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Inflation was tame in South Florida in 2010

Consumer prices in South Florida rose strongly as last year ended, but the region’s inflation rate was tame.

The local Consumer Price Index for Miami-Fort Lauderdale increased 0.6 percent in the two months ending in December, the federal bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. For all of 2010, South Florida’s inflation rate was 0.9 percent, lower than the nation’s 1.5 percent annual rate. And that was a decline from 2009, when the annual inflation rate nationwide was 2.7 percent and the local inflation rate was 1.3 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases local inflation figures every two months and the national figure monthly. It measures the trends in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, but not in Palm Beach County.

South Florida consumers who are paying suddenly higher gasoline prices and putting out more cash for food following recent winter weather in Florida may find the inflation report surprising. Transportation, including the price of gasoline, medical care and food prices all jumped higher in December in South Florida.

But the recent increases were not enough to move the annual rate up significantly. Miami-Fort Lauderdale region actually had falling prices at the start of 2010. Consumer prices stabilized as the summer ended.

After two years of falling inflation, the trend in 2011 may head in the other direction. Economists point out that oil and other commodities are up strongly, which could push up the overall inflation rate in 2011.

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Making a budget? Here's something new for your toolbox

After saving for five years to finance an around-the-world trip, Daniel and Jill Tobias knew how to make a budget to fund something special. Homepage.jpg

But their system actually was a bit clunky.

Daniel Tobias said his spreadsheets were just too complex. “I gave a few friends copies and they never used them,” he said.

So while he was on the road – for almost two years, roaming from San Diego to South Africa and home again – Tobias tinkered with his system and came up with a better version.

Back home now in Cooper City, Tobias has launched It’s a free, online budgeting or spending plan that has flexible budget periods and categories that users can customize for regular use or for a project or goal, like, say, financing a world tour. Users make the rules and track their own spending.

There are plenty of places online where you can create a budget. But the unique thing about Tobias’ online budgeting tool is that users don't have to reveal their bank or credit card information.

“With so much identity theft occurring, people are hesitant to put personal information on a third-party site,” he said. That's why he decided to eliminate any concerns about security.

The start-up is designed to make money from advertising.

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Foreclosure: AG investigation widens

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has expanded its investigation of foreclosure law firms beyond false court documents and the so-called “robo-signers” who were producing them in huge volumes.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said, in response to questions from the Sun Sentinel, that the investigation is also focusing on allegations of misconduct by attorneys, in addition to others who worked at the large law firms that formerly handled most of Florida’s foreclosure cases.

Among the allegations she said the attorney general’s office is examining:

Law firms padding bills in order to get higher final judgments for lenders at foreclosure. The allegation is that bills submitted in court documents contained inflated fees for process serving -- the procedure for delivering legal notices to those involved in court cases -- that were higher than what the firms actually paid for this service.

Attorneys submitting blank bills in court documents that didn’t reveal the actual amount of their fees

Lawyers steering business to title companies owned by the principals in their law firms.

Law firms filing foreclosures before the lender or loan servicer shows that it has a legal interest in the mortgage.

Davis did not indicate which firms are facing which allegations. She also said there is no timetable for the investigation to be concluded.

Bondi’s predecessor Bill McCollum launched the investigation last year of four large foreclosure law firms – the law offices of David J. Stern, Shapiro & Fishman, Florida Default Law Group and the law offices of Marshall C. Watson.

Bondi won election last November and took office earlier this month.

Stern’s Plantation-based law firm, which launched a publicly traded company to handle back-office functions for foreclosure cases, has come under additional pressure as its major clients Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pulled their business. Stern’s business subsequently laid off hundreds of employees.

Attorney Holly Skolnick of the law firm Greenberg Traurig in Miami said her client - the law offices of Marshall C. Watson - is cooperating with the attorney general’s investigation. “We expect to resolve whatever issues [are raised],” she said.

Attorney Gerald Richman, who represents Shaprio & Fishman, pointed out that it is not illegal for a laywer to own a title company. The expansion of the Attorney General’s investigation “ is very much of a fishing expedition.” He said Shaprio & Fishman “has done noting wrong.”

A lawyer for Stern could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts by phone and e-mail. A spokeswoman for Florida Default Law Group did not respond to requests for comment.

Bondi’s spokeswoman said the new attorney general has met with representatives of the Florida Bar to discuss the issues. “General Bondi has made the foreclosure crisis one of her main areas of focus,” Davis said.

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Foreclosure: AG's office says process in "total disarray"

Florida’s foreclosure process has become a “virtual morass” of fake documents and faulty practices by “mill” law firms spewing out unverified paperwork, Associate Florida Attorney General Patricia Conners told the Florida Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance Tuesday.

In a legislative update on the Attorney General’s investigation of the state’s foreclosure crisis, Conners stopped short of saying what newly elected Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi will do about the situation, which developed over the last three years before Bondi took office.

But, in prepared remarks to the committee, she outlined several possible solutions:

Require loan servicers “to get the paperwork right” before filing for foreclosures;

Create incentives for lenders and investors to modify mortgages rather than foreclose;

Streamline the short sale process; and

Have lenders and investors compensate title insurers for damages or losses due to faulty paperwork.

Conners’ comments echoed an Attorney General office report issued last week that indicates the problems include instances of false paperwork, fake signatures and improper certification by notaries. The report showed that investigators have documented cases of foreclosure processors swearing to the truth of thousands of documents that they have not verified and homes being foreclosed upon by a bank that did not hold the mortgage note.

To remedy those problems, individual court circuits are becoming active. Starting Jan. 1, Palm Beach County's chief judge has instructed banks to start attaching each mortgage payer's payment record to some foreclosure case documents to double-check the official papers that banks file with the courts.

Judges in New York and New Jersey, too, have become openly critical of lenders’ foreclosure methods, in some cases citing irregularities in Florida foreclosures as the reason. And lawyers nationwide are sorting out the ramifications of a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling last week that invalidated two foreclosures in that state because the lenders could not prove they owned titles to the properties.

Conners described the Florida foreclosure process as “total disarray “in her update on the investigation. Florida’s foreclosure problems have gained national attention because, as Conners indicated, Florida’s foreclosures represent half of all the pending cases in the 23 states that use a judicial process to resolve foreclosures.

The update did not include any specific actions that the AG’s office has taken to resolve the problems.

Conners said the office’s investigation of foreclosure law firms began with the allegations of “robo-signing” -- in which employees routinely signed huge numbers of documents without verifying the information the documents contained. But those investigations have expanded into “other apparent irregularities.” She did not give any details or did not respond to questions after the hearing.

Conners said the AG’s office is working with the attorneys general in the other 49 states on ways to restore “integrity” to the foreclosure process and reportedly discussing a possible settlement with major lenders in Florida and elsewhere.A report on that effort is expect sometime this spring.

There are also ongoing investigations into the foreclosure process nationwide by the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Housing Administration and the Justice Department.

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Talk first, file foreclosure later, or never

Government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are considering whether to force loan servicers in South Florida to go to mediation with some troubled homeowners before a foreclosure even begins.

The initiative would be a major new step in the process for those borrowers who cannot make their mortgage payments in Broward and Palm Beach Counties. The new procedure has recently begun in Miami-Dade for some loans.

“The writing is on the wall that foreclosures aren’t going anywhere,” said foreclosure defense attorney Roy Oppenheim. “If they are willing to engage in meaningful alternative dispute resolution, that’s good news.”

Currently, borrowers complain that they can’t get their banks to talk to them in many cases or they get caught in a maze when trying to modify their mortgages. Most mediations only happen after a foreclosure case is filed. Borrowers can ask their lenders to go to mediation in Broward before the foreclosure process begins, but there’s no requirement that they do so.

Once a foreclosure case is filed, Florida courts since last July have forced all lenders and borrowers to go to mediation for homesteaded properties.

These mediations have so far resulted in few property owners reaching an agreement with their lenders.

A major obstacle, mediators say, has been finding borrowers and getting them to participate.

Ned Pope, director of the program at The Collins Center for Public Policy, which runs the mortgage mediation program in Miami-Dade, said he is looking for better results with the pre-filing mediation program – begun last month by Fannie Mae in Miami-Dade only. It would start the mediation process quickly, about two months after a borrower stops paying the mortgage.

That jump start is a “game changer,” he said. “By the time (a foreclosure case) gets to the courts, it is eight or nine or 10 months down the road,” Pope said. The new procedure kicks in just 65 days after the loan is delinquent. “If we reach more borrowers, that will allow us to reach more settlements,” Pope said.

Fannie Mae said it was requiring all of its loan servicers to participate in the pre-filing mediation program – for homesteaded properties -- in judicial circuits like Miami-Dade where The Collins Center, a statewide public not-for-profit group, handles mediations.

A spokeswoman for the mortgage giant said it is “assessing” taking the program to other judicial circuits, including Broward and Palm Beach.

“Fannie Mae’s primary goal is to help struggling borrowers avoid foreclosure by reaching out to them early in the delinquency phase and providing information on retention and other foreclosure alternatives,” said Fannie Mae spokeswoman Janis Smith.

Brad German, a spokesman for Freddie Mac, said Monday it is considering a similar program in which attorneys handling Freddie Mac loans would begin mediation before a legal case is filed. The program is being considered for “high intensity” foreclosure areas, including South Florida, he said.

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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