Foreclosures Keep Locksmiths in High Demand

The mortgage crisis has been great business for locksmiths. Banks need to get the locks changed quickly because people who've just been evicted often take out their anger — or their appliances.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The mortgage crisis has wreaked havoc on lenders, homeowners, Realtors, even construction crews. But we're going to tell you about one group of workers that is faring well - locksmiths. For them, these are boom times.

NPR's Laura Sullivan spent a day with a locksmith and she found despite the bonanza of work, it takes a toll.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Rahm Bunnag all but lives in his white van. Early morning until late at night and through the weekend, he follows a map from one house to another, an entire locksmith shop strapped to the floor behind him.

RAHM BUNNAG: Allentown to to Rose Valley and turn right...

SULLIVAN: Bunnag turns into the cul-de-sac he's looking for. Lately, he's become almost a connoisseur of Washington, D.C. suburbs.

BUNNAG: It's a decent-looking neighborhood - brick facades, not bad. Nice big yards, too.

SULLIVAN: At the entrance is a large sign. Bunnag smirks as he reads it out loud.

BUNNAG: Last chance, only the model left to sell.

SULLIVAN: The model is clearly not the only house in this subdivision left to sell. There are lots of houses for sale. Bunnag pulls into the driveway of a large, brick-front home with brass fixtures on the lawn and a three-car garage on the side. It's a foreclosure, like all the homes on his list, and that means the job is just a little bit harder.

BUNNAG: Locksmith!

SULLIVAN: There's nothing subtle about the way Bunnag enters the house. It's like he lives here. He opens every closet and door.

BUNNAG: Whenever I do a foreclosure, I always check the house.

SULLIVAN: Why?

BUNNAG: I don't want to be down on my knees working on a door, and have somebody that's in that house sneak up behind me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUNNAG: I don't want to get shot.

SULLIVAN: He laughs, but by the pace he's moving through the house, you can tell he's serious. Recently, two of his co-workers were surprised by evicted homeowners. One of the locksmiths ended up in a fistfight. He looks a little unnerved as he pauses with his tools in the hallway.

BUNNAG: Somebody's been in and out of here and walking around, too, before us. You see all the drywall they tracked through?

SULLIVAN: That's not supposed to happen. When a bank takes possession of a home, they usually send Bunnag out to the house within hours or days. They don't want homeowners coming back, deciding maybe they can get a few bucks for the fridge. And that seems to have happened here.

BUNNAG: Look at this, fridge is gone, dishwasher's gone. Look, they ripped the carpet out. See the tacking?

SULLIVAN: And there's another reason the banks send Bunnag fast - people who have been kicked out of their homes are not always the best visitors.

BUNNAG: They try to destroy it, I've seen houses where they tried to set the place on fire first. Oh, wait until you get up here.

SULLIVAN: On the top floor, the ceiling of the master bedroom has caved in from what appears to be water damage. The floor is starting to buckle, even the toilet paper is moldy. Whether it's sabotage or a burst pipe, there's no way to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN DOOR CLOSING)

SULLIVAN: Bunnag quickly replaces the locks and heads out. On his way down the street, he passes several houses he worked on a couple of weeks ago.

BUNNAG: See this wooden fence? This house right here, I foreclosed on.

SULLIVAN: He says it bothers him that he can't figure out why some families make it and others fail.

BUNNAG: There's no rhyme nor reason to it. I mean, we've done nice houses in Gaithersburg, down to, you know, duplexes in the ghetto. I mean, just - this house now belongs to the bank.

SULLIVAN: As he pulls up to a two-story colonial east of the city, he sighs.

BUNNAG: House is already outside.

SULLIVAN: An eviction team is hauling dressers, mattresses, tables, out on to the front lawn.

BUNNAG: Sheriff's already gone, too.

SULLIVAN: There's a microwave, toaster oven, bed frame and couch. The owners have until tomorrow to pick the items up or a junk hauler will take them to the dump. Inside, Bunnag finds even more stuff.

BUNNAG: Big house full of trash.

SULLIVAN: Like most homes Bunnag works on, the power's been cut, which means the alarm system is constantly beeping. He tries to ignore it but sometimes, house after house, it all but drives him crazy. He hoists himself up and yanks the alarm off the ceiling. In the kitchen, a coworker is replacing the back door locks, below a smoke detector.

BUNNAG: You got this job, John(ph). We're going to head to Laurel.

JOHN: Go ahead, go ahead. I got - I'm going to put the other doors on.

SULLIVAN: As the day wears on, one of the last houses on his list is a suburban home north of the city. It looks like the owners left in a hurry. Toys are scattered across the yard.

Bunnag gets to work picking the lock. It's funny, he says, evicted homeowners always seem to lock the door on their way out, and keep the key. Inside, the washer/dryer is still in place. The basement is still full of storage.

BUNNAG: Well, the problem is a lot of people will get their notices, and they'll do one of two things - they'll ignore it, or they'll wait to the last minute. This looks a lot like last minute.

SULLIVAN: On the refrigerator still are the family's photos. The one in the middle shows a baby playing in the next room full of toys and furniture.

BUNNAG: It's kind of sad, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

SULLIVAN: After a long day, as he settles into the back of his van to re-key the home's locks, Bunnag says he's happy for the work, but house after house, one family after another, the job wears on him.

BUNNAG: It's not uncommon to, you know, do 10, 15 a week. I did five, six over the weekend, and it sucks. It does. I mean, I - whenever I go to do a foreclosure, I always feel for the family who was there.

SULLIVAN: Bunnag says locksmiths sees homes and families in a way banks and economists don't.

BUNNAG: I saw a note at one - a couple weeks back here, where the lady had sat down at some point and written down her quote, unquote, "plan." To fix what was wrong, get a new job, you know, get whatever, little Tommy(ph) into a private school. I mean, it was just - it's touching, you know, it gives you an insight into somebody else's life all of a sudden. At least, this person is - had a self-realization of what's wrong. But that now, they've lost their house.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

SULLIVAN: As the sun begins to set, it gets chilly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREWS FALLING TO THE FLOOR)

BUNNAG: I have butter fingers.

SULLIVAN: The dozens of little screws, bolts and pegs drop through his fingers.

BUNNAG: It's kind of hard to work, sometimes, when your hands are cold.

SULLIVAN: That's the thing about empty houses, they're just as cold inside as they are outside.

BUNNAG: That door is locked, this door's locked. Garage doors are locked.

SULLIVAN: Bunnag takes one last look at the front door lock. If these homeowners return to pick up the rest of their belongings, Bunnag says the reality of their situation will hit them in the front doorway.

BUNNAG: Once you walk up to that door and your keys don't work anymore. Yeah. It's the finite moment that says, it's not your house anymore. All done.

SULLIVAN: With this house, anyway. Bunnag's boss has already sent him a long list of houses to lock up tomorrow.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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