Foreclosures Open Door To Disorder

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Among the many harsh lessons for mortgage lenders in the housing bust is this one about evictions: Selling a house is far easier than taking it back. Clever opportunists and struggling families have figured this out, too, and the result is a rapidly evolving free-for-all coursing through the Washington region's worst foreclosure-racked suburbs.

Defaulting homeowners are taking advantage of banking chaos to live mortgage-free for six months or longer, dragging out the eviction process, according to lenders and real estate agents. Unscrupulous landlords are collecting rent but withholding mortgage payments, leaving a rude surprise for their tenants when repossession comes. And banks are so eager to avoid the hassle of eviction that they are paying occupants $5,000 or more simply to hand over the keys and move out without a fight.

Then there are the illegal squatters, appliance thieves and miscellaneous animals -- wild and domestic -- that abound amid the disorder.

Someone has to sort out the mess, and that's where people such as John Zampino, a deputy with the Prince William County Sheriff's Office, come in. Zampino is one of hundreds of deputies across the region who increasingly function as the armed couriers of the real estate meltdown, delivering court documents, serving repossession orders and, when necessary, carrying out evictions. He estimates that he has conducted more than 100 evictions this year, up from two in 2006.

"We're never happy about kicking people out of their homes," said Zampino, 36.

But the eviction process rarely means forcing a family and its belongings to the curb. It more often happens through a quiet, gradual escalation of ominously worded documents taped to door frames or hand-delivered by deputies.

In the past two years, he has evicted renters at one property and returned to the same house a few months later to evict the landlord. But when scams and opportunism are involved, Zampino sees his job as a valuable service. "Most of the time, I feel like I'm making the neighborhood better," he said.

He is likely to remain busy. The economy has prompted many homeowners to stop paying their mortgages, telling banks that they want to negotiate a short sale, through which the bank does not foreclose but agrees to accept the proceeds of a sale of the property for less than the amount of the loan. With banks' loss-mitigation departments inundated with foreclosure cases, the process can grind on for six months or more, according to real estate agents and homeowners, and often ends in foreclosure anyway.

"I wanted to refinance but I couldn't," said Sergio Martinez, a contractor who bought a $300,000 house in Manassas Park in 2006 with no down payment and two loans, one at 14 percent interest. He has been living in his home for free since December, when he stopped making mortgage payments as construction work dried up.

Each foreclosure costs a bank $40,000 to $50,000 in attorney's fees and fees for property management and other services, according to John Mechem, a spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Association. "Sometimes it takes two or three tries on a short sale to make it work," he said. "Lenders are willing to go to great lengths to avoid foreclosure."

Although the sheriff of Cook County, which includes Chicago, recently attracted national attention and the scorn of the lending industry by suspending foreclosure evictions, repossession continues in the Washington region at an unprecedented rate. Area jurisdictions do not have a standardized record-keeping system to track evictions, so numbers are difficult to compare, but nearly all are showing an upward trend.

The Fairfax County sheriff's department has conducted 924 evictions this year, on pace to surpass last year's mark of 1,065, while in Arlington County, the rate is relatively low but creeping up slightly. In Loudoun County, deputies served 919 repossession orders (which include all forms of property) through the first nine months of 2008, more than in any other year on record.

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