>>This item is part of the May 2010 cover story Tales From the Boom and Bust. To read an excerpt from the article, click here. To read the complete account of the rise and fall of the housing market in Washington, pick up a copy of the magazine, now on newsstands.
Call them scavengers of the housing bubble. As more homes have gone into foreclosure, those in the business of cleaning up vacated properties have done well.
“Does the undertaker feel guilty about burying a dead body?” says Otis Banks, owner of the O-Team, a service that cleans foreclosed houses in Maryland and DC. “It’s nothing personal.”
Businesses such as the O-Team are hired by banks. The cleaners accompany a sheriff’s deputy, who either evicts the homeowners or ensures that they’ve already moved out. Then the team starts purging abandoned belongings and, often, repairing the house.
It’s not a job for the weak. During an eviction in College Park, the owner shot at the sheriff’s deputy accompanying Banks. He was unharmed, but the sheriff’s deputy was wounded.
Banks once found a dead body in a home in Carroll County. In Charles County, he has run into bears roaming vacant rooms. He used to find a lot of drug paraphernalia, but now he sees “a lot of new stuff that hasn’t been opened—like they just took the credit card out and ran up the bill.”
Steve Whetzel founded his Warrenton company, KNK Home Preservation, after leaving the construction business in 2005. The firm has grown fast; it did 500 evictions last year in Maryland, Virginia, DC, and North Carolina.
“At my church, people who are losing their homes ask me how we do what we do,” Whetzel says. At one house in Baltimore last year, a stay-at-home dad tried to kill himself with sleeping pills on eviction day. His children were home, and he hadn’t told his wife that the mortgage hadn’t been paid. “Allegedly, he gambled,” he says. “That was tough.”
But Whetzel also recalls a Stafford couple who had bought sports cars, a boat, and expensive clothes by taking equity out of their home: “They told us they used the house to get the lifestyle they wanted and they were just going to file for bankruptcy and start over.”
He notes that his service helps keep neighboring property values from falling. The company maintains houses until banks can resell them and fixes up properties damaged by angry former owners.
In a high-end community in Gainesville, one evicted homeowner plugged the drains in the master bath, turned on the water, and left. Says Whetzel: “When the deputy and I opened the door, the ceiling had collapsed, water was running down the stairs, and there was seven feet of water in the basement.”
In another house, he found holes the size of dinner plates in the walls as well as shattered tiles, tubs, toilets, and sinks. He wasn’t sure what had caused the damage until he found a bowling ball covered in drywall.
Whetzel works in all kinds of neighborhoods—about six months ago, his company reclaimed a house in Great Falls, down the street from Redskin Clinton Portis—but business has been especially brisk in eastern Prince William County. On certain streets, KNK has done 15 to 20 homes.
“I didn’t think this business would last more than two or three years,” Whetzel says. “But we’re starting our fifth year and we’re continuing to get busier and busier.”