Wedding dresses, baby pictures, drapes, puppies and live pigs. A short list of some of the items Atwater Realtor Andy Krotik has found in the lifeless rooms of foreclosed homes.
Ovens, dishwashers, ceiling fans and light switch covers are what he often doesn't find at the homes he visits. Those are items taken by angry, dispossessed families that show the range of emotions they feel while losing their homes.
"There are some folks that work the system, trying to stay without paying or stealing things when they go," Krotik said. "But there's also some real, true sorrow out there."
Once, he spent several days locating a foreclosed owner who'd left her daughter's baby pictures in the pink nursery of their former home.
"It's sad when they leave stuff behind because you almost feel like you're invading," he said. "You see these people at this most traumatic moment in their life."
With the collapse of the local housing market, Krotik's main clients have shifted from happy families to brusque banks. "In the old days, you'd sit in the living room with your client, taking everything in, relaxing," Krotik said. "Now you sit with your computer waiting for e-mails" from banks, asking if he'll take on the job to secure and sell their most recent foreclosed home.
He says yes because, well, "they're the only game in town."
It's not an easy game.
"I pull up somewhere near the front of the house, and I honk my horn by hitting the door lock button a couple of times," Krotik said, explaining his process for entering foreclosures. That alerts people who may be there illegally that he's there now, too. Krotik carries protection, usually a large, police-style flashlight that he can use to defend himself if necessary.
Sometimes a crowbar.
"I've walked up on homeless people. I've walked up on gangbangers. I've been chased with an ax, confronted physically," he said. "There are times my life is in flipping danger."
His daily work, now bereft of champagne toasts in living rooms, has morphed to include the duties of investigator, property manager, cleanup crew and, finally, Realtor.
A 20-year veteran, he's seen the rise and fall of the local market. The first house he ever sold was in Atwater in 1989. It went for $66,500. Krotik resold the house as a foreclosure in 2009 for $64,300.
He's also watched attitudes change. Twenty years ago, foreclosures were rare, and families going through them were stigmatized, pushed out on the edge of the community. No longer, he says. Nearly everyone knows someone going through the foreclosure horror -- friends, neighbors, family members.
The constant drumbeat of sad stories he hears every day has taken a toll on Krotik as well. He remembers a scant few years ago when he took so much pride selling homes to families moving into pleasant, kid-filled neighborhoods, helping them achieve their dream of home ownership. He remembers getting invited to homeowner parties, opening gift cards in appreciation of his work for them.
"I used to be a hero getting people into a house. Now, I'm nobody's hero," he said. "Now, a lot of people I sold homes to are losing their home.
"There's no sympathy out there for lenders, loan officers, Realtors, contractors. Everyone thinks the industry caused this."
Krotik drove down the highway. "It was much bigger than the industry, though. This is not something we'll see again in our lifetimes."