Some sobering numbers, if you weren't sober enough already: U.S. banks foreclosed on 95,364 properties in August, the highest monthly total in the five-year history of RealtyTrac's Foreclosure Market Report. That's close to the total number of houses that banks took from delinquent borrowers in all 12 months of 2005.
The California-based data-tracking company said there were foreclosure filings of some form — default notices, auctions or bank repossessions — on one in every 381 housing units in the U.S. (In Maryland, the ratio was one in every 480 units, with the highest rate of foreclosure in Prince George's County.)
This pileup is a serious concern for anyone who owns a home and cares about property values, particularly if you live near an empty house. But while the numbers are still startling, RealtyTrac's CEO seems to think banks are carefully managing the disposal of foreclosed properties. "On the front end," said James J. Saccacio, "seriously delinquent loans are rolling into foreclosure at an unusually slow rate, while on the back end, the dammed-up inventory of properties already in foreclosure is moving in a steady stream rather than a flood — presumably to prevent further erosion of home prices."
I guess we'll see how this shakes out. A lot depends on the patience of banks and how they deal with the huge number of foreclosed homes in their stockpiles. A financial researcher told The Wall Street Journal last week that if traditional house sales don't pick up, distressed sales could account for half of the market by the end of the year. That's an amazing and scary prospect.
Meanwhile, David Lidz goes about the business of taking care of the homes the banks need to sell. He's by now an experienced hand at "trashing out," slang for emptying homes of contents left by their previous owners, maintaining them as foreclosure plays out and preparing them for sale. In the trade, it's officially known as "property preservation," or "mortgage field services," and the mission is to get distressed homes in "conveyance condition."
Mr. Lidz, a former lobbyist and recovering alcoholic, got into trashing out for a few years and stepped away from it to dabble in Maryland real estate. But amid recession, he quickly realized there was more opportunity — both financial and psychological — in cleaning up after foreclosures, so he returned to that trade earlier this year. His company, based in Hagerstown, is called Appalachian Field Services.
"I bottomed out pretty hard in July of 2002, sleeping in the woods or in my van — alcohol poisoning, DT's, really awful stuff, really awful," he says. "But, it was at my sister's wedding where I bottomed out, for real. There's video. A couple of days later my family lovingly shipped me off to a fantastic rehab in Annapolis called Pathways. I feel pretty blessed to be among the tiny percentage of alcoholics and addicts for whom recovery sticks. I've got eight years now."
Mr. Lidz feels a strong connection between his ongoing recovery and what he does for a living.
"It's a bit hard to articulate," he says, "but if you can imagine what it's like to be reborn, lifted up out of total physical, mental, spiritual wreckage, if you can imagine what that feels like … and then imagine going into these abandoned homes, homes which have hit bottom.
"Plainly put, I really felt connected to these homes. I felt, just as I had been given a new beginning, if I could make it my work to work with these abandoned homes, I'd be the one who helped these homes find their bottom, and help start them on a path toward recovery."
Once a bank repossesses a house, Mr. Lidz shows up with a clipboard bearing a work order to secure the property. "I find a way to gain entry," he says, "and then I change locks, board windows, cut the grass, remove debris, winterize the plumbing, inspect, write a report, take photographs. I've done maybe a thousand of those by now.
"Like in any industry, I suppose, there are seedy players on all sides. The banks, the national servicers, unscrupulous or incompetent contractors. … But there are also quite a few of us who do take the concept of 'property preservation' very seriously.
"For me, that means not only doing everything I can to stop the deterioration of the real property we've been assigned but also being respectful of the former occupants and the neighborhoods."
Paul Reyes, a Goucher College graduate, writes superbly in a new book, "Exiles in Eden," about trashing out in Florida and feeling that odd connection to the strangers who once lived in the foreclosed homes.
Mr. Lidz says he enters homes in Baltimore and throughout Maryland "looking for the story in the house, feeling the energy, honoring the sacred belongings — Bibles, photos, teddy bears — and trying to feel the shift in energy from the sadness of the dispossession, to the new beginning leading to the day when once again this distressed home will be just that, a home."
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.