Bamboozled: Read this if selling a home in Jersey

There’s a new change for the Homestead Benefit, but this one’s a goodie.

“The changes are made in part because of the Bamboozled column,” said Andrew Pratt, spokesman for the state Division of Taxation.

Earlier this year, we explained how changes to what used to be called the Homestead Rebate program – now Homestead Benefit – got past many home sellers who inadvertently lost out on their benefit.

Before the program was changed, New Jersey homeowners who applied and qualified would receive a check in the mail – hundreds of dollars that represented a refund of property taxes. With the change, homeowners would instead receive a credit on their property tax bills.

Homeowners who were planning to sell could indicate such on the application, and the state would send them a check instead of credit their soon-to-be former home’s tax bill.

That worked for some home sellers, but for others, it was a problem.

Some simply missed the question on the application. Others filled out the application before they knew they were selling their homes, so they didn’t think to ask for a check.

Dozens of home sellers, home buyers, real estate agents and closing agents contacted us after the story ran, asking for advice on how they could get back their rebate money.

There isn’t much that can be done unless a reimbursement is written into the closing documents of a home sale. Some readers asked their buyers to return the money, though the buyers would be under no legal obligation to do so.

Given all the hubbub, the Division of Taxation has taken steps to clarify this confusing part of the application.

Pratt said the changes highlight that’s it’s essential to read the instructions on the application, especially if you’re a home seller.

And yes, the new application makes a huge change in emphasizing what to do if you’re selling a home.

It starts with a boldfaced warning: “Don’t risk losing your benefit. If you sold or plan to sell your home, read Item 3 carefully.”

“Item 3” is also in bold. It advises home sellers to read a box on the next page – a box that didn’t exist on the prior year’s application.

The box directs home sellers how to get their benefit after they sell, including advising them to “…make sure you keep these instructions and discuss them with your attorney or closing agent so they can negotiate on your behalf.”

Pratt said the taxation division is discussing ways to also educate real estate agents and closing attorneys, but nothing’s been done yet.

“They do think the changes on the form should be sufficient to eliminate many of the issues involved,” he said.

We’re glad to see that the state recognized the problem, and hooray for the positive change. We don’t think there’s much chance a home seller – or a potential home seller – will miss the instructions.

John and Patricia Nalberczinski, who were featured in our initial story, are still hoping they’ll be reimbursed by the buyer who purchased their Millstone Township home in November 2011. Their closing attorney sent a letter to the buyer’s attorney requesting the money, but so far, no response.

“I think it would be hard to miss how the implication of selling would have on the Homestead Benefit,” said John Nalberczinski, who notified Bamboozled of the application change.

Bravo, taxation division, for doing the right thing.


Jacqueline Halsey should expect to get her money back, and fast.

Halsey had been paying a judgment for a previously unpaid credit card bill, but there was confusion. The problem? She had paid with some money orders through one court, but a second court was in charge of garnishing her paycheck.

Looking at the payment schedule, Halsey realized she would overpay the debt if the debt collector — Paramus-based law firm Eichenbaum & Stylianou — continued to garnish her pay.

She contacted Eichenbaum several times, but it refused to give her an account balance. Halsey, with no way to stop the garnishments, ended up overpaying the debt.

Our calls to Eichenbaum didn’t help. All we learned was that it was in the process of transferring the collection of the debt to another firm, per instructions from Capitol One, the initial lender.

Since out story ran, there’s been some good news. Halsey’s most recent paycheck didn’t include any garnishments. We hope it stays that way.

And we heard back from Capitol One, which had hired Eichenbaum for the collections job.

It said it couldn’t talk specifically about the process of collection of Halsey’s debt, but it said generally, there can be a lag between the time a payment is deducted from a consumer’s bank account or paycheck and the time the payment gets to the law firm and is ultimately reflected on the customer’s account.

“We have reviewed Ms. Halsey’s situation and resolved matters to her satisfaction,” said Capitol One spokeswoman Pam Girardo. “Legal action is a last resort, and our expectation is that a customer can at any time get information regarding the status of their payments. We sincerely apologize for the confusion caused by this process.”

We asked if Capitol One thought something was lacking in Eichenbaum’s response to Halsey’s requests for updated balances on what she owed.

“The account will be fully resolved by Eichenbaum and we apologize for any confusion there,” Girardo said in an email. “We are looking into this situation and reiterating to all firms that our expectation is that a customer can access their payment/balance information upon request at any time.”


While we were waiting for Capitol One’s answer, Senator Frank Lautenberg’s office contacted us, offering assistance to Halsey.

We explained that Halsey’s situation was taken care of, but that we were both disappointed to learn that state and federal debt collection laws don’t require collectors to provide account statements. While new debt collection legislation being considered in New Jersey, it doesn’t address account statements.

The senator’s office said it would look into it. We’ll let you know if we get any good news.


Chase has come through for a customer.

Last month, we brought you the story of Aleta and Jack Heir, a couple that’s been pursuing a basement waterproofing company that they said did a shoddy and incomplete $30,000 job at their Freehold home.

The company, Water Shield Waterproofing of Bridgewater, is connected to Al Demola, a contractor who ran two other questionable waterproofing companies profiled by Bamboozled, we learned during our investigation.

As part of the Heir’s fight, they unsuccessfully disputed $13,000 of charges by Water Shield on their Chase card. We shared the facts of the case with the lender, asking it to reconsider.

It did.

“Chase corporate called me… and released us from that $13,000 noose,” Aleta Heir said shortly after the story was published.

That’s the kind of news we like to hear. Thanks to Chase for doing the right thing for these customers.


Our May column about a counterfeit $100 bill that was passed to customer William Hagman during a withdrawal transaction at TD Bank in Denville generated lots emails from readers who wanted to share their own counterfeit experiences.

It also generated a call to Hagman by a TD executive, who asked Hagman to relay his experience at the branch.

“She said they violated so many different customer service policies and there were so many things they shouldn’t have done,” he said. “She asked what she could do to make me feel better. I said, `Nothing.’”

The exec then offered a replacement $100 with an official “letter of regret,” plus a $150 check so Hagman could take his wife out to dinner.

“I said I’m not interested,” he said.

The exec asked why.

“I said, ‘If you read the article in The Star-Ledger you’d know it wasn’t about the money. It was about credibility and honesty,’” he said. “I’d be prostituting myself if I took the money. I already established with your readers that it’s not about the money.”

Hagman, who said he thanked the exec, no longer banks with TD.

As for the emails we received from readers about this case, they offered terrific suggestions on how customers can protect themselves from fake bills.

“I personally carry a counterfeit detection pen I bought at a local pharmacy,” wrote reader William Masi of Elizabeth. “The bank will tell you it isn’t a good pen like theirs, and the package doesn’t promise it’s perfect, either. However, when I gave one to the store I buy The Star-Ledger from when they were having problems with bad bills… it worked, so it might be worth the $4 to $5 purchase price.”

He said bank customers can take out the pen and use it with the teller watching. Just don’t put your hands in your pockets, he suggested, so the bank won’t suspect a switch.

Other readers said they won’t take large bills from a bank teller until the teller has scanned the bills by machine or used a counterfeit detection pen.

And to those of you who said you’d suspect bank employees of doing the switch themselves to profit by trading in counterfeit bills, sure, we guess that could happen. But we’d like to think that the overwhelming majority of bank employees are honest.

Don’t forget, there’s a good chance the bank’s many cameras would foil a plot like that.

Let’s hope so, anyway.