As the plummeting price of oil leads to job losses across Alberta, many homeowners find themselves in tenuous positions, worried they might lose the roof over their heads.
Donna Houston, a long-time resident of Fort McMurray and a local real estate agent, found herself asking serious questions about how to pay her bills after her husband lost his job.
"You don't necessarily think it could happen to you," she said. "And I feel a lot of people are feeling it, and it has happened to them. It's not just fly-in, fly-out people that are being laid off, it's actual locals, too, long-term families with roots here."
At the time, she didn't want to tell the bank what her family was struggling with.
But that's exactly the wrong approach, she said.
"You can tell the bank what's going on, and they aren't going to take your keys immediately."
She decided she would share her story to try and take the shame out of the situation for others.
"They don't have to struggle alone," she said. "There are a lot of people in the same boat, worried. I want people to know you don't have to do it alone. Reach out to your lenders, call your bank, call your credit card company … find out what your options are."
'Don't be afraid'
There are a number of options for homeowners concerned about how to make ends meet.
"The last thing we want to see is someone lose their home," said Rob Bennett, executive vice-president of retail services for ATB Financial.
He said the idea is to avoid surprises.
"Find out what the fees and penalties are on your mortgage today, no matter what, because if you do lose your job you don't want to find out after the fact that you would have a large interest-rate differential penalty you weren't expecting. Your bank should be able to explain to you what your situation would be ahead of time, so there's no surprises."
If the worst does happen, he said people shouldn't be afraid of their banks.
"Talk to them about your options to defer any payments, if you have loan payments or car payment. Talk to your bank about the options they may have to defer the big spend — the mortgage payment."
Bennett said most lenders can find a way to defer some payments for a couple of months.
He also suggested looking at what he called non-imperative costs.
"You know, look at some of the utilities that you're signed up for and just make sure that everything that you're paying for is absolutely imperative."
The key is to keep the conversation open.
"No bank wants to be in the business in seizing assets and trying to sell those assets off," he said. "Nobody wins in that situation. So that's always an absolute worst-case scenario. So the key is, if we've got a customer who's talking to us and who's working with us, that's normally a sure sign that we can make things work."
State of the market
Alberta's arrears rate is up slightly from 0.24 per cent in 2014 to 0.28 per cent as of December 2015. Arrears are defined as mortgage payments that are 90 or more days late. The rate is still below the national average of 0.35 per cent.
Lai Sing Louie, an analyst with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, said Alberta's housing market will continue to remain soft as long as oil prices are depressed. As of January 2016, the average house price is down 2.7 per cent from a year ago, while sales are down 14 per cent.
"The banks do not want your homes, they want a solution." - Julio Florez
Julio Florez is a broker with True North Realty in Fort McMurray, where business remains steady.
While he sees people who have to sell homes for less than expected these days, he said he hasn't heard of anyone who's had to walk away from everything.
Owners considering a move should first understand the implications, including the associated costs and penalties, he said.
"Don't do it alone. The process for foreclosure is a long process and it doesn't happen overnight. It's always good to exhaust all the possibilities that do exist there," Florez said.
"The banks do not want your homes - they want a solution. And it's never an overnight process that the bank will take the keys and you'll be without a home tomorrow."
Houston and her family are doing well right now, after her husband found other work.
Her ultimate advice for others in the same position is to talk to the professionals.
"Don't do it alone, don't be afraid," she said. "Dig in a little bit and find out if you have options, and what they are."