GROVELAND, Fla. – 393 Ed Douglas Road was a hot potato now, not a home — just another ghost property in the resale pipeline with curtainless windows, a yard populated by fire ants and weeds, and the telltale flier taped to the front door: "U.S. Government Property."
Nick Hazel shoved a key in the lock.
"Don't look now, but we got company." Above his head, and along the eaves, dangled nests in plump, grapelike clusters. "Hornets," he muttered, then with a forced grin, "I looooove hornets."
The door opened with a yawn. There was a bare foyer and beyond it a living room, cool and hollow, with the restful atmosphere of a funeral chapel and something of the same smell.
A queen yellow jacket floated in, nonchalantly, then drifted off into a bedroom.
Hazel leaned his mop against a wall, then walked the joint.
A broken dishwasher. Check. A countertop range stripped of its coils. Check. Fixtureless showers. Seatless toilets. Missing water heater. Check, check, check. Wires dangling from holes gouged in the ceilings — the work of whoever relieved the place of its fans.
"At least these guys left the wiring," he said, with a shrug.
Hazel, 40, is a "property preservationist," which these days makes him a very busy man. With thousands of people defaulting each week on mortgages across central Florida, he's one of growing regiment of people the banks summon to "trash out" — sanitize and seal up — their foreclosure stockpile.
Among other labors, he mows waist-high lawns. He shoos away squatters. He duels wet rot. He boards up shattered windows. He replaces door locks. And, most often, he trucks away refuse so diverse, profuse and amorphous, that sometimes Hazel must squint to distinguish its components.
In short, it's Hazel's job to arrest the decay of a decaying housing market — a profession he likens to another the public views with angst. "It's like I'm a dentist," he says. "Nobody likes to see me. But when a house's teeth go bad, who else is going to clean out the rot?"
His is also a profession with brilliant prospects — in the near future, particularly. In an average week, Hazel inspects roughly 90 structures, secures 20 others, and trashes out between 10 and 20 "REOs" (bank shorthand for "real estate owned"). That's up twofold from a year ago, when he got his start. He's had to employ his wife, son and five other men just to keep up.
"I don't sleep much," he says.
And so, even as the housing and mortgage crisis ravages lenders, homeowners, real-estate agents and construction crews, Hazel finds opportunity in desperate counties awash in abandoned, moldy structures — a paradox not lost on him.
He's the last in line to notice the little things that once made a dwelling special to a family. And, as would be the case at 393 Ed Douglas Road, it's ultimately up to him to trash them.
"You gotta remember," he says, "I'm also the guy who might help the place mean something to somebody else."
Hazel speaks about his profession in a frank, unapologetic tone. "I'm not ashamed of what I do, if that's what you're asking ... Someone's always got to do the bad work, the ugly work. If I don't do this job, somebody else will."
Ever open a utensil drawer in a kitchen and have rats leap out?
Ever crawl around a pitch-black attic, feel a buzzing tremor through the beams, and flash a light on a hornet's nest big as a 55-gallon drum?
Ever enter the backyard of a mansion, stroll over to an Olympic-sized pool and notice somebody floating, face down?
Hazel hasn't yet — though he expects to.
"You hear horror stories from people who do this kind of work," he says. "I've never walked in on any floaters. But this job is pretty much a grab bag; you never know what you'll be walking into in the morning."
Indeed, not much Hazel stumbles upon shocks him anymore. Like the "debris" that some Florida evictees leave behind: sex toys, Christmas toys, silverware, Tupperware, false teeth, hairpieces, condoms, baby strollers, dried blood, dead cats, live Dobermans, aquariums with rattlers in them.
Or, what others take with them: a dining room ceiling, the ceramic floor tiles of a den, a bedroom's wall-to-wall carpet; granite countertops, faucet taps, bath tubs, food-waste disposers, decorative columns, crown moldings, door jams.
Then there are the revelations at the gated-community castles — large, exorbitantly landscaped, with pricey WELCOME mats and 2 1/2-car garages (to accommodate two vehicles and a golf cart) — whose interior walls Hazel finds coated in graffiti.
"You see sprayed lines, words that don't make any sense," Hazel says. "It's not like there are any messages to the banks, or anything. I figure they get mad and this is their way of writing, 'Screw It."'
Certain properties defy his reasoning powers. One afternoon, an employee of Hazel's who'd been sent to inspect a foreclosed on house in Marion County called, and in a bewildered tone said, "Something doesn't look right here."
The yard was weed-free, freshly cut. The home was fully furnished, the mail box empty. A new pair of shoes rested neatly on the back porch. And yet, the doorbell didn't work; the power had been cut. So had the water.
"What do you want me to do?"
Hazel couldn't make heads or tails of it.
"Change the locks."
For weeks, whenever Hazel or his workers turned up, they found the lawn in pristine condition. (They'd mow the grass anyway.) The blinds always remained closed, the place dusted. No boot marks, no foreign odors, not so much as a bread crumb on the counter.
The neighbors, when asked, offered only shrugs.
Who could it be? An immaculate vagrant? The owners returned?
Hazel has his own theory. "There are so many houses going into foreclosure that I think the neighbors are taking it upon themselves to tend to these ghosts. Why don't they admit it? That I couldn't tell you. The world is full of strange people."
Since 2005, new foreclosures have tripled across the nation, to a record 2.25 million in 2008. This year, more are expected; banks filed to reclaim 1.5 million homes from January through June — up 15 percent from a year ago, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure listing service.
In Florida, where flipping houses was once a sport, the collapse has been particularly severe. This year, 1 in every 33 homes in the Sunshine State has received at least one foreclosure filing. (Nationally, the ratio is 1 in 84.) Only Nevada and Arizona were worse off.
When Hazel first got into the trashout business in May 2008, the first wave of foreclosures had already wiped out the flippers, and a second was washing away homeowners with "exploding" loans — mortgages with adjustable-rates that spiked after two years.
At the time, Hazel managed a company that installed cable TV. That job earned him enough to support his wife, Patsy, and two kids, and carry a mortgage of his own. But with service calls and new installs dropping sharply, he began to ask himself: How far would cable TV take him?
"People weren't ordering a lot of cable. Weren't buying cars. Weren't buying squat. What businesses were going to thrive in this economy? Then it dawned on me: I could do foreclosures!"
It didn't hurt that he could make good money — between $250 and $2,000 a cleanout gross — without having to charm people. And if the economy worsened, which in his mind was inevitable, his business would only grow.
The hours are grueling — Hazel doesn't enter his work orders into the computer until 2 a.m. some nights — but at least he sets them.
Sunday to Sunday, Hazel rises before the sun, dons his rattiest jeans, T-shirt and fishing cap, laces his thick-soled Timberlands. ("The boots don't always stop upturned nails — not always, but they help.") Then, he nudges his 19-year-old son, Josh, awake.
After breakfast — coffee, cream and sugar — they strap into Hazel's GMC Sierra, an offroader the color of silver birch, flip on the headlights and GPS, and rumble to the first house on their case sheet. Hazel works nine counties across Florida's midsection.
On a typical day, his dashboard logs some 200 miles. Navigating through rush-hour traffic one muggy afternoon in Kissimmee, he remarks: "This job ain't for those who hate their cars." He crushes a cigarette in a chocked ashtray. "You better like fast food, too."
He likes to start at daybreak. "You don't want to be in a neighborhood too early, where people don't know you," Hazel says.
And some places, he adds, "can be really bad. All it takes is two seconds for your GPS to disappear. Plus, if you have to drill out a door lock or kick down the door, it's best not to do it in the dark."
Again, that's primarily because of the neighbors — not hobos or hookers or junkies looking for a dry stretch of carpet on a cold night.
His son, Josh, explains, "People all come out and sit on their porches and just watch you. One time a kid sat in the same window for two days, just staring at us. It's kind of like a 'Finding Nemo' thing, like you're in a fish bowl."
Success, the Hazels will tell you, derives primarily from two things: preparedness and one's attention to detail.
The Sierra's gun rack takes care of the first. In it, Hazel crams everything other than a firearm, from jumper cables, wires, hammers, mallets, nails, hinges and silicone tubes, to copper piping, wood putty, drills, propane torches, pipe wrenches and miles of red, caution tape.
And Elmer's glue. "You be surprised how much of a house you can hold together with that stuff," he says.
The second quality comes into play during the initial walkthrough. Be it a live wire, copper tubing scavenged from an AC unit, or nails purposefully loosened from a floorboard, "detective eyes," as he calls them, come in handy.
"I haven't been stung by any booby traps yet," he says, "but they're out there. Stuff happens — no matter whether you're in a mansion, a condo or a trailer home, stuff does happen."
By the time the Hazels arrived at 393 Ed Douglas, the house that once anchored a family of four had become a dusty snapshot of life interrupted.
To Hazel's thinking, Dad must have been a Harley-Davidson man, evidenced by the Screamin' Eagle air-cleaner plate left in the garage. Mom probably wasn't passionate about cooking — jars, trays, a crock pot, stainless steel pots and pans fill the cupboards.
In one bedroom, presumably a boy's, a mattress leans against a wall slapped with a first coat of purple paint. On the carpetless slab, a lifeless aquarium. On a closet shelf, a tot's baseball cap.
A second bedroom, its walls adorned with tiny, sky-blue palm prints and the name, "Holly," looks more alive. Scratched into the face plates are the words "Mom Loves Me." There's a clothes chest, and on top, a pair of bronze colored sandals, size 3-M.
In the far corner sits a draftsman's table, a ledger on it.
"You can DO it!" reads the cover. Written in crayon, it's a fourth-grader's tale of how she persuaded her parents to buy her first bicycle, how she falls down repeatedly learning to ride, then falls no more. On the final page, the family goes bike riding together.
"Cute," Josh says.
He tosses the book on heap of left-behind objects: a crock pot, camouflage gloves, a Harley-Davidson chime clock, Hot Wheels cars, fishing poles, a satellite dish, a Mickey Mouse lunchbox, beach chairs, baseball cards, a dog bowl, golf balls, marbles, and pictures of "Holly's birthday party, 7/15/06."
All headed for the dump.
Hazel is leafing through a leather, King James Bible he's found on the playroom floor. There's writing on the first page: "I love you and may every day be a good one. Always ask God if you are in doubt. Love, Mom."
For the first time, Hazel's eyes narrow.
"I guess if anything still surprises me it's that people leave behind mementos, pictures, personal stuff," he says. "I wouldn't leave anything like this. But people do it."
He flicks the Bible in the pile, steps back outside for a smoke, and admires a live oak on the front lawn. Its leaves are brittle, falling. The tree needs a pruning.
"You know, if you think about this stuff all the time, it'll drive you crazy. That's why I don't like doing it. Slows you down." He checks his watch. It's after 2 p.m., and he still has two inspections and two cleanouts waiting, 50 miles away.
So, Hazel marches back inside and becomes all business. Clouds of dust rise. Six vacuum filters are exhausted, as are a half dozen jars of cleaners. As the afternoon wears on, he and his allies, Pine Sol and bleach, gain the upper hand.
By 4:02 p.m., the house is trashed out. Hazel is standing on the driveway, peering into the rear of a Wells Fargo trailer he brings along for large debris.
"Room to spare!" He beams. The trailer was only half full. No need yet to stop at the dump; he'd be able to cram at least one more load into the trailer by day's end.