When Mike Lindsay’s energetic young wife was diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock. To Mike, it seemed like one moment Vanessa was happily gardening in their spacious backyard, and the next she was gone.

The couple and their two sons lived in a rambling Spanish-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Orange County, California. Soon after Vanessa passed away, Mike Lindsay found himself with medical bills and child care costs he called “devastating.” Between credit cards and friends who’d offered help, he owed thousands of dollars.

“I always felt it would all turn around,” Lindsay said. He just wasn’t sure how. The surest bet seemed to be the house, which was appraised at $1.2 million, and in which he had about $500,000 of equity. Lindsay tried to refinance his existing mortgage, but his bank was unwilling: he’d already done a loan modification once, after losing his job. And his debt-to-income ratio put a new mortgage out of reach.

The very same day Lindsay learned he wouldn’t qualify for a refinance, help arrived. It was a direct mail solicitation, in the form of a fake check “payable to Michael Lindsay for $186,000.”

A company called Unison was offering money in exchange for an ownership stake in the Lindsay house. Lindsay investigated, and found Unison’s process both “professional” and “informative,” he said.

“It had come down to the fact that the only other option I had was to sell the house,” Lindsay told MarketWatch. He hated that idea, since his two boys, who’d already been through so much, were thriving in their school district. And while he didn’t want to rule out downsizing, there was just too much emotion attached to the home where the boys had been...

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