From Yahoo News, December 2010: A suit was filed in March by Pennsylvania homeowner Angela Lannelli. She was up to date on her payments when, she says, she arrived home in October 2009 to find that Bank of America had ransacked her belongings, cut off her utilities, poured antifreeze down her drains, padlocked her doors, and confiscated Luke, her pet parrot of ten years. It took her six weeks to get the bank to clean up the house.
The collapse of the housing bubble in 2007, and the wave of foreclosures that followed, created a cottage industry known as “property preservation.” The banks, ill-prepared to manage a sudden inventory of thousands of vacant houses and condominiums, soon mobilized a small army of guys driving around in pick-up trucks with a digital camera sitting on the front seat and a lawn mower and a leaf blower in the back. At the bottom rung of a lucrative industry that sprang up overnight, these workers earned around $20 for each “grass cut,” for which a middleman would bill a regional vendor, who would then add more to the bill and invoice the bank for the jobs.
It was a pretty sweet deal all around, even for the guys at the bottom. In Southern California, where I worked, the grass at most properties was usually quite dead, with only a few tufts of green along the sidewalk where runoff had managed to keep it alive. Many people whose houses are repossessed give up on watering the grass — or, for that matter, paying the water bill — long before the sheriff shows up with an eviction notice. In the business’s heyday, there might be as many as 15 vacant houses within a five-mile radius. Working off a route sheet created with Microsoft Streets & Trips, the game plan was to drive the shortest distance between properties, jump out and take “before” pictures, run the weed wacker, blow the sidewalks, then take “after” pictures and jump back in the truck to hustle on to the next house. In the evening, the photos were sent to the bank via email.
In California foreclosure process, when a person falls behind on a mortgage payment, they are subjected to a “non-judicial” legal process, the ultimate intent being to evict them from the house so that the bank can sell it to a new owner.
It starts with a notice of default, then escalates to a notice of trustee’s sale, where the property and its accompanying debt is offered up on the courthouse steps. If no one steps forward to buy the note, the property becomes “bank owned.” Sometimes, the bank offers “cash for keys” to the former owner, a bribe to get them to walk away peacefully and turn over the property in clean condition. Sometimes, it takes an eviction notice, a couple of sheriffs, and a locksmith. Sometimes, people just pack up and walk away on their own; other times, they trash the place before they move out, stripping it of all appliances, light fixtures, light bulbs, and, occasionally, the toilets. One way or another, they all have to go, leaving these properties vacant and in various states of disrepair.
That’s when the “trash-out” guys come in. As soon as the property is empty, they arrive with a crew, change the locks, and haul off all the trash and debris left behind — everything, down to the door mats and the potted plants and the Tupperware lids in the back corner of the kitchen cabinets. This process is euphemistically known as “initial services.” After initial services are completed, the grass needs to be cut twice a month. I started out in the property-preservation business doing grass cuts. Eventually, I ended up doing trash-outs, as well.
At the time, I was hauling as a second career. I had dropped out of the high-pay, high-stress white-collar workforce, and was hauling off trash for people clearing out the garage or for move-outs or backyard clean-ups, that sort of thing. One day, I picked up a last-minute job for a bank-owned duplex in Lakeside. I worked for a guy who was a middleman; he worked for another guy who had a contract with a major bank to take care of vacant bank-owned properties throughout San Diego County. A deadline had been missed, and a pile of dead wood and palm fronds needed to be removed from the duplex’s backyard, ASAP, so that it could close escrow. He hired me to take care of it.
When the job was completed, we met at a Denny’s in El Cajon, and he cut me a check for $400. A week later he called with a proposition. The main contractor had tasked him with all their grass cuts in San Diego County. At the time, the bank we were working for had about 400 vacant properties, from Oceanside to the border, and out east to Jacumba. I was invited to meet to go over the scope of the work and join up with a team assembled to carry out this monumental task. I drove to where the guy lived and met with him and a blonde surfer dude also hoping to make some fast money.
In addition to the biweekly grass cuts, the properties needed a monthly “maid refresh.” Each service paid a flat $20: $20 for the grass cut, $20 for the maid refresh. We would be self-employed subcontractors, with no benefits, no overtime, no workers’ compensation. The bank didn’t even know who was doing the work. All that was required was that we be legal citizens, have the wherewithal to upload digital images through a high-speed internet connection, and a willingness to work for a couple of months before getting paid. That, of course, eliminated the majority of the indigenous landscaping workforce in San Diego, which is how guys like me, with no experience, aside from occasionally mowing our own lawns, got into the business of mowing lawns for the banks.
The goal was to complete ten jobs a day, ten days in a row. It sounded too good to be true: driving around, weed wacking and picking up old newspapers and tidying up vacant houses, garnering around $400 per day — yeah, you read that right. The only catch was that we wouldn’t be paid until the pictures and invoices were sent to the bank and they’d paid the main contractor and he’d paid the guy I was working for. But, the guy said, “I guarantee you will get paid.” Here, I thought, was an opportunity to get out of the lousy cash junk-hauling gig I’d been scraping by on for the last couple of years. I joined the team.