LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – A New Mexico woman says she worked her whole life to pay off her forever home. However, a surprise knock at her door changed everything.
Maria Zaragoza’s quiet corner home has been her sanctuary for 16 years. “It means everything to me,” Zaragoza told KRQE News 13.
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The retired home health worker bought her house in April 2006. She bought the home from another Spanish-speaking couple, Jacenta and Crisofo Garcia, signed and notarized a real estate contract, and put $20,000 cash into a down payment in a for-sale-by-owner deal.
“I would work over 60 hours a week,” Zaragoza said. Before retiring, she took care of sick and elderly patients in their homes for a home healthcare company.
Zaragoza came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1960s and moved to the Las Cruces area to raise her three sons in a safe environment. She said she chased the American Dream and worked hard to plant roots here, to buy something of her own.
“Here’s where I want to die,” Zaragoza said, referring to her home. She said she made $1,000 monthly payments to the sellers in the form of cashier’s checks, with the agreement she’d get the home’s title when the final payment was made.
“I have all the copies,” she explained. When asked if she was ever late on a monthly payment, Zaragoza replied, “No, because I got a letter notarized at the time of the purchase that if I was one day late, I would get charged $100 extra.”
In 2011, Zaragoza made the final payment on her home. “I was happy and content until I found out that the lady couldn’t give me the title because the bank had it, and I went into a panic,” she recalled.
Zaragoza explained after she made the final payment and asked for the home’s title, the seller admitted to taking out a mortgage on the home after selling it to Zaragoza. It turns out her real estate contract was never recorded by the county assessor.
Zaragoza said she got really sick with the stress over the situation and worried about losing her home. For years, she felt her hands were tied with her home’s title in limbo.
A knock at the door
Then, in 2016, Zaragoza explained she got a knock at her front door that turned her world upside down. Someone she’d never met before let her know the home she thought she paid off, was actually heading into foreclosure.
“It’s been a great injustice what’s happened to Ms. Zaragoza,” said Karina Rocha. Rocha is a staff attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to eligible low-income New Mexico residents.
Rocha took on Zaragoza’s case in November. “I thought it was bizarre that the case has been going on for so long and still hadn’t been resolved,” Rocha told KRQE News 13.
She said there’s been turnover in judges assigned to the case, a series of motions filed in court, and the sellers failing to show at hearings. “The goal is to try to get Ms. Zaragoza to keep her home and then have the banks stop trying to foreclose on the home,” said Rocha.
Rocha explained the mortgage in default was originally held by Wells Fargo, then the debt was sold to Master Participation Trust LSF9, a company that appears to buy foreclosed mortgages in bulk.
“This couple, a few months later after they signed the contract with Ms. Zaragoza, got a loan for the property for about $78,000, which has now accrued interest, and I believe now it’s at $142,000.
Fighting a surprise foreclosure
For years, New Mexico Legal Aid has been able to fend off a foreclosure sale. However, Rocha claims this year LSF9 has been more aggressive in court, seeking to recoup costs on Zaragoza’s home, filing a motion for summary judgment and the home to be sold.
“Just for her almost being 70-years-old, and having to go through this anxiety and depression, not knowing you know if she will be homeless within a few days,” Rocha explained the stress her client’s been going through. “Sometimes I don’t even sleep from thinking about it,” said Zaragoza.
Zaragoza’s living room is mostly empty. Her kids said she’s already started packing things up, just in case. When asked if she’d have to move in with one of her sons, Zaragoza replied, “Yes, they won’t leave me alone,” she smiled, wiping a tear from her eye. “I have really good kids.”
She said she wants to share her story as a warning to other home buyers. “To be very careful because there are abusive people out there,” Zaragoza said.
The Garcias don’t have a listed attorney. Rocha said they’ve been missing in action, and she’ll push for a trial so her client can present evidence she was defrauded by the Garcias.
Rocha said Legal Aid plans to report the case to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal charges. Meanwhile, Zaragoza waits patiently for the looming court battle to end.
“My hope is God and us,” Zaragoza said. “It’s my only hope.”
After KRQE conducted interviews with Zaragoza and her attorney, a new Doña Ana County District Court Judge was assigned to the case, and granted an emergency motion to postpone the foreclosure sale.
New Mexico Legal Aid attorneys said they will still push for a civil trial, and then reach out to the AG’s office to press for fraud charges.