The paths that lead me to the front door are endless. Maybe it’s a death, illness or incarceration. A marriage, perhaps. Or a divorce. A job is lost. Or one is landed across the country. Whatever the case, the mortgage is long overdue and I come knocking.
The economic storm of recent years has triggered an unprecedented wave of foreclosures. While causes, policies and reactions capture headlines and imaginations almost daily, the stories of those who lose their homes are rarely told.
I work in a real estate office providing boots-on-the-ground information on the condition of each property and who is in it. Between the mortgage and the foreclosure, anything could happen. We might find that a house is occupied by squatters, abandoned, burned down or even demolished. We might find a crack den or a meth lab. There might be pot plants or a dog-fighting ring — sometimes we find the casualties of these battles.
Foreclosure is an intensely impersonal affair. Anonymous lawyers feed a steady stream of paperwork into the machinery of the legal system. It is unusual for those who process the forms to meet or speak with those who are losing their homes. If there is an encounter, it might take place through panes of bulletproof glass as the larger legal firms seek to protect their employees from emotional outbursts of desperation. The processors will almost never venture out to see the houses themselves. That’s my job.
From million-dollar mansions in gated golf or waterfront communities to the charred ruins of homes long forgotten, no neighborhood is immune. At times, the bank will foreclose on a property only to find that it has been seized by the IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service or a local tax authority.
When we visit, the eviction has begun. We must first determine whether somebody is living there. This isn’t always easy — a house might appear occupied because neighbors are keeping it up to avoid the blight that can attract rodents, copper thieves or intruders. They cart away the tell-tale signs of vacancy, such as old phone books or takeout menus at front doors. Power and gas might be left on for months before a utility company cuts them off, or they might be paid for by an estate or a borrower who is on an extended transfer, incarceration or living in a second home.
Sometimes dwellers simply vanish, and I’m the first person to see what they left behind — wedding photos with faces torn out, a child’s homework or perhaps a family pet, not always still alive.
I’ve seen floors splattered with blood and walls peppered with holes from bullets and arrows. At times, a plastic container filled with ashes sits on the mantel. Half-eaten meals on the table, a cigarette lighter by the bed, a calendar with dates circled for engagements that will never be kept. Receipts for one-way tickets out of the country, summons notices, credit-counseling literature, names of lawyers and doctors.
I’ve seen it all. But it is the occupied properties that can leave the most lasting impressions. Most borrowers know that this day will come, though they might fear the encounter as an unknown. Sometimes the person I meet at the door is a tenant who had no idea that the landlord had stopped making payments.
Occasionally, the first visit does not go well. At one stop, 50 motorcycles parked on the lawn suggested that we come back another day. Another time, we arrived as a SWAT team was conducting a raid. At a third stop, a dive team searched a lake for the body of a depressed homeowner.
When the doors open, the reactions vary. Some people have anxiously awaited somebody to tell them what might come next. They cringe at every unknown visitor, wondering whether this will be the person who orders them out. Others deny the foreclosure or say they have worked something out with their lender. Some utter hostile warnings to go away “or else.” Others hide and refuse to answer the door. Or they announce that they are calling their lawyer or the police.
In some cases, the lenders will extend a lease to the occupants. They might find themselves with enough time to reassemble the pieces, restore their ownership and carry on. Or the lease might merely postpone an eventual vacancy. In many cases, the eviction proceeds. As papers are filed, waiting periods enforced, hearings scheduled and courts engaged, a tenant might be offered “cash for keys.” In exchange for a timely surrender of the property — usually within a couple of weeks or months — the person is given a check for somewhere between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the lender, the time to vacate and other factors. The house must be in good, clean condition, with the fixtures intact and no acts of revenge evident, such as smashed walls, windows and doors. If the offer is rejected, the eviction continues.
I am frequently the first person to have an in-depth discussion with the occupants. Some will tell me that they didn’t know whom to ask or that they were embarrassed about their predicament and couldn’t bring themselves to approach somebody else. Some will protest the situation. Others express gratitude for money that can be used to hire a mover or cover a security deposit for a new apartment. I am witness to the closing of one chapter of their lives and the first inkings of the next.
They tell me their stories. Death, divorce, accidents. I hear complaints of unfair lenders and unreasonable mortgages. Heart attacks, cancer, strokes — every sort of affliction. Some will catch themselves and apologize for bending my ear, but I will never complain. They thank me for listening — often the only person in the process who has never cut them off or tried to change the subject.
When the time has come to surrender the property, I arrive to inspect. All floors must be swept, the garage emptied and the counters wiped down. To receive the payment, all traces of the day-to-day must be gone, but the long-term memories can never be removed. I see the hand-painted murals on the children’s walls. I see the kids’ growth penciled on them. The marks from the bunk bed are visible in carpet worn threadbare by play. As I go room to room, I have been told where a loved one’s body was found. One woman asked whether it would be all right if she returned after the ground had thawed so she could remove the flowers she had retrieved from her mother’s casket.
Some cry. Some are relieved to escape the bad memories. Some excuse themselves from the room for a few moments. Some talk of their hope that things will improve. More times than I can count, I have held out my hand to receive the keys that once unlocked their dream of homeownership. I watch them put a beloved pet into a carrier for a ride to a shelter. Sometimes they are headed to a shelter themselves.
I watch them drive out of sight before I put up a sign asking another dreamer to consider this house as their future.
I make a final walk through the empty space. I lock the windows. And at the last, I turn out the lights so they don’t have to.
Clawson is a property manager specializing in foreclosed properties. He first wrote about his experiences on Reddit.com.