Houses in the Hole
A bust economy means boom times for some businesses
It’s a raw, overcast day deep in the dirt-road network of Bethel. The trees are gray and bare, the road steep and rock strewn. Dino Zampini, a stout, tough-looking man with a shaved head and a Harley Davidson skullcap, backs his dump trailer to the front door of a wan, beige Cape surrounded by a neglected apple orchard.
Zampini, 40, is the co-owner of Scepter Services, a Weathersfield-based business that performs “trash-outs” — the cleaning, repairing and winterizing of foreclosed homes — for banks and their field-services agencies.
“Our main focus,” he explains while a Bobcat excavator grades the driveway, “is to make this place presentable to a buyer.”
Judging by the collection of tires, scrap metal and rotting couches in the dooryard of the Bethel home, Zampini and his assistant, Chris Harris, have their work cut out for them.
And they’re not the only ones. If you want to know who’s hard at it in this lethargic economy, look no further than the foreclosure industry and those connected to it. The auctioneers, real-estate agents for bank-owned property, foreclosure attorneys, appraisers, waste-management firms — “The entire system is crazy busy,” reports Donna Cauti, 49, Zampini’s business partner and girlfriend.
They got into the system at the right time about four and a half years ago. Cauti was a practicing real estate agent in Massachusetts, and Zampini was working in Cavendish as an excavator, logger and real-estate developer. He rented an office to a real-estate agent in Vermont who had bad luck with a trash-out vendor, so she asked Zampini if he could help her out. He reluctantly agreed, and ended up doing a great job. “We took care of it,” Donna recalls, “and the client was like, ‘Wow, you guys want to do this again?’”
Within a week, they had more trash-out work from the real-estate agent, and then a field-service company hired them, too. In a short while, the work snowballed into a full-time gig. Cauti attributes their success to skills she and Zampini have; one knows the perspective of the real-estate agent who will market the home, and the other has hands-on experience with property development. “We’re a perfect combination to understand why and how the process works,” Cauti says.
That process is not as easy as you might think. Scepter is usually hired by a field-services agency — which works for the foreclosing bank — to bid on a job. If the house looks reasonably clean, they charge a flat fee. If the trash is waist high and wall to wall — as it was in one particularly nasty home in St. Albans — they charge by the number of cubic yards of debris removed. The crews must document every stage of their work with digital pictures; Cauti uploads them to the banks’ websites. Then there are the foreclosure and tenancy laws to negotiate, multiple parties to communicate with, irate and violent ex-homeowners to quell, and suspicious neighbors to mollify.
Scepter Services has two full-time crews and a licensed plumber doing trash-outs and property management in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. With two dump trucks, a dump trailer and box vans, the company is a self-sufficient entity that does everything from light janitorial work — in the rare case when a foreclosed homeowner actually leaves the place broom-clean — to board-ups, mold removal, repairs and lawn cutting. They’ve trashed out $2 million manses in Stratton and mobile homes in Randolph valued at less than $10,000.
Reviewing the pictures of the Bethel home the day after Zampini was there, Donna advises, “It’s not the worst one, that’s for sure.” That seems like a fair assessment, but it makes the scene there no less bleak.
Approaching the house for the first time, it’s not immediately obvious that the place is vacant. Sun-faded plastic toys are spread in the front yard, and wicker furniture is set up on the rickety porch. The first clue of tough times is the yellow sign taped to the front door stating that the house has been winterized, meaning that the heating system is disconnected and the pipes free of all water. This is the most important step for retaining the value of an abandoned home, because once the pipes freeze and break, water damage and mold are imminent.
Within five minutes of dropping the gate on the dump trailer, Harris, a 51-year-old gentleman with black hair and an Adidas windbreaker, has already loaded bald tires, gas cans, bags of trash and a blue La-Z-Boy. He’s quiet and moves with a steady pace that keeps him warm on this bone-chilling day. Zampini picks a cordless drill out of the pile of junk, admires it, and puts it to the side. “You’d be surprised,” he remarks. “Big TVs, furniture. Nice stuff. People just walk away from it.” They try to give away whatever they can. Toys go to Goodwill, clothes to the Salvation Army.
Most of the stuff here will just end up in a landfill, however. The randomness of it, such as a paper bag full of spent air-horn cans and a disintegrating pleather bag of golf clubs, doesn’t appear to make Harris think about the ghosts who left it behind.
In fact, they’d rather not know those ghosts. “When you meet the people and hear the stories,” Zampini tells, “it sucks.” Sometimes he has no choice but to hear them. He remembers, for example, a disgruntled homeowner who threatened to shoot him. Zampini had to call the cops, which calmed the guy down, but didn’t prevent him from telling Zampini his tale of woe. “It’s not my fault,” Zampini reminded the gentleman. “I’m just here to do a job.”
That job sometimes includes evicting tenants who had no idea that their landlord was being foreclosed. If 30 days have passed since the notice to vacate, Zampini has the right to remove their personal property and put it in storage. But Zampini says he tries to work with tenants caught off-guard.
Cauti admits that she gets “kind of numb to the emotional aspect,” especially when it’s apparent that the homeowner bought more house than he or she could afford. It’s harder, she says, when predatory lending was to blame, or an illness forced someone to choose between paying the mortgage or surviving another year.
The preconditions to the Bethel foreclosure aren’t entirely clear. According to the closest neighbor, a family of six — two parents and four children — lived there for a few years. One of the children, a teenage boy, accidentally killed himself while using a homemade cannon. After that, it seems that the parents split up, took one of the kids, and left two boys in their early twenties to live there on their own. They just never bothered to pay the mortgage.
The inside of the house, where it’s cold enough to see your breath, looks like it could have been occupied by young men. Wastebaskets overflow with Mountain Dew cans and beer bottles, and the first-floor bedroom is littered with tattered porno magazines and empty boxes of Marlboros. Most of the floors consist of exposed plywood with ratty old carpets. The occupants took anything of value — the refrigerator and range, two woodstoves — and left containers of cereal and a bin of cat litter.
The neighbor, a 59-year-old named Geoffrey Trask, is more concerned about the outside. “We were looking to see if someone was going to clean it up,” says Trask, wearing a camouflage coat and mud boots, “because it’s an eyesore and lowers my property value.”
That’s not to say buyers of foreclosed homes are getting a steal. Many times, the homes have been abused or neglected, and the bank will only sell them as-is.
“Buyer be very aware, if you’re buying a foreclosure,” Cauti cautions. In fact, it may pay to knock on the neighbor’s door to see what he or she knows. Trask’s father happened to have built this particular home, and he knows that the heating system is shot and the septic system has failed.
Aside from that, he notes without a hint of sarcasm, “the rest would be cosmetic.”