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Originally published Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Foreclosures mean work for "trash-out'' specialists

Contractors who specialize in cleaning and maintaining the nation's growing inventory of bank-owned properties are finding gold in the rising foreclosure rate. But the work can be hard and unpleasant.

Special to The Seattle Times

December foreclosure rates

King County

870

homes

(1 in every 924 homes) in some stage of the foreclosure process

Snohomish County

301

homes

(1 in every 899)

Pierce County

676

homes

(1 in every 457)

Kitsap County

107

homes

(1 in every 933)

Washington state

2,769

homes

(1 in every 975)

Source:

RealtyTrac

Contractors who specialize in cleaning and maintaining the nation's growing inventory of bank-owned properties are finding gold in the rising foreclosure rate.

They're busy handling so-called "trash-out" projects to prepare these homes to sell for institutions often based far from the homes they've repossessed in foreclosure.

"It's the busiest I've seen it in 25 years," says Tim Rogers, owner of Tim Rogers Construction in Tacoma, which handles trash-out gigs in Pierce County and South King County. "There are so many jobs to deal with, I can hardly keep up."

Rogers charges anywhere from $600 to $1,500 for light landscaping, basic hauling and general cleanup, but some jobs cost upward of $7,000. Some homes are left in good condition, but plenty contain waist-high garbage and junk vehicles in yards.

Rogers has worked in homes where upset owners or tenants have deliberately removed skylights to cause water damage and in homes where kitchens and appliances are missing. Occasionally, graffiti removal is part of the job.

The National Association of Realtors recently reported that more than one-third of all existing homes for sale in America are distressed, meaning they're already in foreclosure or approaching it.

RealtyTrac, a distressed-property research firm, named Washington the 25th most-active state for foreclosures in December. Within Western Washington, Pierce County has the highest rate of foreclosures, followed by King and Snohomish Counties, according to RealtyTrac.

Agents who handle foreclosure listings — often referred to as "REO" (or "real estate-owned") listings — must coordinate with the institutions that own these properties to take care of a laundry-list of special tasks that don't accompany a traditional owner-occupied listing.

Pam VanderLinda, an associate broker at Parkside Realty in Tacoma, has 150 REO listings in King and Pierce counties, and at any given time she awaits $100,000 in reimbursements from various lenders for back bills she's paid to remove liens from the listing and to make it more marketable. Depending on the institution, she may also oversee cleanup by contractors.

"We've got properties going [back to the lender] these days that we've never seen before, like duplexes and fourplexes," says VanderLinda. "I'm here seven days a week and 12 hours a day."

Ronald Jones, owner of S&W General Contracting in Yelm, once specialized in renovating century-old homes. But he saw a market emerging for foreclosure cleanups and about five years ago applied to become an approved contractor for mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two government-backed lenders feed him a steady stream of cleanup projects on foreclosures in Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston, Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

Jones handles about 12 to 20 projects a month.

He deals with the basic components of a one-time foreclosure cleanup and revisits homes every few weeks to check that they are still secured. He'll also do yardwork if needed.

Fannie and Freddie, unlike some institutional homeowners, will pay for some cosmetic repairs, such as carpet replacement and interior and exterior repainting, which is why Jones' jobs can run up to $10,000.

Like Rogers, he's witnessed absent appliances and stolen kitchen cabinets as well as cosmetic issues. At one home, his team learned the previous occupants had bred rats and left those that died in drawers — a removal job requiring hazardous-materials suits.

Dean Hamilton has been moonlighting as a trash-out guy in Tacoma since 2003, picking up jobs he can tackle over weekends or after-hours when he's not working a full-time job in the food-merchandising industry.

While 90 percent of the homes he encounters are straightforward to clean (and cost a lender $1,000 to $1,500), Hamilton, too, has run across difficult homes — particularly those where animals were bred. He's had to dispose of hazardous waste, found compost bins full of concrete chunks, and taken the occasional nonworking boat to the dump.

"This is basic contract labor, doing the cleanup work," he says. "I can have a home done in a weekend."

Still, it's not always easy work: Hamilton has run across situations where investors bought homes with no money down, rented them out, and skipped mortgage payments — leaving renters surprised to learn that they're getting evicted because of the landlord's irresponsibility.

"My understanding is that this is pretty common," he says. "But at the end of the day, what banks are looking for is that it's all empty, the floors are clear, and it's clean."

Sharon Benson, an agent with Coldwell Banker Bain's Stadium office in Tacoma, has taken on more bank-owned listings in recent months. Her team was recently handling 10. Cleanup is a major part of preparing these homes for market. She's blunt about what it involves.

"The banks want before-and-after pictures," she says. "For the contractors, it's not nice work."

Jane Hodges is a Seattle freelance writer: janehodges@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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