In Florida, the foreclosure process takes 861 days, on average.
That means houses often sit in limbo for more than two years after the owner stops paying the mortgage. Maybe the homeowner is still living in the house. Maybe he's renting it out. Maybe squatters are living there, or maybe it's empty and falling down.
Marc Joseph's job is to find out.
Joseph is a real estate agent. On the day I tag along with him, he's representing a bank that had repossessed a concrete block home in Cape Coral, Fla.
"The assignment for this property came out auto-generated through the computer last night at, like, 2:01 in the morning," he said.
His assignment today is to figure out what condition the house is in and report back to the bank.
Outside, he surveys the place. No broken windows. No lights on. No cars in the driveway. He then takes a breath and moves toward the door. "There shouldn't be anyone living in there," says Joseph.
It's quiet. We stand at the doorstep for a couple of minutes. I wonder whether we should leave.
"Oh, we're absolutely going in today," Joseph says.
The front door is unlocked — this is common, apparently — and Joseph likes what he sees. No inhabitants. The place isn't trashed. No furniture. No one has poured concrete down the drain or ripped out the electrical system.
"When I see something like this, I know this will sell immediately," he says.
This is the new phase of the housing collapse. Homeowners stopped paying for their homes a long time ago. We are just now dealing with that fact.
"Sure it's an ugly business to go out and repo somebody's house," Joseph says. "But on the flip side of that, the beauty is [that] affordability is back. Now you can buy that house for $150,000, and you can actually come down and retire in Florida," says Joseph. "And as long as that sun is up there shining, people are going to want to come here."
That, of course, is exactly what real estate agents always say in Florida. But Joseph listed the house on Tamiami Court for close to $150,000 — less than half of what it was worth five years ago.
Three days later, the bank accepted an offer.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been talking for years about the foreclosure crisis, but many states are just beginning to process a huge backlog of foreclosure filings. In Florida, for example, it takes an average of 861 days to complete a foreclosure. During that time, houses sit in limbo. Nobody knows what's been going on inside until the bank officially forecloses and sends someone to check it out. NPR's Chana Joffe-Walt of Planet Money visited a house with one of those someones in Cape Coral, Florida.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Eight hundred sixty-one days, think about that. That means somewhere in Florida, a homeowner stopped making payments on her house. And then, nothing happened for about 861 days. Maybe she's still in the house. Maybe she moved. Maybe she's renting it. Maybe it's full of squatters, wildlife?
MARC JOSEPH: We don't know until we get the assignment. The assignment on this property came out at 2:01 in the morning.
JOFFE-WALT: Marc Joseph is a real estate agent representing the lender, a bank which now owns this concrete block home on Tamiami Court. Joseph stands squinting on the lawn. He's got a digital camera strapped to his belt, ear piece blinking in his ear, and he surveys the place. No broken windows. No lights on. No cars in the driveway. Except there is a red truck parked out front on the street. So he takes a breath and moves towards the door.
JOSEPH: Basically, if I bang on that door, there shouldn't be anyone living in there.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
JOSEPH: If the guy in the red truck is in there, it'll still be a bad deal that I've been out here.
JOFFE-WALT: It's quiet. We stand on the doorstep for a couple of minutes.
So you won't go in today.
JOSEPH: Oh, we're absolutely going in today.
JOFFE-WALT: Oh, really?
JOFFE-WALT: The front door is unlocked. Apparently there are tens of thousands of unlocked front doors in Florida. Marc Joseph tells me, as we are entering the main room, that he has never had a hard time getting into a foreclosure.
JOSEPH: A lot of them open either through the sliding glass door or front door. I'm able to get in one way or the other.
JOFFE-WALT: Are we allowed to be in here?
JOSEPH: Oh, a hundred percent. This is our assignment.
JOFFE-WALT: Joseph's assignment is to report to the lender what has been going on inside this home that the lender now owns. And on Tamiami Court, evidently not much has been going on. It seems like that red truck must belong to someone else on the block, because nobody is inside of this house, which is a fact that seems to please Marc Joseph.
JOSEPH: When I see something like this, I know this will sell immediately.
JOFFE-WALT: Because, he says, it's not trashed. There's no furniture. No one has poured concrete down the drain - he's seen that several times - or ripped out the electrical system.
JOSEPH: I'm obviously going to look in the garage just to double check there's no car in the garage.
JOFFE-WALT: He's seen that, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
JOFFE-WALT: There is no car, just two empty boxes. If there had been someone here, the lender has instructed Marc Joseph to offer people cash, about $1,500 just to leave the place peacefully. But Joseph says sometimes people are so angry that they'd rather just yell at him.
JOSEPH: I really should be your best friend when I knock on the door, because I'm there representing the bank trying to do something good. But they don't...
JOFFE-WALT: No, you're there telling them it's the end, you have to get out of the house.
JOSEPH: Correct, but they know that anyway.
JOFFE-WALT: This is the new phase of the housing collapse. Homeowners stopped paying for their homes a while ago. We are just now dealing with that fact. And this is what dealing looks like.
JOSEPH: Sure it's an ugly business to go out and repo somebody's house. But on the flip side of that, the beauty is affordability is back. Now you can buy that house for $150,000 and you can actually come down and retire in Florida. And as long as that sun is up there shining, people are going to want to come here.
JOFFE-WALT: That, of course, is exactly what real estate agents always say in Florida. But I should note, Joseph listed the house on Tamiami Court for close to $150,000, less than half what it was worth five years ago. And three days after he listed it, the bank accepted an offer.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.