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Cleaning Foreclosures Michigan business booms

 

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Michigan's slumping economy has waylaid most industries. But it's boom time for the field mortgage service business.

David Coates, Louis Aguilar , Madalyn Ruggiero / found at The Detroit News Monday, March 20, 2006

It's gray and damp on a recent morning as Michael Malone eases his black Ford pickup down a Highland Park street with partner Charles Farmer riding shotgun.

Charles Farmer's job involves checking out foreclosed homes and securing them for lenders, a growing business in an ailing economy.

They find a house they've been told is empty. Stashed behind their seats are bags of tools that can be used to break into a locked home.

foreclosures michiganMichael Malone sticks his arm through a broken window to unlock the back door of a foreclosed home so he and Charles Farmer can get in. 

Farmer heads to the front door, Malone to the back. No answer to their knock. Malone reaches through a broken window to unlock the back door. When it won't open, they give up and return to the front. "Here we go," Farmer says.

Using a drill, needle-nose pliers and a wrench, they rip off the door handle. Once inside the house, the ripe odor of cat litter greets them. Piles of clothes are strewn all over the floor. The kitchen light is on.

michigan cleaning housesPat Zink of Royal Oak, a foreman for Property Maintenance Inc., inspects a foreclosed Fannie Mae house in Walled Lake. Metro Detroit has one of the nation's highest number of foreclosures. 

"The bank sent us," Farmer shouts.

Call it Repo Man: Home Edition. Malone and Farmer are field mortgage service agents. It's their job to secure foreclosed homes for lenders after the homeowner has been evicted while the bank tries to resell the house.

Michigan's slumping economy has waylaid most industries. But it's boom time for the field mortgage service business.

Calls to most Metro Detroit firms result in a voice message saying someone will try to get back to you in five business days.

The crush is not hard to explain. Home foreclosures are soaring throughout Metro Detroit and Michigan amid high unemployment, overtime cutbacks and budget-busting bills for everything from gasoline to groceries. Wayne County ended January with more than 3,300 homes in active foreclosure -- the highest of any county in the nation, according to statistics compiled by Foreclosure.com of Boca Raton, Fla.

In Oakland and Macomb counties, and across the state, active foreclosures have doubled in the past two years.

In a sign of the broad reach of economic hardship in Metro Detroit, Farmer and Malone are more and more frequently assigned cases in upscale neighborhoods.

"We've been to $3 million homes in Bloomfield Hills," Malone says. "We've been to homes by the lakes. We've been to houses in new developments where new homes are still being built on the same street. It is crazy how busy we are."

Foreclosures Michigan boost company

foreclosure

Deanna Simmons, owner of Property Maintenance Inc., and employee Michael Malone view a foreclosed property in Detroit. Since Simmons started her firm, business has doubled each year. 

Malone and Farmer work for Property Maintenance Inc., which was launched three years ago by Deanna Simmons, who seized on the opportunity after working at a real estate office where lenders were always looking for someone to secure empty homes.

The energetic mother of a 3-year-old son runs the business out of her Ferndale home. "Each year my work has doubled," says Simmons, who sits on the board of the National Association of Mortgage Field Services.

She began with five workers and now has 17, all but one of them field service agents like Malone and Farmer. Simmons recently won a contract with Fannie Mae and another bank. She is looking to hire 10 more field service agents and expects her business to triple this year.

Each weekday about 9 a.m., Simmons' field agents, dressed in street clothes, arrive at her home and gather in the living room and dining room, amid her son's toys, to wait for their assignments. She can get more than two dozen cases daily via e-mail and fax, each one representing a broken dream.

Like all the agents, Malone and Farmer typically handle between five and seven assignments daily. There are two types of cases. One is preservation, in which the home needs to be maintained while the lender prepares to sell it. That means winterizing the pipes with antifreeze so they don't burst when it's cold, and yard work during warm weather. The second is inspection cases, such as the Highland Park house, where Malone and Farmer need to determine if the home is actually empty and document any damage.

Scoping out the home is key

In Highland Park that morning, it was clear someone had recently stayed in the home. The electric meter had been illegally hooked up. Upstairs, there were heaters, and a pile of clothes was arranged into a makeshift bed. In the kitchen, empty beer and liquor bottles cluttered the counters. A photo of a smiling woman at a work cubicle adorned the refrigerator.

Agents must be ready for the unexpected. Malone and Farmer look like they can handle whatever comes their way. Malone is 27, has broad shoulders and a goatee and walks with a swagger. Farmer stands 6 feet tall, wears an earring and boasts an athletic build that belies his 57 years.

They find someone in a home at least once a week. But their ability to remain cool under pressure, along with street smarts, helps them defuse dicey situations. They said have never had a physical confrontation with a squatter, nor has any field agent at Property Maintenance.

"You try to trick them with words," Farmer says about encountering a squatter. "You keep saying the words, 'the bank' and get on the cell and call Deanna and make sure they hear you say the word 'police.' As soon as you say 'bank,' though, most people change their tune."

Risks lurk everywhere

More than people, Malone and Farmer fear dogs. In tougher neighborhoods, the empty homes are sometimes used as sites for illegal dog fights. They recently found a dead pit bull in a Detroit living room.

Simmons won't force her agents to go into a situation if they feel uncomfortable. She arrived at the Highland Park home as Malone and Farmer were putting a new lock on the front door. She had noticed the address of their next assignment in Detroit and wanted to check it out before they went. A block away from the house, she saw something she didn't like.

"I saw a guy run out of a house to a waiting car," Simmons tells Malone and Farmer. "The guy in the car handed him something and the guy ran back in the house and came right back and ran to the car again and handed the guy something. So, I'm thinking, it's up to you guys."

Farmer listens calmly.

"If we go, we should go there now," he says. "Besides," Malone chimes in, "it's the next block. We should be OK. Let's check it out."

Firm profits from losses

Nobody was in the Detroit house, which was gutted by fire. The city demanded the home be secured because it's a safety hazard. Farmer and Malone measure the windows and plan to come back the next day to board up the house.

The two men realize their business is thriving because others can't pay their bills. Some people might feel guilty about profiting from somebody else's troubles. But Farmer waxes philosophical when explaining their role in life's economic ebb and flow.

"It's like that Clint Eastwood movie, 'Two Mules for Sister Sara,' " he says. "You know, where Clint teams up with a nun. At one point, they're riding along and they come across a dead body. The nun gets all upset because the dead man is just lying there, and his body will get eaten by vultures. And Clint says, 'Even the vultures got to eat, Sister.'

"That's what I'm saying, everybody has got to eat. We're just cleaning up after a bad situation so that life and business can go on. It's just the normal cycle of things."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 

 
 

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