Foreclosure Auctioneer's Lonely Task

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

With an unhurried stride and a fresh stack of mortgage loans gone bad, Rick Crossley arrived at the small plaza outside the Prince William County courthouse on a bright, windy morning recently and found it deserted. He cleared his throat, opened a thick folder and, with little ceremony, began to read aloud.

"This is a trustee's foreclosure auction," he announced. "Any parties with interest, please step forward at this time."

The deliveryman unloading packages nearby paid no attention; a sheriff's deputy gave little more than a passing glance. Crossley continued.

"Qualified bidders will have certified funds," he called out, and proceeded to offer a house in Woodbridge at $380,515.28.

"Going once! Going twice!" he bellowed, raising his voice in the gusting wind. "Final call! Sold to Aurora Loan Services for $380,515.28."

There was nobody from Aurora Loan Services, a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers, for Crossley to shake hands with or congratulate on the deal. Really, there was nothing to celebrate. The company had become the default owner of yet another piece of sinking real estate that it would have to resell.

Crossley auctioned several more houses over the next 20 minutes. One in Woodbridge was offered for $178,000, and another in Manassas for $244,000. It didn't matter; no one showed up. And by the time Crossley was finished, seven more Prince William houses had fallen on the foreclosure pyre, reclaimed by banks.

"Lot of interest out here this morning," Crossley muttered.

It wasn't always such a lonely job. When Crossley became an auctioneer two years ago for Purcellville-based Nectar Projects, foreclosure sales were few, and they would regularly draw packs of investors armed with cash and eager to bid. Now it's rare for anyone to show up. In the past three months, Crossley has conducted auctions on some 200 properties in Northern Virginia, and he has sold one.

"I don't know if people are afraid, or if they're not sure if we've hit bottom," he said, shrugging. "It seems like a good time to buy."

The Washington region has not been hit as hard as other markets by the wave of foreclosures, and its local impact has been concentrated in immigrant communities with lower-priced housing.

To map its course through Northern Virginia, one only has to follow Crossley on his Thursday errands. That's the day he makes his rounds at the region's courthouses, performing a grim but required step in the foreclosure process that allows banks to repossess houses whose owners can no longer pay the mortgage.

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