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posted: 12/21/2012 7:16 AM

About real estate: Clock is ticking for owners to file claims over faulty foreclosures

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An estimated 4.4 million owners who lost their home to foreclosure in 2009 and 2010 have just two weeks left to file a claim for reimbursement.

Q. I recently received a letter from a group called Rust Consulting stating that I may qualify for a free "Independent Foreclosure Review" and perhaps get some money back because I lost my home to foreclosure in 2010. Is this offer legitimate, or is it a scam? Also, what do you know about Rust Consulting?

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A. The offer is legit, and you have a chance to get a share of the billions of dollars that 27 banks (or the independent companies that processed monthly payments) have agreed to reimburse to homeowners who were wrongfully foreclosed upon between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010. But you must act quickly, because the deadline to file your request for a free review expires at the end of this month.

The free program was established after federal regulators determined that many lenders and loan-servicing companies had broken the law, or at least skirted it, when beginning foreclosure proceedings in 2009 and 2010. Accusations ranged from failing to offer troubled borrowers help to refinance, excessive late fees, and even old-fashion fraud schemes that cheated owners out of their property.

The banks and loan-servicing companies that have agreed to take part, while admitting no wrongdoing, include lending giants Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo. The list also includes now-defunct Washington Mutual and Countrywide Financial, both of which were among the nation's top mortgage lenders just a few years ago.

Federal bank regulators contracted with Rust Consulting, a Minnesota-based law firm, to oversee a review of about 4.4 million accounts that fell into foreclosure in 2009 and 2010. Eligible homeowners may get a few hundred dollars or more than $125,000, depending on their losses and other factors.

It takes about 30 minutes to file an application for reimbursement. For more information, call 1-888-952-9105 or visit the government-approved IndependentForeclosureReview.com website.

Q. We made an offer to purchase a house, but the seller rejected it and made a counteroffer to sell for $8,000 more. We don't think that the house is worth that much, so we don't want to buy it. Do we have to send him a letter stating that we aren't interested in buying the house now, or would a phone call be OK?

A. You aren't legally required to do anything. Real estate laws in all 50 states say that your original offer became null and void when the seller presented you with a counteroffer. You now have the option of making a new offer, which would become legally binding if the seller accepts it, or simply start looking for a different house.

Nonetheless, it would be wise to put your rejection of the seller's counteroffer in writing and send it to him via certified mail. Doing so will provide an extra layer of protection if the seller later files a groundless breach-of-contract suit, and also will help you to recover any related attorney fees and court costs.

Q. I have excellent credit and I make more than $80,000 a year, but my application for a two-bedroom apartment was declined by the landlord simply because I smoke. Because smoking is an addiction, did the landlord violate my rights under the federal Fair Housing Act?

A. No. Landlords have the right to reject even the most creditworthy applicant for a rental simply because the applicant smokes.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on a person's race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin. But a tenant's personal activities, such as smoking or drinking, aren't protected by the federal law and you therefore have no legal grounds to pursue a claim against the anti-nicotine landlord.

It's also worth noting that several users of illegal drugs over the years have filed Fair Housing lawsuits, claiming that their addiction constitutes a "handicap" that should keep them from being evicted. But all such lawsuits have been kicked out of court: A provision of the Fair Housing Act specifically states that people who use illicit drugs are neither handicapped nor disabled.

REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: The building often pictured as New York's "Drake Hotel" on ABC's "666 Park Avenue" TV show is actually the 123-year-old Ansonia Building, which stands at 2109 Broadway -- far on the other side of Central Park.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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