ICS Magazine

Profits from loss

March 30, 2009

MURRIETA, Calif. – March 28, 2009 (N.Y. Times News Service) -- At 6:30 on a Wednesday morning in February, James Brewer backed a pickup truck with a trailer into the driveway of a one-story beige house in a new subdivision, called Murrieta Oaks, and looked down at the day's first work order.

"It's 10 cubic yards interior, 5 exterior," he told his three-man crew as they climbed out of the truck and pulled on canvas gloves. Within a minute, the four men had fanned out across the property.

Brewer walked from one mostly empty room to the next -- the open kitchen equipped with new appliances, the living room with its working fireplace, the walk-in closet off the master suite -- snapping "before" pictures for the bank that had recently taken possession of the house. Andrew Fisher and Mike Zurn followed close behind, sweeping telephone books, paper scraps and other random junk into plastic garbage bins.

"Hey, dude, hold off on that," Brewer said to Fisher, who stood beside a wooden desk with built-in shelving in one of the bedrooms. "I'm going to call my wife and see if she wants it."

Outside, George Bernal tidied the backyard with a weed trimmer, a job made easier by the large patches of bare earth. He worked his way around a Christmas tree lying on its side, a clue to how recently people had lived here.

Just over an hour after they had arrived, they were done: the yard was clean, the house cleared, the "after" pictures taken. The men, members of a "trash out" crew charged with hauling away what's left in foreclosed houses, had removed any sign of a home life from this one in Murrieta Oaks.

Brewer and his colleagues work for WSR Sales and Management, a real estate company based in nearby Riverside that has been around for 27 years, but has lately reinvented itself as a specialist in "home preservation" -- the process of cleaning, securing and maintaining foreclosed properties for banks that begins with the process referred to as trashing out.

Companies like WSR have been starting up (or similarly retooling) across the country in the past year, particularly in the Southwest and Florida, where the mortgage crisis has done heavy damage. In these places, such companies are finding themselves "off-the-chart busy," as John Plocher, WSR's president, put it.

In the three years since the mortgage crisis began in the Riverside area, the company has expanded its preservation unit from two people to 60, and Plocher now oversees five trash-out crews that work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, along with another 23 crews that perform regular landscaping and maid services for roughly a thousand houses that have already been cleaned out and put on the market.

Even in a state where more than 80,000 homes were in foreclosure proceedings in February, Riverside County and other parts of the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles have been hit exceptionally hard. Also in February, John Husing, an economist whose company, Economics and Politics Inc., issues regular reports on the area's economy, told a building industry group that roughly a third of the nearly 360,000 homes sold in the Inland Empire between 2004 and 2007 have been served with notices of default. For WSR, statistics like this have translated to between 75 and 100 trash-outs a week, with more orders coming in every day from the banks.

"It's been a boon and a blessing," Plocher said. "Have I bought a beach house and a Learjet? No. But I've been able to maintain a reasonable standard of living for my employees," who now number about 120, up from about 65 three years ago. "I'd say we'll be doing this steadily for the next two or three years," he added, sounding confident.

After the Murrieta Oaks job, Brewer drove alone to another house nearby to do an "initial" -- the first viewing of a home to evaluate its condition. At 32, he has been doing trash-outs for just a couple of years (before that he was in the Army), but he is already a seasoned assessor.

The initial assessments always involve a disconcerting element of surprise: Workers have stumbled on vagrants sleeping on floors, pets left to fend for themselves, and scenes of interrupted life so fresh that they wondered if a resident might return at any minute. Once, on an initial visit near Palm Springs, Brewer found himself in a fully furnished home where the answering machine was blinking. His first thought, he said, was, "I just broke into someone's house."

The overriding concern in an initial assessment is the question of how much stuff will be waiting on the other side of the door. People about to be forcibly parted from their homes often lack the presence of mind, or the money, for a considered move (even when a foreclosure has been drawn out for months), and end up leaving a lot behind: furniture, piles of clothing, family photographs.

Those who are more on top of their situations are generally headed to smaller quarters, and may not have room for many of their possessions. Brewer's crew recently worked on a house where they found, among other things, a piano, a Donkey Kong Jr. arcade machine and makeshift plywood animal stalls -- a bizarre tableau that barely raised their eyebrows.

"Dude, I once trashed out a home that was 235 cubic yards," Fisher had said earlier that day. In the trash-out world, homes aren't thought of in terms of architectural style or number of bedrooms, but of the volume of stuff that must be carted to a landfill; anything over 35 cubic yards is considered a big job.

Brewer pulled his truck into the driveway of a faded two-story stucco home with palm trees in the front yard. He peered through the windshield and let out a sigh. "Lots of doors," he said, a reference to the fact that he is required to change the locks at each home to secure the property.

He got out and circled around to the back, looking for a way in (because foreclosing banks typically don't have the keys to a house, trash-out workers don't, either). The house abutted a golf course, and two men were playing through, seemingly oblivious to the fact that someone was trying to break into the house 30 yards in front of them. Brewer found an unlocked window, lifted it and removed the Venetian blinds with a yank.

"Oh! I want that chair," he said, peering through the window at a leather recliner in the living room. Although banks are required to make an effort to reunite departed homeowners with property thought to be valuable, the definition of valuable is loose, and these efforts, when they are made, often hit a dead end after a few weeks.

So the spoils may end up going to the worker who found them, and when trash-out crews enter a house, there's a barely contained rush through the door, as if they are contestants on a shopping-spree game show. WSR workers have made off with big-screen TVs and couches. One uncovered a rare- coin collection in a tool shed. Whoever conducts the initial, of course, gets the lay of the land first.

Brewer squeezed through the window and unlocked the door. Inspecting the recliner, he was disappointed to discover that its seat was stained and its back ripped.

This house was older and less well-cared-for, especially in its recent past, than the one in Murrieta Oaks. An upstairs bathroom mirror was shattered, and the dining room carpeting had been stained with bleach. Owners of foreclosed homes sometimes take out their frustration on the property, damaging surfaces, writing graffiti on walls, leaving bathroom faucets on to overflow.

Brewer took pictures of the clutter scattered throughout the house and garage: clothes; a stack of DVDs; an upended mattress and box spring; an unopened can of Cal-Maid grapefruit juice on the kitchen counter; a rotting bag of trash that had, he estimated with an expert's nose, been sitting out for two months; a glass lamp shaped like a head.

Certain items in particular seemed to invite a kind of foreclosure anthropology. Buried in a drawer was a "debit card" from Pechanga Resort & Casino, the casino in nearby Temecula. Cigarette butts littered a hallway carpet. A teddy bear lay on the floor in one bedroom, a pair of boy's briefs in another.

Spending time in the house encouraged thoughts about what had become of the family who had lived there -- which is perhaps why Brewer worked so feverishly to note the estimated cubic feet of debris, replace the locks and get back to his crew.

"I used to think, somebody was living here last week -- they were probably stressing out," Brewer said of his early days on the job. "I'd think, what if I was kicked out of my home?" He has since developed a workmanlike focus on the task at hand, blocking out thoughts of the human suffering that accompanies foreclosure. "I don't want to feel guilty about my job," he said.

During the housing boom, Riverside County saw explosive growth, as hundreds of developments like Murrieta Oaks sprouted from the desert floor. Brewer, who grew up in Murrieta, said that when he returned in 2002 after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, there had been so much building, he didn't recognize the road from the airport.

Now, the streetscape of the county is so pocked with foreclosures that WSR workers frequently drive past homes they have trashed out on their way to other jobs. "Chara Avenue!" Fisher shouted from the back seat of the truck that afternoon, recognizing a street sign. "That's where the house was with the dead peacock in the yard."

Animal stories are an entire subset of trash-out folklore: live fish found in bathtubs, a family of possums hiding in a woodpile. (When workers find an abandoned dog, they don't wait to learn the outcome; they mark "Occupied by Dog" on the work order, call animal control and move on.)

Overpowering smells are another peril of the job. "There's definitely a foreclosure smell," said Brewer, explaining that it's a stale, frequently sour odor often traceable to the kitchen. "I've learned that if the power is off in a home and there's a refrigerator, don't stand in front of it," he said. "Not only will the stench knock you out, but 3,000 gnats might fly out."

He continually braces himself, he added grimly, against the possibility that the "foreclosure stench could turn into a death stench."

Trash-out workers resemble crime-scene cleaners in their studied detachment and black humor, and the jobs are not dissimilar. Some foreclosed homes have a palpable feeling of trauma.

"Do you remember that place in Barstow?" Zurn asked Brewer.

Brewer said: "Yeah. The pipes had been completely ripped out."

Zurn said, "Neither one of us wanted to go down the basement steps."

Brewer said: "It had an eerie, someone-is-still-here vibe. In some of these homes, it feels like the foreclosure ghosts -- the disgruntled people who were forced to leave."

After lunch, Brewer drove a few miles east to San Jacinto, a desert community on the southeastern edge of the county, made sleepier by the rash of foreclosures. Entering a neighborhood of older homes built in the 1970s ("older" is a relative term here), he stopped in front of the kind of modest low-maintenance house popular with downsizing retirees. An empty Seagram's 7 bottle lay in the kitchen sink, and a pantry shelf held military food rations and a candy-filled Easter basket.

Zurn set several unopened boxes of Jell-O flan aside for himself. A soft-spoken man who grew up in Utah, he has seen all sides of the foreclosure crisis, first as an assistant escrow officer for a mortgage lender in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 2006, then as a real estate agent in Utah two years ago, and now as a trash-out worker. He said he is still surprised at the assortment of items he comes across, and disturbed by the waste. "These people have plenty of time to move stuff out," he said.

He likened departing homeowners to runners in a marathon who fall and never get back up to finish. "Their credit is bad, their home is lost, the money they put into it is gone," he said. "They leave it and walk away."

The San Jacinto home was meant to be the last of the day, but Brewer decided to swing by a house in an another foreclosure-ravaged community, Moreno Valley, where another WSR crew was working on a large job.

"I think I did the initial on this place," Brewer said. "If it's the house I'm thinking of, it's a total mess."

The phrase was a woefully inadequate description. The house, a sad-looking one-story on a corner lot overlooking a busy street, looked as if it had been torn apart by wolves who were also graffiti-writing meth addicts.

When Brewer pulled up, the leader of the other crew, Tyler Hatch, was standing knee-deep in household detritus in the garage, a besieged expression on his face. Workers around him were shoveling the deserted belongings into a trailer.

The house's interior was a jumble of clothes, broken furniture and dirty dishes, and the major appliances -- stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer -- had left scars and discolored patches when they were pulled from the walls and carted away. A fossilized whole roast chicken sat on a kitchen shelf.

Brewer's crew pitched in, and in a few hours the men restored the home to some semblance of order. A neighbor stood in his driveway and watched with what looked like only mild interest.

He explained to Brewer that after the house was abandoned several months ago, squatters broke in and trashed the place. At another time or in another part of the country, the account would have been startling, and the vandalized house would have been a disturbing sight.

But for Brewer and his crew, it was just the last trash-out of the day.