They are the backbone of a cottage industry thriving in the collapse of the housing market: independent contractors who can supply their own lawn mower, truck, weed whacker, tools, laptop, high-speed Internet access, cellphone, digital camera, generator and tape measure.
People willing to cut knee-high grass, haul trash from yards, change locks, hammer plywood over windows and pools — and, at times, clean foul-smelling refrigerators and toilets — are being sought by so-called "property preservation" companies hired by banks or real estate agents to tend to vacant foreclosed homes.
One measure of the maintenance crisis caused by so many abandoned houses in South Florida and nationwide is how great demand has become for such companies and their workforces.
But who exactly the companies are, and how extensive their obligations, are often as cloudy as the algae-covered pools they are sent to clean. Neighbors and city officials often struggle to identify which company to call about a problem place.
The firms come and go, depending on when a home enters foreclosure, whether it can be determined to be vacant, and whether a company servicing a loan decides to proceed with a foreclosure action or drop it and walk away.
"When the servicer … discovers that the house isn't worth much they'll call up whoever is doing the work ... and say 'You're done. Stop cutting the grass. Don't go look every week to see if it's still boarded up. We're done,'" said retired law professor Kermit Lind, a consultant for the Municipal Housing Court in Cleveland, Ohio.
"If it's a low-value house, the service is lousy. And usually doesn't last very long," Lind has found.
Typically, the banks contract out property maintenance and preservation work to large national firms, such as Safeguard Properties, based in Cleveland; Field Asset Services in Austin, Texas, or Mortgage Contracting Services (MCS), headquartered in Tampa. They, in turn, subcontract the work to smaller local companies, which then find people to actually mow the lawn or perform other chores.
Some contractors stick notices on doors, providing a name and phone number to contact in case squatters break in or the grass becomes unkempt.
But as often as not, there is no information left, or it is outdated or wrong.
At one decrepit, boarded-up Fort Lauderdale duplex at 1501 NW 8th Ave., in foreclosure since 2008, the Sun Sentinel found a tag posted by BAC Field Services Corporation, providing a phone number to report problems.
A call placed to it at 1:30 p.m. on a Monday was met with recorded message saying: "I'm sorry. Our customer service department is currently closed. Please call back during normal business hours."
On another day, the line was answered by a representative who said: "I'm having a hard time finding the address in the system." That call was referred to a customer service desk, which required the borrower's mortgage account number before any further information could be given.
Sometimes the notices contain information odd for Florida.
At an Oakland Park home, the newspaper found a notice from MCS dated March 2011 taped to a door saying the house had been "winterized" and freeze damage found. Junk was strewn about the side yard.
Because of the huge number of vacant and foreclosed homes that must be maintained, cities often have to hound preservation companies to have problems addressed.
In August 2010, a Miramar code enforcement official informed BAC Field Services Corporation that while its contractors were taking care of the front lawn of a home, the backyard was overgrown and the pool water black and in urgent need of being cleaned or drained.
BAC Field Services promised to get a cost estimate, which could take a week to be approved.
Published guides and books for sale online, such as "How to Start a Foreclosure Cleanup Business," offer people instruction in getting into the profession, including how to bid to win jobs.
In online ads, various property preservation companies specify that their hires or contractual workers should be able to lift 75 pounds, work hard, arrive on time and carry their own worker's compensation coverage and general liability insurance of at least $1 million.
Some — though not all — of the firms stipulate that they are seeking recruits with clean driving records, and no prior felonies.
Compensation is modest. Various postings put the pay at $20 to $50 for the initial grass cutting, depending on the area of the lawn, plus a $10 "trip charge" for travel costs.
Debris removal can command $14 per cubic yard.
Padlock installations pay $10 to $20 each. "We supply locks," one firm said.
Terry Lysengen, of Lighthouse Point, started a South Florida property preservation company, Alliance REO Services, a couple of years ago to augment his custom-design cabinet making business. He gets jobs from the top national firms and farms them out to employees.
"There's not much room for a whole lot of profit, and it's a lot of work, but there is volume," he said.
Each assignment requires the laborer to provide before-and-after photographs. The pictures often make their way up the chain to the banks, which may authorize payment only after receiving proof that a job has been done.
"The only time the banks see the property is through the eyes of the camera," Lysengen said.
Database Editor John Maines contributed to this story.
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