In Abandoned Homes, The Remnants of a Life

By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Matt Paxton didn't know who used to live at 4404 Eames Ln. in Dale City, but he could gather some clues from what was left behind. "El Salvador" was scrawled in black marker on a dirty mattress. There was a partially built shed in the back yard.

Then there was a composition book in a pile of trash in the living room. On one page, a boy had written his name nine times. On another, he had drawn a three-story house with a swimming pool. The house in the drawing was much nicer than the one his family had abandoned after it went into foreclosure and Paxton's company was called to clean it out.

Paxton's business, Clutter Cleaner, specializes in "extreme cleaning," which, in Prince William County, has increasingly meant clearing out abandoned homes. The county's astronomical foreclosure rate has made junk disposal a growth industry. More than 4,500 properties in the county have gone into foreclosure this year, records show. In July, there were 945 foreclosures, the highest number since they started climbing two years ago.

Many tenants have left quickly, taking only necessities and leaving furniture, clothing, food, trash, appliances and even pets. But after a bank repossesses a property, all items must be removed before it can be put on the market. That is when Clutter Cleaner comes in.

About 5 a.m. each day, Paxton, 33, looks over the day's jobs, which he gets from a mortgage servicing company in New Jersey, and assigns them to his two Washington area crews. Some jobs require only changing locks to ward off squatters or cutting the grass to deter thieves. Others take hours, as workers remove a trailer's worth of garbage, often while fighting off cockroaches or dealing with the stench of mold or rotten food.

Paxton says his crews donate anything valuable to charity; the rest is hauled to the county landfill.

But Paxton sees remnants of people's lives in the trash, traces of the dreams they abandoned.

It still hits him, he said, when he finds a child's shoe, or a baby's milk bottles in a refrigerator. He has found wedding and graduation pictures. Almost all of the houses have tools, gardening equipment and cans of paint, he said, evidence of plans for home improvement. Once, in the concrete foundation of a home, he found two handprints belonging to a father and child.

"Clearly, this was their dream," he said. "They had built their home."

Perhaps the homeowners couldn't read their mortgage papers or had been misled by a sales agent, Paxton said. "I think 99 out of 100 of these things started with good intentions," he said. "And now there are someone's dreams, sitting on the back of my pickup."

Paxton started Clutter Cleaner about two years ago after his previous business ventures petered out. He had worked for the Federal Reserve in Richmond after college, but he said he hated the suit-and-tie office culture and quit after six months. He moved west and worked in casinos in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, then took a job in Chicago before returning to Richmond when his father became ill.

After his father died, Paxton traveled in Hawaii, started a wet-suit company, then created a product called Paxton's Sandal Saver to clean flip-flops.

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