GROVELAND — 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.
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. 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 a 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. His is a profession with brilliant prospects. 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 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."
• • •
Ever open a utensil drawer in a kitchen and have rats leap out?
Ever crawl around a pitch-black attic, feel a buzzing tremor, and flash a light on a hornet's nest big as a 55-gallon drum?
"This job is pretty much a grab bag," he says. "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, 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, crown moldings.
Then there are the revelations at the gated-community castles — large, exorbitantly landscaped, with pricey WELCOME mats and 2½-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."
• • •
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 after managing a company that installed cable TV, 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.
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.
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.")
After breakfast — coffee, cream and sugar — he straps into his GMC Sierra, an offroader the color of silver birch, flip on the headlights and GPS, and rumbles to the first house on the case sheet. Hazel works nine counties across Florida's midsection.
On a typical day, he 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 chock-full 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."
• • •
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 paint. On the carpetless slab, a lifeless aquarium. On a closet shelf, a tot's baseball cap.
It's 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."
"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."