Saturday, March 28, 2009

Foreclosure Boom

Last October, I had been unemployed for a year. I was tutoring a little as a result of my only interview of the entire year. I was starting to wonder if I would ever hear from anyone else. I became paranoid. Was it my unusual name, my address, my age, my font? HELLO! IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE? (Read this sort of like a valley girl - not the Pink Floyd lyric.)

So when I did finally hear back from the "Make Money Taking Pictures" ad, I wasn't going to be very picky. This was a strange interview, however, as it was a list of questions to answer by email. After that, I was invited to a conference call at a certain date and time. The email was vague, poorly written, and exhibited a little attitude:
Thank you for responding to our ad for daytime photographers. We are getting a lot of responses. It is too time consuming to speak to each person individually at this stage.

You only need to attend 1 call. All the details will be explained. This call will be approximately 20 minutes long so you need to be on time. The system beeps every time someone comes into the call, interrupting the call for everyone. SO BE ON TIME! or don?t bother come at all.

I still had no idea what the job was, but I went ahead and followed the directions. The teleconference was a cattle call. There sounded to be at least 50 people dialing in, and of course, a ton of people were not on time. There was this deafening beep that kept spontaneously interrupting the call. This only served to make the company owner more and more hostile. By the end of the call, she was chewing out pretty much anyone who was dumb enough to ask a question and then would end each tirade with, "Any more questions?" One sucker after another took the bait.

The job consisted of inspecting houses in foreclosure. The owner, who lived in San Diego, received thousands of work orders each month from banks and mortgage companies. Each work order represented a mortgage that wasn't being paid. She needed us to visit the actual houses and document something, depending on how far the situation had developed. Most of the time, it was a matter of the mortgage company or bank wanting to know if the tenants were still there. Abandoned houses had become a big problem as they could quickly suffer damage, causing a decline in value.

When I first heard about the job, I thought: this is going to be easy. All I had to do was download and organize a list of work orders in the morning, map out my route using a website, then drive to house after house, taking pictures and filling out forms. At the end of the day, I was to download the pics and reports. I imagined blasting music with a cooler full of healthy snacks and cold drinks while I leisurely drove from house to house, sometimes talking on the phone.

My initial experience wasn't very smooth. Each step was more complicated than I expected. Learning how to use the routing website wasn't intuitive and cost money. The man managing the website actually called me on the cell I provided while registering. . . "Are you OK? What are you doing?" Wow, if it's that obvious that I don't know what I'm doing then good luck to me.

Following my written directions from house to house turned out to be incredibly dangerous. I had a few really close calls. There were so many technical difficulties that I never really had time to prepare my cooler. I either didn't eat all day or jammed through the nearest drive thru. Either way, I felt spent and unhealthy by the end of the day.

None of my friends or family really liked the idea of this job. They imagined someone going postal when they saw me walk up the driveway. I was often expected to peer through windows or fenced backyards, always taking a series of pictures.

I have to admit this job appealed to my nosy - I'd prefer to say curious - nature. I'm not above looking into people's lighted windows on evening walks. I find homes to be interesting in general. This work made me feel like a detective at times, such as when I struck up a casual conversation with the neighbor to determine "they left a couple weeks ago." I used to love Magnum P.I. as a kid and I couldn't really get that image out of my mind. One day, I had to bring my two-year-old with me. I told her I was Magnum and she was my sidekick, TC. She was a burly guy with a baby face and she flew helicopters. She screamed in protest.

I promised my loved ones that I would quit if safety was an issue, and although I initially scoffed at them, it quickly became apparent that it was. My mom gave me pepper spray. My father-in-law offered to loan me his GPS.

Most of the houses I visited were in wealthy neighborhoods, and I didn't see a single person. I was surprised that some of the houses where bills weren't being paid still sported extravagant Halloween decorations with the $100 pumpkins. Were there secrets? Denial? Just trying to keep up appearances? Maybe they owned a pumpkin farm?

It became apparent that there were a lot of people who could not pay their bills because they were old or sick or both. Too sick to come to the door . . . literally dying in bed and the mortgage companies were moving towards repossessing the home. There must be a humane solution.

One tenant I found myself worrying about later did not come to the door when I rang the doorbell. As I was leaving I realized I could clearly see him sitting in what looked to be his office, staring into space. He must have been able to see me looking at him but he didn't bother to move or hide or acknowledge my presence. He looked dejected. (I know, buddy, I'm on Craigslist everyday too.)

I realized that the job was too risky for me after one day in which I coincidentally ended up in two really sketchy situations. The first was at a rundown Victorian that had been divided into individual rooms, which were being rented out. I walked to the porch and attempted to hand the notice I was to deliver to the old man poring over a stack of bills. He told me that the person I was looking for was in a specific room in the house and told me to go inside and up the stairs, down the hallway to the left. I hesitated then walked inside. It was very dim and smelled moldy. There was a group of men sitting in a common room passing around a pipe. It didn't smell like pot. A few of them turned and stared.

I went upstairs and found the right door but decided against knocking. I threw the envelope on the carpet in front of the door then JETTED out of there. It was a hopeless place and probably everyone was too loaded to do any harm to anyone but still, my protective instinct was sending off massive alarm bells.

Later that same day, I took turn after turn after turn to end up in one of the roughest neighborhoods I have ever been in and I've been in some rough ones. The signs of poverty were deafening. But poverty isn't what scared me . . . it was the angry group of young people standing in front of one of the houses that I was supposed to be visiting. They looked to be about college-age but maybe they didn't have that option. Their anger was palpable. Their stares never left me as I approached the house, took a couple of quick - and what I later found to be worthless - pics, then walked back to my car, trying to appear nonchalant and NOT in a rush.

So, I quit. Then, THE FINAL INSULT. I was an independent contractor, not an actual employee. There were ridiculously complicated instructions on how to bill the owner for my work time, and I could never completely figure it out, and she had us sign something that said we only had a limited amount of time to bill her . . . I never got paid for my time. My husband pointed out that this was part of her business model . . . she was benefiting from people like me who worked for only a short time but couldn't manage to get paid. At first I argued but I know he's right.


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