Navy, bought a condominium in San Diego's hip Hillcrest neighborhood in 2007. A few months later, her husband was reassigned. The couple were unable to sell or rent the property. Soon, Gibney said the condominium much less than the $365,000 price they'd agreed to pay. They've been trying to stave off foreclosure.
"We were doing everything we possibly could to save ourselves and to save the property," said Gibney, who lives in Texas. Her husband is about to be deployed again. "We maxed out probably three credit cards. We just got to a point where we said we can't do it anymore. We're tapped out."
Realtor Jeffrey Kayle, working with Gibney to arrange a short sale, said her family's situation is typical of a lot of military couples who bought San Diego property before the recession. He said he constantly calls banks to prevent foreclosure.
"These are responsible people," he said. "They're trying to do the right thing."
The federal Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act protects active military against judicial and administrative proceedings during their service. Some say the law has not always been honored.
Also, Katie Savant, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association in Washington, D.C., questions the methodology of using ZIP codes to establish the connection to military families owning homes. Active military move more frequently and rent homes more than own, she said. "They can't ride out the market because they may have orders to move."
Camp Pendleton offers financial planning and assistance for Marines and sailors, including free legal advice regarding loans and consumer problems, said 2nd Lt. Ryan Welsh, base spokesman. Additionally, the base offers training in consumer awareness, credit information and investments.
Soldiers and their families have faced foreclosure notices for two reasons, said Shad Meshad, president and founder of the National Veterans Foundation in Los Angeles.
"Youth and ignorance -- and they're the best people to prey on," said Meshad, a Vietnam War veteran.
About 40 percent of calls to the foundation's Lifeline for Veterans Call Center in Los Angeles from January to September in 2010 had to do with a veteran asking for financial help on a housing issue -- either a mortgage payment or rent or foreclosure, said Tyrone Ballesteros, office manager for the foundation's call center.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)