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EMERSON, New Jersey (WABC) — A retired couple’s hard-earned savings of $500,000, accumulated from a lifetime of working and saving, was frozen in a bank account and out of their reach for a reason that made no sense to them.

But before he hit the panic button, the former police chief made his own 911 call to Nina Pineda and got 7 On His Side.

“It was traumatic,” Dennis Stellato said. “I really went into panic mode because I had no idea there was a lien on my property.”

As a first responder, Stellato has seen his share of trauma. He’s been a sheriff in both Bergen County and Los Angeles, and he also worked rescue and recover trying to locate survivors at Ground Zero with his K-9 Brulee.

The latest alarm, though, was losing his greatest asset — his home of 26 years.

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Days before closing on their Emerson home, the seller’s title company found an “Open End Mortgage” from over 15 years ago issued by the now-defunct Wachovia Bank, saying the Stellatos owed as much as $250,000.

It was especially surprising since the Stellatos had paid off their home loan nearly a decade ago,

“This was very troubling to me,” he said.

Since they were about to close and move, they had two choices: Delay the sale, or put the proceeds in escrow until the mystery lien was released.

Half a million dollars was held in the escrow account, two times the lien amount in limbo — along with their future.

“(We’re) trying to buy another house, so I need the proceeds of the sale of this house obviously to do that,” Dennis said.

So we started sleuthing. First, we found his lien wasn’t a mortgage, but a line of credit they have no recollection of opening and never drew upon.

Next, we went to Wells Fargo, which took over Wachovia. A bank representative said the Stellatos opened the line of credit but never closed it, and it was only found buried deep in his credit report.

“It was page 52 of a 62-page credit report,” Dennis said.

Within days of our calls, the bank sent out a lien release of the line of credit. The $500,000 was released, enough for the former lawman to buy his dream house in Delaware.

“I’m finally going to get the proceeds of my house sale,” Dennis said. “I always thought you were worth a million dollars. Now I find out you’re worth half a million.”

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At least one in 10 home sales are delayed because of problems with the title, so the big takeaway is to do some research. Make sure you have clear title, check that your property taxes are up to date, and whether you have any personal liens against the house like a divorce decree, a bankruptcy, or an unpaid personal loan or debt.

Lastly, check your credit report.

You can do that for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Remember, if you have open accounts that aren’t closed out, it can delay your closing and your cash.

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