Clovis News

Valley firms stay afloat cleaning foreclosures

Bill Johnson and his son, Randy, have seen it all when cleaning out foreclosed houses in the Valley -- animal and human feces, dogs trying to chew their way out of a house, garden hoses dragged inside to use as a source of water.

They were shocked at first, but now nothing surprises the father and son, who are contracted by mortgage lenders and real estate agents to clean up and manage foreclosed properties before they are put up for sale.

"In the beginning, we'd walk into a house and say, 'Oh God, there's no way people lived here,' " Bill Johnson said. "Some houses are so nasty you spend the first few minutes throwing up. Now, it's like we've seen everything."

Cleaning foreclosed properties is neither easy nor fun. But it's keeping cleaning and small contracting businesses like the Johnsons' RB Solutions in Fresno busy during a sluggish economy.

And it's helping the community get rid of vacant and rundown foreclosed properties.

Houses that are empty and clean are sold faster and at a higher price than those that need work.

When foreclosed properties are in bad shape, that can have a broader impact in the housing market. They drag down the value of nearby houses, and they take longer to sell.

They can become eyesores, with overgrown lawns and boarded-up windows, and they can pose a health and safety risk if trash is left behind or backyard pools are neglected.

Fresno and other communities throughout Fresno County have created ordinances to make owners more responsible for maintenance of foreclosed properties. That includes pools, which can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

There are plenty of opportunities for problems to emerge.

Last month, the number of bank-owned properties -- known as "real estate owned" or REOs -- increased to 3,060 in Fresno County, compared to 2,802 in April 2010, according to ForeclosureRadar, which tracks foreclosure activity.

That's where businesses like the Johnsons' come in.

Many banks rely on the real estate agents who sell their REO properties to find licensed contractors or vendors to fix them up, said Travis Takeuchi, real estate agent with Century 21 M&M and Associates in Clovis.

The vendors -- sometimes called property-preservation companies -- inspect houses, change locks, get problems fixed and maintain lawns.

They even perform evictions with the help of a county sheriff and will knock on doors to give homeowners their final notice to move out.

That can be awkward.

"When we first started, it was nerve-wracking," Bill Johnson said.

Most families are understanding, Johnson said. Some of the families who remain in their homes until the end can get up to $5,000 from the banks in a cash for keys program to move out on the condition that they leave their house clean.

Others don't leave on such good terms. Angry owners punch out walls, damage granite countertops or even take out appliances and cabinets. Some leave behind furniture, clothing, beds and food.

"It looks like some people were threatened and they just picked up and completely left," Takeuchi said.

Hung Nguyen of N&H Construction, a remodeling company, has encountered pools with green water that need to be drained, vehicles that need to be towed and doors and walls that were kicked in.

"Some homeowners just don't take care of their houses because when they lose their job, they can't afford to fix what needs to be fixed," Nguyen said.

"Obviously when they lose a house, they don't clean them up. It's really bad."

One sad thing about cleaning up foreclosed properties is finding animals left behind, Nguyen said.

Maintenance companies usually call animal control to remove them.

But Nguyen and his wife have taken in several abandoned dogs themselves.

Nguyen feels especially sad when he sees baby pictures.

"Your pots and pans you can leave behind," Nguyen said, "but your baby pictures you'll never get back."