But facing the loss of their home to foreclosure was unfathomable to the Zooks. So while facing obstacles that would cause most people to give up, the Zooks did what they had to in order to keep their home.
The Last Straw
While the Zooks have faced hard times, they have always had their home, their family and each other. "My wife is a superwoman," says Mike Zook. "We've been married 30 years and we've gone through some terrible things, but she has incredible strength."
Lora Zook was born with neurofibromatosis, often known as the elephant man's disease, which has over her lifetime required 28 surgeries on both legs. She still struggles to walk. On top of that, 10 years ago, she battled cervical cancer, and four years ago, she fought breast cancer.
"We went through radiation and chemotherapy, and nothing keeps her down," says Zook.
The Zooks' home caught fire in 2008 and was nearly destroyed, but their homeowner's insurance paid for the residence to be rebuilt.
Then in 2009, Mike Zook, who had been a barber for 43 years, fell at work and injured his hip. The nerve damage he experienced meant he could no longer stand behind his barber chair and had to stop working completely. "Time will tell if the nerve damage ever repairs itself, but for now, I can't be a barber at all," Zook says.
$7 Short; A Lifetime on the Line
At first, Zook received workman's compensation of about 80 percent of his wages. That amount enabled the couple to keep up with their mortgage payments. But then he applied for Social Security disability benefits. When those payments began, his workman's compensation stopped.
With their only income came from Social Security benefits, they faced extremely difficult choices.
"We had to choose whether to eat, to pay our utility bills, or to make our mortgage payments," says Zook. "We sold almost everything we owned in yard sales and cut way back on our spending. To this day, our living room doesn't have any furniture in it."
In spite of their efforts, the Zooks eventually fell four months behind on their mortgage. They received a foreclosure notice from their lender with a referral for housing counseling. The Zooks contacted Apprisen Financial Advocates, a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Their counselor explored the option of a loan modification for the Zooks with the Home Affordable Modification Program, but when she consulted a mortgage amortization chart, she realized the couple would need about $500 more per month in income to qualify for the new payment plan.
A Paper Route Saves the Day
The Zooks explored every avenue they could think of for a job that one or both of them could do in spite of their disabilities. The best option turned out to be a paper route delivering newspapers to local businesses. Mike assembles the papers, Lora drives the route and their 21-year-old son helps them make deliveries.
"We make almost $900 a month now delivering these papers because we picked up another route recently that pays us $115 a month," says Zook.
The extra income allowed them to qualify for a loan modification with Citibank, which lowered their interest rate and refinanced the delinquent portion of their loan. The Zooks' new mortgage payment is $600 a month -- about $500 less than it was before the modification.
"We had a probationary period during which we had to show that we could make the payment and put it into a savings account every month," says Zook. "We made nine on-time payments and so we qualified for a permanent loan modification."
The Zooks' interest rate is 1 percent for the first year, and as long as all their payments are on time for the next five years they will be granted a principal reduction of $1,000. Their interest rate will gradually rise over the next few years to 2.5 percent and then stay at that rate until the mortgage is paid in full.
"Money is still pretty tight even with the loan modification because our income comes just from the paper route and the Social Security benefits," says Zook. "We started a vegetable garden in the back yard and we don't go out any more to restaurants or to movies. We play a lot of board games and read."
Zook's advice to homeowners who are having trouble making mortgage payments is "don't panic." Stay calm, reach out for help if you need it, and in moments of weakness just think about how the Zooks were able to persevere and overcome countless obstacles to save their home.
Michele Lerner is a contributing writer to The Motley Fool.