Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Foreclosure - A Moment in Time

Finances have been a little scarey for our household the last couple of years. During times like this plenty of worthy thoughts go through your mind, it is just hard to settle down enough to commit them to the written word.

Today I got a questionnaire via email and thought even though I usually delete such things maybe I would respond to this one.

The first question was something like, “ what is the most important thing that happened to you this year”, followed by a question like “how has the economy affected your life”.

Well, I started to answer the questions and a lot more came out than I intended. It is not my fault. These are big questions.
What follows tells a little bit about what it is like to sell foreclosed properties for a large, well known financial institution.

It is my spin which is likely to be different than what you would expect from a Realtor. This may make sense if you know I was not born to do this job.

I graduated from college in 1983 wanting to be a geologist. Because of the economy there were no jobs in geology. I ended up "temporarily" becoming a Realtor.

I never wanted to be a sales person, I never dreamed of selling houses and buildings, I never wished people would see me as a "wheeler dealer". I liked science and rocks and being outside.
When I said "I think I'll try being a Realtor" it felt like something I was just saying. It certainly didn't seem real.

But sometimes if you repeat things they become real.

For many years I have made a living as a small town real estate broker. I am good at my job and I like it. The details of my life are interwoven with the job I have done all these years. I first met my wife when she sold her house. And the universal nature of real estate allowed us to move back to my home town. There are houses everywhere.

If the economy had been different in 1983 I would likely have found a job out west or down south in Texas. I can't even begin to imagine how my life might have played out.

At the beginning of 2009 things were looking tough for us financially, I had only sold a few properties in the past year. We were living on my wife's income combined with money borrowed against our house. Luckily my business had a substantial credit line that I had seldom used until now. I figured I could last another 18 months living off of savings and credit.

Things would not have been so worrisome except just as the national financial crisis was beginning we built a new house. At the same time real estate taxes on the office center that provided some of our income doubled and one of my major tenants decided to "go virtual" and moved out. Two of my other major tenants stopped paying rent.

At the end of 2009 I was having trouble sleeping. I would lay awake thinking about the skills I had and how I might turn them into money. I considered selling our home, and other property, but every day there was evidence those options would not be viable. I decided I would continue working and keep faith things would work out.

I was lucky. I managed to become one of the brokers representing a major financial institution disposing of foreclosed homes. I had no idea they were considering my request to work for them. I never spoke to anyone on the phone. One day, out of the blue, I was notified by email, "We have an asset in your market area please log in to our web site to accept this assignment."
Accepting the assignment meant that I was to care for the property until it was to be sold. My payment would be the prospect of eventually listing the property and earning a commission at some date far in the future. The property was fifty miles away from the area in which I normally worked. In previous years I had wondered who could be so desperate to agree to such an arrangement.

I met the locksmith at that first “asset” and we broke in. It was mostly empty with a few useless items left behind, a broken ladder, partial cans of paint, some cleaning supplies and bills from creditors. I stood in that home, which was pretty nice, and wondered what kind of person had lived there.

Gradually it dawned on me, the owner of this house had been a Realtor like me. The name on the real estate signs in the garage matched the name on the bills left behind in the house.

After the house was secured and I was driving the hour back to my own home I considered the possibility of someone changing the lock on my door someday. I ignored the buzzing on my smart phone as I pondered.

Once home I could no longer deny my insistent cell phone and checked email. I discovered three more "assets" were ready for my acceptance. In the next three weeks I became responsible for thirty foreclosed properties.

I learned to appreciate the one basic reason that people lose their homes. People don't pay their mortgages and the bank forecloses. For the bank it is as simple as that.

It is all the same. People who get sick, people who die, people who go to jail, people who get divorced, people who lose their jobs, people who just don't care. None of them pay.

Most of them leave some of their things behind and it goes in the trash.

Some people leave behind lots of things which doesn't seem to make sense, but there is always a reason. I went to a house and there was a speed boat on a trailer, a motorcycle, a new Chevy pickup truck, computers, food in the fridge, plates and dishes and a note written in red crayon tacked to the wall,"Dady I love you". I thought it would take a cold person to leave that note behind.

Cold indeed, I found out the owner, a divorced man, died of cancer two months prior. One of the neighbors gave me the phone number of his x-wife. She told me it bothered her things were being left, but she was in foreclosure herself and had no place to put her own things much less the possessions of her ex.

So many objects get left behind and that is all they are, objects. The trash-out guys coldly walk through a house opening every cabinet as they go, assessing what it will cost to throw it all away, or maybe there is something they will keep--probably not though, they've seen it all. It is too hard to separate the things of value. Maybe give them to charity, I think- no - that takes time. It goes to the dump.

I have thought several times that I could be the king of garden hoses and floor lamps. Everyone leaves them behind. My wife bought a lamp at target. The very next day I saw the exact same lamp in a heap of garbage from a house on it's way to the dump.

Just when you think you understand that people only leave what they don't want something happens that shakes you. One day I scheduled a trash out on a property that had just a few items laying around and a couple of boxes in the corner. I had tried to locate the owner weeks ago without any luck and left my phone number taped to the door. No response.

I had barely hung up the phone from ordering the trash out when my phone rang. It was the foreclosed owner of the condo, a woman in her mid seventies. She explained while they were moving she got sick and went to the hospital and had just gotten out. There were very important things in those boxes, she said, that could never be replaced.

I met her at the condo, she reminded me of an older poorer version of my own mother. Polite, well groomed white haired and articulate.

Her grand-daughter had taken off work at a burger joint to drive her here. She told me she had lived here for eighteen years and that actually her mortgage payment was no problem. She said that so many people had been foreclosed that the association dues went up twice as much as her mortgage payment and she had to walk away from everything.

She was grateful to get her boxes and told me several times she had always taken good care of the place. When the bank foreclosed she became a renter and her condo sold for about $30,000.
As far as I know there were only papers in the box, but they were important enough to call a stranger, take off work and drive across town. I drove an hour there and an hour back to get that done.

Sometimes people take things you wouldn't expect them to take. Like all of the kitchen cabinets in a house or all of the door knobs and cabinet hardware.

Some people must be angry. Like the man who took the water softener leaving angrily twisted and crimped pipes. Then he turned the water back on. I entered to find water spraying all over the basement and a sump pump working overtime. One guy replaced every single light bulb in the house with burned out bulbs.

In one house the people stopped paying the electric bill. The neighbors told me the owners stayed there with the power off until it rained and the basement filled with water because the sump pump wouldn't work. After they left they returned each week to leave their trash using the house like a giant dumpster. By the time I got in the house I had to wear a breather mask because black mold was growing on every surface and slimy yellow mushrooms grew out of the carpet.

In that first month I changed locks on homes that had been owned by land developers, loan officers, and contractors. People not very different from me.

Some individuals stick in my mind. There was the single woman, computer programmer, who I encountered stuffing all of her worldly possessions into a small U haul truck with the help of her elderly parents. She told me they were leaving for Florida that night and anything that would not fit was being left behind.

When I came back a week later I discovered there evidently had not been room for her two cats. They rode with me in my car for the next few hours mewing loudly in the background as I spoke on my cell phone.

There was the man who greeted me cheerfully at the door, told me he was remodeling his bathroom. He seemed oblivious to the fact he had been foreclosed. In the following weeks he refused to acknowledge he had been foreclosed.

Finally I called him one evening and told him the Sheriff and a locksmith would be at his door at 9 am the next morning and there was nothing I could do about it.

The next morning I went to the house. As the locksmith drilled out the lock of the front door the owner pulled up frantically running to meet us. "I have the keys, you don't have to do that.".
He said he had spent the previous afternoon at his job driving veterans to their appointments at the hospital, then he rented a truck and spent the night moving as much as he could, telling us he chugged energy drinks all night to keep going.

The Sheriff, the locksmith and myself , all three of us were feeling pretty uncomfortable standing there with the personal drama that was playing out. The man wanted to show me around his house, I felt weird about that and declined, he told me to call if I had any questions. Then he choked up and said to me, "You are the only one in this whole process who ever listened to me. Thank you for that." Then he hopped in his car and drove away. Leaving his home in the hands of strangers.

The locksmith who had been right there during the exchanged said, "I think I would have been more comfortable if he had just told us all to F-Off."

A year later I am responsible for fifty properties at any given time. Ten to twenty of them are for sale. When one sells they assign another to me. I work all of the time with the knowledge that one day my employer will decide I am no longer useful. If they even suspect I might be unhappy they will suggest someone else would be happy to have my job - and they are right.

I have the surreal feeling that I am living in history. Is this how my grandparents felt during the great depression? You just live your life and do your job and one day you wake up and realize you are surrounded by extraordinary circumstances.

An email comes and the wheels are set in motion. There are locksmiths and contractors and dumpsters in driveways and the constant fear of water. Furnaces stopping, pipes breaking, damage. Lots of damage. People who are losing everything comment on the weather and wish you a good day.