MIAMI â In September, Susan Rodolfi celebrated an unusual anniversary: five years of missed mortgage payments.
She is like a ghost of the housing marketâs painful past, one of thousands of Americans who have skipped years of mortgage payments and are still living in their homes.
Now a legal quirk could bring a surreal ending to her foreclosure case and many others around the country: They may get to keep their homes without ever having to pay another dime.
The reason, lawyers for homeowners argue, is that the cases have dragged on too long.
There are tens of thousands of homeowners who have missed more than five years of mortgage payments, many of them clustered in states like Florida, New Jersey and New York, where lenders must get judges to sign off on foreclosures.
However, in a growing number of foreclosure cases filed when home prices collapsed during the financial crisis, lenders may never be able to seize the homes because the state statutes of limitations have been exceeded, according to interviews with housing lawyers and a review of state and federal court decisions.
Documents related to the protracted legal battle that began in 2009 when a mortgage servicer filed to foreclose on Ms. Rodolfiâs house. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times
âNo one gets a free house,â Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the United States Bankruptcy Court in Trenton wrote in an opinion late last year, reflecting what he characterized as a longstanding âadmonitionâ he and others made during the foreclosure crisis. But after effectively ending a New Jersey homeownerâs foreclosure case in November because the stateâs six-year statute of limitations had expired, he wrote in his opinion, âWith a proper measure of disquiet and chagrin, the court now must retreat from this position.â
It is difficult to know for sure how many foreclosure cases are still grinding through the court systems since the financial crisis. It is even harder to say how many of those borrowers are still living in their homes.
Bank of America, for example, has initiated the foreclosure process on roughly 20,000 mortgages that have not been paid in at least five years. The bank estimates that 90 percent of those homes are still occupied.
The statute of limitations does not halt a foreclosure case that is continuing in court. But in some Florida courts, homeownersâ lawyers have argued that once a foreclosure is dismissed even for technical reasons, the lender cannot refile a new foreclosure to seize the home if the statute of limitations has passed. Still, the lender has some recourse: It can keep a lien on the house that must be paid off if the property is ever sold.
âItâs becoming a more common way to get out from under these cases,â said Linda Tirelli, a lawyer in White Plains who represents homeowners facing foreclosure.
In June, it also appeared that Ms. Rodolfi was quite literally home free.
When a lawyer then working for her mortgage servicer did not show up for a routine hearing, the judge dismissed her foreclosure case.
But her servicer, Nationstar Mortgage, recently won a reversal of the dismissal, saying the lawyer had missed the hearing because of âinadvertence, mistake and excusable neglect.â
Ms. Rodolfiâs lawyers plan to appeal.
âPeople who are paying their mortgage might see this as a windfall for the homeowner,â said one of her lawyers, Martin G. McCarthy. âBut the lenders are more than partly to blame, and in Susanâs case, I wouldnât feel bad for them.â
It is easy to see why she has been fighting all these years to keep her home, which Nationstar says is worth $272,000.