Occupied Until Proven Vacant
[Editor’s note: Gulf Thunder Corporation and CubicYard™ are pleased to announce that Tom Cono, President of Megatech Asset Management will be contributing a new monthly column to our pages. Cono’s new column will feature his thoughts on a variety of issues relevant to business and field services. Cono’s focused and transparent approach to today’s issues made him one of last year’s most memorable guests.]
Being a mortgage field contractor is a risky business. Most people would look at the field business model and wonder why anyone would even consider the profession. From assuming tremendous liability, to charge back invoices with no recourse and superimposed industry pricing, the road to profit for a field servicing vendor sometimes seems filled with roadblocks.
And there is no riskier place than the very beginning of the work cycle, the Initial Securing work order.
From the moment a vendor arrives at a home with an initial work order, he must be vigilant at accurately determining the occupancy status of the home. I would not suggest that a vendor enter a property without first determining that 1) he is at the correct address and 2) that the property is vacant. The vendor must be 100% confident, with supporting evidence, that he is at the right house. But whether the home is vacant is difficult to always determine at the 100% level regardless of the supporting evidence.
Common methods of occupancy determination include checking the utilities to see if disconnected (especially the water service), overgrown landscaping, flyers and newspapers on the front door and porch, checking with the neighbors and/or USPS/UPS/City, or even looking through the windows if no one answers the door.
In the case where no supporting evidence is available, it is wise to devise other strategies to determine occupancy but these methods may require a little patience on the part of the client. One of our favorite methods on difficult to determine occupancies is to put a sticker on the front door lock advising the occupant or anyone with knowledge about the occupancy status of the property to call our office. We apply the sticker over the keyhole of the lock. The sticker must not be able to do any damage to the lock, but in order to use a key to open the door it must be removed. The sticker should not say anything about the foreclosure status and be generally worded but specific enough not to be misidentified as a sales flyer.
We return to the property within 72 hours if we have not received a call, and if the sticker has not been removed, we know that no one has been inside. The exception to this would be if the utilities are still on and an occupant could be accessing the home through the garage door. While this still does not provide 100% verification (occupants could be on vacation), if we are able to combine this with any other supporting information we feel confident that entry is warranted. This works very well on upper level condominiums which may have windows with no interior visibility and no neighbors at home.
But none of these methods will tell you with 100% accuracy whether a property is vacant or partially or temporarily occupied. You have to get as close to 100% as possible and with supporting evidence on your side, make your entry into the home.
Regardless of your accumulated evidence, what appears to be a 100% verified, vacant property may turn out to be occupied. We have opened doors several times to see a person in the front room looking at us in bewilderment. Even though the utilities are off and no personal property is visible from the windows, people will sometimes live in back bedrooms and basements for as long as they are allowed.
This brings to light the importance of learning how to enter a property without causing any damage. Lock picking or bumping is a very important skill that all field servicing vendors should learn. With practice, you can become very proficient and enter a home as quickly as if you had a key. If at all possible, even drilling locks should be avoided unless you are 110% sure the property is vacant!
There is an incredible risk involved with entering a vacant property. Do the industry price guidelines compensate you for this risk? Actually, not even $1! But don’t let this fool you into thinking that it must not be a big deal. It is a huge deal. Nothing could be more important to you and your family than to make sure you minimize this risk as best as possible.
Since our crews are able to pick the door locks of homes we service, we gain entry very quickly. If we find someone is still living in a home, we can simply take a few pictures, lock up the house and leave. (It is not a bad idea to notify the police if you enter a property that appears vacant but is occupied.) But if we break or drill the lock, we have to wait for the person to come home so we can give him a key to his “new” lock. That will always make for an interesting conversation!
Before you begin any service, such as a winterization, check every square inch of the house to make sure you are alone and to make sure that the home is completely vacant. When you do this, make sure you have given yourself a clear exit path with unlocked doors in the front and back, and carry some sort of legal weapon (even a hammer) and a flashlight. Make a lot of noise from the moment you enter a home advising anyone inside as to your identity and purpose.
We have been in homes that appear completely vacant only to find a bedroom set up in the basement. When we then see something like a burning candle, which would indicate that someone is currently in the house, we immediately exit the home but sometimes request that the occupant meet us in the front yard so we can get their information.
We have walked into what appears to be vacant homes with vagrants, vandals, escaped convicts, owners and tenants inside who do not come to the door when we knock. You will too. Be prepared, careful, and exercise extreme caution.
Develop your own checkpoint system and follow it every time, no matter how sure you are that a property is vacant. A property is assumed occupied…… until proven vacant!
by: Tom Cono President, MegaTec Asset Management, Inc.