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Foreclosures bring trash, abandoned items

EUGENE — Foreclosure in Lane County — as everywhere — has become a mess, and that's a literal mess and not a euphemism for sloppy or illegal paperwork.

A foreclosed Hawkins Heights property owner, for example, cut a hole in his kitchen wall so he could take his jacuzzi bathtub with him as he left.

Other homeowners have smashed in the walls with golf clubs or covered the walls with obscenities.

Many foreclosed homeowners stop paying garbage bills before they're forced out, and so they leave dump truck loads of trash and abandoned possessions in their wake.

And pets, too, sometimes.

"I've learned to tie garbage bags around my feet," said Brian Schartz, a Lane County real estate agent who reports on the condition of houses to the out-of-town banks that have repossessed them. He works for John L. Scott Real Estate in Eugene.

His No. 1 rule: Never open a refrigerator.

Since 2007, when the national housing crisis caught up with Lane County and foreclosures surged, a cadre of professionals has emerged to clean, fix, market and sell repossessed houses on behalf of banks.

"It's a whole system in real estate culture that people really don't know exists," said Justin Thayer, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty. "There's only a few of us who do it. It's hard to get into but I was able to break in with a little bit of luck and a little bit of hard work."

These professionals — numbering several dozen locally — have had more than 800 foreclosures to deal with over the past year, according to RealtyTrac, a national database of homes to be foreclosed or auctioned. And that's not counting cases where the owner signs over the house to the bank in lieu of foreclosure.

There was a lull in foreclosures in November and December because some banks were straightening out their paperwork and others chose a holiday moratorium, but the foreclosure rate is unlikely to drop much in the coming year.

"We're now seeing a lot of unemployed who were getting unemployment benefits," said broker Lynn Hunter of Century 21 Westover Realty, which processes 85 to 90 foreclosures at any given time. "Those people are starting to drop off with the unemployment (benefits) that had been the saving grace that allowed them to keep their homes. With the unemployment benefits going away, we're going to see a whole slew more come through."

"A lot of them, you have to wear masks inside," Hunter said. "They're filthy dirty. We're plugging our nose. We're covering our faces. You run in and do your work-up and get out."

In some foreclosures, when it's not too late and homeowners are still in the houses at the time of the foreclosure sales, the real estate agents, on behalf of the banks, try to negotiate a cash-for-keys exchange.

The repossessing bank or other lender — Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo — will give the departing homeowner from $1,000 to $3,000 to leave without an eviction lawsuit, and to leave the place swept clean.

This appears to be a popular alternative in Lane County because evictions have declined slightly compared with the increase in foreclosures over the past three years.

About 2,000 eviction lawsuits are filed annually in Lane County, according to an analysis by Carmen Phillips, a Lane County Circuit Court deputy.

Cash for keys offers a good outcome, said Brian Smith, asset management officer for Gorilla Capital, a Eugene-based company that buys and sells foreclosed property.

"We get a property that's fairly clean. We don't have to trash it out and we don't have to go through the eviction process. It works pretty well for both parties."

After repossession, real estate specialists do the initial inspection, then call in "asset preservation contractors" who are paid by the banks to restore the houses.

They haul out the trash, kill the vermin — sometimes chase away squatters — scrub, mop and sweep, paint, recarpet, replace appliances and light fixtures and repair any damage, such as the rough-cut kitchen entrance at Hawkins Heights.

Out-of-town contractors such as Field Asset Services of Austin, Texas; Safeguard Properties of Ohio; or Oregon Property Preservation out of Portland are at work in Lane County.

But so are local entrepreneurs such as John Sepulveda, CEO of Springfield-based Mill Creek Contractors.

Sepulveda's company is hired to clean up fast, usually within a three-to-four-day window, he said.

"We've had jobs where we've had to fill four or five 30-yard Dumpsters and spend a week," he said.

Sepulveda is the guy who has to open the refrigerator to see if it can be salvaged.

"There's been more than one occasion where it's been easier to just get rid of the refrigerator because of the severity of how bad it is — such as completely filled with maggots and rotting meat," he said.

When Sepulveda arrives home at night, his wife sends him straight to the shower.

In the four years since Sepulveda started in this "trash out" business, as it's called, he's had some disturbing encounters.

"All signs pointed to nobody lives there," he said of one house. "There was no water. The electric company had physically removed the meter. All the toilets were completely full of feces. The house was pretty much trashed.

"A lady came up and was very irate: How dare you come into my house?' We just left. That's the Realtor's problem and the bank's problem. Not mine."

Some foreclosed houses make him nothing but sad.

"You come into a house and you see that there's kids' rooms. I have children myself and I can't imagine having to tell my kids that we have to move.

"We come across wedding albums and newborn baby books — things that my wife and I, we don't leave behind. It's really hard sometimes to imagine what these people have to go through to try and make a life for themselves. ... It's a mess, but it's a job, and right now I just thank God that I have one."

The real estate agents and Sepulveda encounter the evidence of unleashed fury toward banks, such as holes in the walls and ripped-out fixtures — especially in cases where the homeowner had thought they'd gotten a mortgage modification so that they could stay.

"These owners think their loans have gone through and everything's fine and the next thing they know we're knocking on their doors offering cash for keys," Hunter said. "They believe they've taken care of their problem and that they're being responsible. The last thing they want is to lose their home."

In some cases, departing homeowners "do everything they can to stick it to the man,'?" Sepulveda said.

"We've had people remove their granite counter tops, their sinks, they take the appliances, light fixtures, water heaters," he said.

A spectacular case was the 3,200-square-foot house on Hawkins Heights that had sold for more than a half-million dollars before the housing crisis.

Recently, the departing property owner took the kitchen's cabinets, counters, sinks and appliances.

"They left the travertine tiles on the floors, but they took out everything else. You had a naked kitchen. There was nothing in there," said Steve Wickham, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, who eventually sold the house.

"There were high-end carpets in there and they cut the carpets out. They took out the furnace. They took out the heat pump. They cut a door to get these things out of the house. ... There's a lot of anger in this."

Neighbors in the Lynnbrook area of Santa Clara, meanwhile, are disturbed by a neighbor who painted a leering clown on his garage door before he left.

In an increasing number of foreclosure cases, the mess spills outside of the house and becomes a problem for the neighborhood and for government code enforcers, whom neighbors increasingly call for help.

The trash blows, the grass grows chest high, rodents and even transient people take up residence.

Depending on the strengths of local ordinances, the status of the property and the level of resources, government officials may or may not be able to help.

First, a government agent has to figure out who owns the place, and with an abandoned, foreclosed property, that can be difficult.

"Have you ever tried to reach a bank in San Francisco or the East Coast? You're just never, ever going to get anyone," said Jane Burgess, Lane County compliance officer.

Even when the law allows her to do nothing else, Springfield code enforcement officer Jackie Murdoch tries to learn the date of the foreclosure auction, so that neighbors know there's hope for a cleanup when a new owner eventually buys the place.

"I don't say this to neighbors because of course I can't," Murdoch said, "but if I lived next door to one, I would go get rid of the garbage and be done with it. Nobody would do anything to you. I don't advise people to do this at all, but a lot of people do that."

Sometimes, neighbors are helpless to do anything.

Springfield resident Nancy Leyson has been watching a house in her neighborhood that was seized by a bank.

In November, she noticed something pink on the roof and realized it was Fiberglas insulation showing from underneath the old shakes.

"Birds or squirrels have chewed through the shakes and the tar paper underneath and into the attic," she said. "We are continuing to see batting pulled out of an enlarging hole."

Some neighbors find themselves dealing with hungry and abandoned pets.

Neighbors or landlords took 261 abandoned dogs and cats to the Greenhill Humane Society last year, up 96 percent from four years ago.

Real estate agents schlep around 20-pound bags of chicken feed for abandoned fowl.

Sepulveda found what he thought was a taxidermy-stuffed alligator in the backyard of a Cottage Grove house.

"We poked it with a stick and it started hissing at us," he said of the live alligator, which he estimated was about 6 feet long. "That was not something I was ready to deal with, so we called the local animal control."

Neighbors on a Marion Lane cul de sac in the River Road area despair over a house in foreclosure that's been empty since November.

They're trying to figure out what to do with four cats that were left behind.

And trash still is piled in the open carport.

"We just want it cleaned up. It's a horrible eyesore," next-door neighbor Carleen Reilly said. "They could probably get five Dumpsters of stuff out of there."

Reilly, who's co-chairwoman of the River Road Community Organization, said the mess is driving down property values.

"Other neighbors had been wanting to sell their house," she said. "They had a Realtor come look at it. The Realtor said That really takes the value of your home down. You'll lose a lot.'

"We're all in agreement that something needs to happen there. We're afraid the bank is going to sit on it for several months — until springtime."

JP Morgan Chase Bank has scheduled a foreclosure sale for the house for Jan. 18.

But that sale may be postponed, according to Northwest Trustee Services, because the bank has placed its foreclosures on an indefinite hold while it conducts an internal audit.