Leaning against the door of a dilapidated, coral-colored duplex, Ric Barmes smiled for a photo.
It was a brief moment of celebration amid a busy workday. He'd just repossessed his 2,000th home.
Some might have seen it as an accomplishment built on heartache. But for Barmes, founder of Barmes Enterprises, the moment was a testament to entrepreneurship, self-responsibility and 14-hour workdays.
He has spent the past five years posting eviction notices, changing locks, inspecting foreclosures and working with his 14 employees to repair and clean up homes for resale.
Telling strangers to pack up and leave their homes takes a certain combination of guts, self-control and compassion. And the Indiana-born farm boy and former shortstop for the Montreal Expos said he has just the temperament for the job.
"You never know what you're going to find when you knock on that door," said Barmes, who runs his business from his Valrico home. "Some people stand there and cry in disbelief, mad and angry at me for delivering the bad news. Some of them are relieved."
His 2,000th repossession went seamlessly. Ebonie Smith and Paul Bell waited happily on the front porch in Lakeland, beer bottles in hand, for Barmes to arrive. A bank had paid them $2,100 to move out by a deadline, a practice known as "Cash for Keys."
After signing paperwork, Barmes handed over a check. Smith said it was the most money she had ever held in her hand.
No two cases are exactly the same
Barmes can usually defuse bad situations by treating people with respect, he said, but not every encounter runs smoothly.
One man in Seminole Heights threw bricks at Barmes, cracking the windshield of his Ford F-350.
"He was pretty nice when we were talking, but the next thing I knew we were running for cover," Barmes said.
Once, Barmes had to tell a woman that her husband, who had hidden the fact that he'd been demoted at work, hadn't paid the mortgage in months.
Barmes said he believes it's the homeowners, not the banks, who are responsible for bad loans, but he's sympathetic toward those who are victims of other people's dishonesty.
Two days before Christmas in 2008, Bank United told Barmes to change the locks on the house of a Gibsonton woman with two young children and with a husband in Iraq. The woman had paid her rent to the landlord, who had not paid the mortgage.
This was before banks offered Cash for Keys, Barmes said.
"I saw her and the kids around the Christmas tree, and I thought, 'We can't do this,' " he said.
Barmes tried to convince the bank to give the woman a break, but the bank refused.
"I changed the lock," he said. "But as I left, I told her, 'Merry Christmas. Look under the doormat for the new key.' "
The woman left a thank-you note, Barmes said.
"I was so scared the bank was going to send someone else out there, and they'd see the house was occupied," Barmes said. "I was glad when that bank went under. I was so upset with them."
After people move out, Barmes inspects the home, snapping photos to document the condition. He has learned never to be surprised at the damage some people leave behind.
In the first house he ever inspected, the occupants had left the water spigots running, including the hose behind the washing machine.
Barmes didn't have staffers yet, so he and his family tried not to breathe in the mold as they loaded two 60-yard Dumpsters and a Bobcat dump trailer with furniture and trash. When Barmes drained the pool, he was horrified to find two dead pit bulls near the drain.
"I think what must have happened is that the dogs tried to drink from the pool, and they were so dehydrated they fell in," he said. "I'd hate to think that people would have drowned those dogs."
Mementos of displaced families
The items people abandon tell stories about their lives.
Barmes finds children's toys, DVDs, TVs, medications, syringes and pet snakes. He says that once, after foreclosing on a home that had belonged to an associate pastor at a Brandon church, he found a sex dungeon complete with two-way mirrors, toys and video equipment.
If people abandon a home, they often leave calendars that reveal their schedule during the last month they lived there.
"I'm always curious," Barmes said. "I've learned to look out for little things like that."
When people leave furniture and electronics, he stores them in a 9,500-square-foot structure until he donates them to charities like Planned Parenthood, he said.
Last year, Barmes collected $700 in change from foreclosures that he donated to the Boys Town Central Florida, a charity that helps children who have been neglected or abused.
At least once a week, Barmes enters a home to find squatters, people who live in a place they don't own or rent.
He calls out and makes noise as he walks through a home to avoid startling or sneaking up on anyone.
For emergencies, Barmes has a .38-caliber pistol in his truck, but he doesn't carry it with him.
"I don't want people to feel intimidated, and I don't want them to think I'm scared," he said.
While he's on the road, Barmes' phone rings constantly, and he answers calls from Realtors, tenants, employees and banks.
Recently, a bank representative called him about a break-in at a bank-owned home in Brandon. Neighbors had reported that people had partied and done drugs in the house the night before.
Barmes and one of his most trusted employees, Ricardo Tercero, pulled in the driveway to check it out.
"Heeelloooo!" they called as they cautiously stepped through the front door.
Barmes and Tercero pointed out the signs of life as they walked through.
Toddler-sized SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas hung in the closet. Gnats clustered on food-crusted plates, and an empty bottle of Hershey's Syrup lay on its side. In the garage, maggots feasted on a dead rat.
Barmes and Tercero resecured the home. It was their last stop of the day.
Despite the conflict and the grime, or maybe because of it, Barmes loves his work and he takes pride in it.
The best part is meeting people from all walks of life, he said.
"Rich, poor or in the middle," he said. "Everybody has their own story."
Brittany Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.