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He goes in with a check, comes out with keys

The paths that lead me to the front door are endless. Maybe it’s a death, illness or incarceration. A marriage, perhaps. Or a divorce. A job is lost. Or one is landed across the country. Whatever the case, the mortgage is long overdue and I come knocking.

The economic storm of recent years has triggered an unprecedented wave of foreclosures. While causes, policies and reactions capture headlines and imaginations almost daily, the stories of those who lose their homes are rarely told.

I work in a real estate office providing boots-on-the-ground information on the condition of each property and who is in it. Between the mortgage and the foreclosure, anything could happen. We might find that a house is occupied by squatters, abandoned, burned down or even demolished. We might find a crack den or a meth lab. There might be pot plants or a dog-fighting ring — sometimes we find the casualties of these battles.

Foreclosure is an intensely impersonal affair. Anonymous lawyers feed a steady stream of paperwork into the machinery of the legal system. It is unusual for those who process the forms to meet or speak with those who are losing their homes. If there is an encounter, it might take place through panes of bulletproof glass as the larger legal firms seek to protect their employees from emotional outbursts of desperation. The processors will almost never venture out to see the houses themselves. That’s my job.

From million-dollar mansions in gated golf or waterfront communities to the charred ruins of homes long forgotten, no neighborhood is immune. At times, the bank will foreclose on a property only to find that it has been seized by the IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service or a local tax authority.

When we visit, the eviction has begun. We must first determine whether somebody is living there. This isn’t always easy — a house might appear occupied because neighbors are keeping it up to avoid the blight that can attract rodents, copper thieves or intruders. They cart away the tell-tale signs of vacancy, such as old phone books or takeout menus at front doors. Power and gas might be left on for months before a utility company cuts them off, or they might be paid for by an estate or a borrower who is on an extended transfer, incarceration or living in a second home.

Sometimes dwellers simply vanish, and I’m the first person to see what they left behind — wedding photos with faces torn out, a child’s homework or perhaps a family pet, not always still alive.

I’ve seen floors splattered with blood and walls peppered with holes from bullets and arrows. At times, a plastic container filled with ashes sits on the mantel. Half-eaten meals on the table, a cigarette lighter by the bed, a calendar with dates circled for engagements that will never be kept. Receipts for one-way tickets out of the country, summons notices, credit-counseling literature, names of lawyers and doctors.

I’ve seen it all. But it is the occupied properties that can leave the most lasting impressions. Most borrowers know that this day will come, though they might fear the encounter as an unknown. Sometimes the person I meet at the door is a tenant who had no idea that the landlord had stopped making payments.

Occasionally, the first visit does not go well. At one stop, 50 motorcycles parked on the lawn suggested that we come back another day. Another time, we arrived as a SWAT team was conducting a raid. At a third stop, a dive team searched a lake for the body of a depressed homeowner.

When the doors open, the reactions vary. Some people have anxiously awaited somebody to tell them what might come next. They cringe at every unknown visitor, wondering whether this will be the person who orders them out. Others deny the foreclosure or say they have worked something out with their lender. Some utter hostile warnings to go away ”or else.” Others hide and refuse to answer the door. Or they announce that they are calling their lawyer or the police.

I am frequently the first person to have an in-depth discussion with the occupants. Some will tell me that they didn’t know whom to ask or that they were embarrassed about their predicament and couldn’t bring themselves to approach somebody else. Some will protest the situation. Others express gratitude for money that can be used to hire a mover or cover a security deposit for a new apartment. I am witness to the closing of one chapter of their lives and the first inklings of the next.

ALBERT CLAWSON Clawson is a property manager specializing in foreclosed properties. He first wrote about his experiences on