Tuesday, May 27, 2008

US Housing Crisis: Contractors Are Kept Busy Maintaining Abandoned Homes

May 27, 2008

Contractors Are Kept Busy Maintaining Abandoned Homes

New York Times

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The house on East 24th Street was the worst of the six that David Law and Trey McCallister worked on the other day here. The front door had been kicked in so many times that the dead bolt was exposed and bent. Trash littered the front and back yards. A copper pipe was gone.

“Somebody has been trying to destroy this place,” said Mr. McCallister, eyeing the door.

But the two men have seen far worse as they go from one deserted house to another in northern Florida, where the foreclosure crisis has struck particularly hard.

Mortgage companies hire contractors like these men to inspect and maintain houses that once-proud owners can no longer afford and no one else wants. These days, business is brisk.

These contractors and thousands like them see first hand the detritus of the subprime era: peeling paint, gutted interiors, family dogs left behind to starve, overgrown lawns infested with snakes.

In Florida, the crisis can seem overwhelming at times.

It can take months, even years, for some homes to wind through foreclosure in the backlogged local courts.

The longer a home sits vacant, the more vulnerable it becomes.

After a few months, the Florida weather starts to takes a toll. Mold and mildew creep. Algae chokes forsaken swimming pools. Sometimes vandals strike. And sometimes wiring or plumbing just give out.

The home on East 24th Street has been vacant for several years, said Gloria Roberts, a next-door neighbor.

Another home that Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law visited in the affluent Sawgrass golf community in the oceanside city of Ponte Vedra Beach was last occupied in December 2006, according to a neighbor there.

Local and state governments have become concerned about the upkeep of foreclosed homes, which can drag down real estate values in neighborhoods and provide havens for drug users and gangs. Over the last year, localities have stepped up code enforcement by levying fines on mortgage companies for the degradation of homes they are repossessing.

The problem of vacant homes is all the more striking when considered against predictions by economists that a couple of million more homes will enter foreclosure in the next two years, said Cheryl Lang, president of Integrated Mortgage Solutions, a company based in Houston that contracts with Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law on behalf of mortgage companies.

“We still have two million more people that need to go through this process,” she said. “That’s like the entire town of Tampa going through foreclosure.”

Nearly 3 percent of homes that were once occupied by their owners in the country were vacant in March. That is up from less than 2 percent three years ago and is the highest since the Census Bureau began publishing the number in 1956.

For people like Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law, the surge in foreclosure has been good for business. Tim Doehner, executive director of the National Association of Mortgage Field Services, a trade association based in Ohio, estimates that most of his members have doubled their revenue in the last year. Individual contractors can bill as much as $5,000 every two weeks, said Jimmy Lyons, one of the partners in the firm, Landwise Inspection Services of Lake City, Fla., that Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law work for.

But the rising price of diesel fuel, wood and other supplies cuts sharply into their earnings. Mr. Law said he often spent $140 a day filling his pickup truck, which tows a large trailer that carries a riding lawnmower and other supplies. The contractors cannot easily pass rising costs to lenders because they work under contracts or, in the case of some loans, at rates set by federal agencies.

Still, business is growing and drawing in newcomers.

Mr. Lyons, a former deputy sheriff, entered the home inspection business years ago but branched out into field service work for mortgage companies two years ago when a friend suggested the housing boom would soon give way to a housing bust.

Back then, “I just couldn’t see it,” Mr. Lyons, 56, said. “It fell exactly like he said it would.”

After a quarter century in law enforcement, he still looks and plays the part of the easygoing rural county sheriff and is a reserve officer in Columbia County west of Jacksonville. At one home this month, he scrambled through an open window when the door was bolted while his younger colleagues looked on in amazement.

Mr. Law left a field sales job with the Kellogg Company, the cereal maker, to join Landwise, because he said he was tired of the corporate world. He said taking care of vacant houses could be grueling but also rewarding and allowed him to work by himself, which he said he enjoyed. He often works seven days a week because his employer is often flooded with orders.

“It occupies a lot of my time,” he said and added with a laugh, “I don’t have much of a life outside of this.”

When he arrives at houses, Mr. Law reaches for his digital camera and starts snapping pictures to document his presence and problems that need attention. Mortgage companies require before and after photos to be sent to them electronically before paying for work done to the home.

If it is their first visit to a vacant home, the contractors change the locks on at least one door so the mortgage company can have access. They use locksmith’s tools to gain entry to the house, though on some occasions they use open windows, as Mr. Lyons recently did. The contractors board up broken windows, cut the grass and record significant damage. Depending on the extent of the destruction, mortgage companies will commission the contractors to repair the home.

At the home on 24th Street, Mr. McCallister, 39, who had worked in the timber business until last year, wedged open the back door with pliers and Mr. Law installed a new lock. The interior of the house was mostly empty and musty. The outside was another story. A large tree branch shared the back yard with an empty propane tank, Styrofoam containers and food wrappers.

After surveying the trash and photographing it, Mr. Law and Mr. McCallister concluded they could not cut the grass without cleaning up the yard. They would have to ask the mortgage company whether it wanted them to remove the trash and how much it would pay for the work.

Contractors say the damage at vacant homes can be significant, though it is not always clear who the culprit is. It could be an angry homeowner upset about losing a home, but it also could be vandals and thieves scouring homes for copper plumbing, which they can sell. To limit losses, a few mortgage companies are making offers called “cash for keys” to delinquent borrowers if they leave their homes quickly and in good shape.

Two of the six homes the contractors visited in the Jacksonville area appeared to be pristine. The two also had for-sale signs from real estate agents, suggesting the borrowers were trying to sell but could not find a buyer before they had to leave.

For the contractors, foreclosures can strike close to home. Mr. Law recently inspected a home across the street from his residence and Mr. McCallister was sent to a home formerly occupied by a family whose daughter was friends with one of his three daughters.

“I was fortunate that everyone was gone,” Mr. McCallister said, so he did not have to see his daughter’s friend.

In most cases, the contractors do not interact with the homeowners, but sometimes the contractors are present during evictions that are conducted by county sheriffs. Mr. McCallister recalled the eviction of a 60-year-old man who had misread his eviction notice and thought he had one more week to leave.

“He fell down on the floor and started crying,” Mr. McCallister said. “We gave him 24 hours and he had his stuff moved out and he found another place to live.”

In their work, the contractors come across the everyday debris of human life, from old microwave ovens to couches and a child’s cherry-red tricycle. Sometimes they discover abandoned pets. Mr. Law recently found three kittens that he took to a friend who is an animal lover.

Though homes were found for all three of the kittens, many other pets meet a worse fate. Ms. Lang of Integrated Mortgage Solutions has started a nonprofit group, No Paws Left Behind, to find homes for abandoned pets and to offer help with pets to homeowners in foreclosure. She said contractors working for her company had found abandoned animals from birds to horses.

While business may be good for firms like hers, Ms. Lang said it was difficult not to be disenchanted when the housing bust is seen from the street level, as many of her contractors do. Just a few years ago, policy makers and the mortgage industry were celebrating record home ownership rates in the country — a sign that the American dream was within reach for a large majority of the population.

Speaking on the phone two days after Mr. Law and Mr. McCallister’s visit to the home on 24th Street, she said the home’s condition stuck with her.

“Somewhere along the line someone wrote that property off,” she said. “There were birthdays celebrated there and anniversaries and there were lives that were lived there. And now the door is bolted shut.”

No comments: