Vulture Consumers Gain From Others' Misfortune In the current economic slump, many consumers are finding bargains by low-balling salesmen or snapping up foreclosed homes. Reporter Jennifer Saranow weighs the ethics of "vulture consumerism" — benefiting from another's misfortune.
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Vulture Consumers Gain From Others' Misfortune

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Vulture Consumers Gain From Others' Misfortune

Vulture Consumers Gain From Others' Misfortune

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Here's a postcard from the recession. If you're in the market for a house, do you consider foreclosures? When you shop yard sales, do you worry that people are selling stuff out of desperation or do you snap up the bargains so a widow can pay her electric bill?

In hard economic times, do you worry about benefiting from the misfortune of others? If you've found a bargain lately, do you care whether it's the product of hardship?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jennifer Saranow Schultz is a freelance reporter who writes for the Wall Street Journal and for the Daily Beast, where she recently published a piece called "Trading Morals for Dollars in a Recession." She joins us today from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. JENNIFER SARANOW (Wall Street Journal): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you talked with several people who worried about being vulture consumers.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. Lots of people who are snapping up all these deals, they're having to sort of face the moral quandary of profiting from other people's misery and are just sort of considering the different moral implications of these type of purchases.

CONAN: Tell us the story of one woman you spoke with, Lisa Parlee, who, well, saw her dream house for a bargain price.

Ms. SARANOW: Yeah. She saw her dream house. It was a three-bedroom with a two-car garage in Massachusetts. But she said she had reservations about buying a foreclosed property. She imagined the former owner, you know, was perhaps a family struggling to pay a fixed mortgage because of job loss or death in the family.

But then she did some research. And she actually went and did some research in local public records and discovered that the owner had taken out two adjustable rate mortgages and three home equity loans on the property in 10 years. And then she didn't feel quite so bad.

CONAN: And went ahead and bought the house.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. SARANOW: She said I felt like God was giving us a break, was what she said.

CONAN: The recession, you write, has divided consumers into two camps.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. There's those who are selling what they have in a quest to survive and others who are taking advantage of their desperation.

CONAN: Again, Jaime Bacon, 23-year-old glass - auto-glass installer in Grand Junction, Colorado, who put an ad on Craigslist offering to buy video games from those who could use a little extra money in the recession.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. He resells the games on eBay for a profit. And he recently visited one buyer, and the buyer was selling 17 Xbox games to help his mother pay her electric bill.

And he asked Mr. Bacon to give him a break but Mr. Bacon actually negotiated the price lower. For him, he says it's kind of like profiting off of a war, but at the same time it's business. It's just business for him. And if he wasn't going to buy them, somebody else will. And that's an attitude a lot of these people take as they...

CONAN: You also quoted him saying, hey, I've got bills to pay. I've got to...

Ms. SARANOW: Yeah. Exactly.

CONAN: ...keep a roof over my house too. I'm also in this economy.

Ms. SARANOW: Right.

CONAN: Let's hear from listeners. If you've been out in this economy, if you see a bargain, well, do you worry about whether it's the product of hardship? 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Bob is on the line calling from Aberdeen, South Dakota.

BOB (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, Bob.

BOB: There are small farms always being auctioned off here. And typically the auctions are the product of the folks losing their farms. I've been to several of them, and the sellers are there with the auctioneers and it's just tragic to watch these priceless, you know, family heirlooms and things that are critically important to the families being sold at far less than what the seller would hope.

And very often they have their hands in - their head in their hands and they're crying. And I can't go to them anymore but, boy, you see the same people there all the time, and they just snatch it up and are just happy and they're rejoicing right in front of the seller. And it's just tragic.

CONAN: Do you ever talk to those buyers?

BOB: Not to the buyers, but I've talked to the sellers. And they're just -it's, like I said, it's a tragedy, you know? And, yeah, the buyers - and I've been there with people that were excited buyers with vulturistic behavior, and yeah, they don't care. They don't care, you know? I don't know. It's just - I guess I was raised differently. I was raised poor, and I know what it's like. And I - you know, I don't know. I just find - I can't even go anymore. It's just too tragic for me to even watch.

CONAN: All right. Bob, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BOB: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And were - are there people like Bob you talked with, Jennifer Saranow?

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. There's actually - one woman I talked with, she's become kind of a celebrity online and in the press. She - it was one well-publicized case last fall, a woman named Marilyn Mock, a rock yard owner in Rockwall, Texas. She actually bought a home at a foreclosure auction on the spur of a moment for the former owner, who's paying her back in monthly payments. She felt so bad for the former owner that she decided to step in. And now she's sort of known as the foreclosure angel.

CONAN: And she's organized an organization to take up that cause.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes.

CONAN: Let's talk with Kim, Kim calling us from Cincinnati.

KIM (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Kim. Go ahead.

KIM: Hey. Well, gosh, going on that last comment, now I feel kind of guilty. But my story is that we got a really good deal on a house that was foreclosed on, too. And it's just, you know, it was that perfect house for our family's needs at the time, but we were really, really aware, I guess, that we were benefiting from someone else's misfortune.

And it's just - I wouldn't go so far as to say we feel guilty about living there, but we feel very aware of it, and it's sort of that there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It sounds like this gave you pause - for a moment, anyway.

KIM: It does. And it does all the time. I mean, they took meticulous care of their gardens, and we find ourselves, I think, putting a lot into it to keep it up and to sort of honor the work that was done there and the lives that were lived there before us.

And we've been said before to ourselves, that, you know, if it were us, we wouldn't put it past us to drive past it every once in a while to see how it's doing, you know. So we want to, like, make sure we're taking really good care of it.

CONAN: I'm glad you're taking good care of it. Thanks very much.

KIM: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And you write in your article, Jennifer Saranow Schultz, about some who've gone beyond what - the emotions that we've just heard to replace, well, to treat the former owners with contempt.

Ms. SARANOW: Well, a lot of times, they'll basically do some research or look into what got the former owner into this situation in the first place. And a lot of times, it was bad decisions on the former owner's part. So it's sort of like, why feel guilty for them?

One first-time homebuyer in Virginia, she felt guilty until she learned more about the mortgage process. And she realized that this former owner likely got - made some bad decisions and got themselves into this situation. And then, a subpoena was taped to the door that - for the previous owner, who, it turned out, had neglected to pay her credit card bills. So the homebuyer felt even less bad then.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to James, James in San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. I'm a former Circuit City employee, and I don't think it's really that people are hunting for bargains. We understood that. It was kind of the nasty, dismissive way that people kind of went around picking the bones.

For example, we, you know, three-quarters of the staff had been fired, and people were screaming profanity because they weren't waited on as soon as they walked through the door, stuff like that.

CONAN: So the attitude that people had - obviously, people remember that Circuit City had to close down. And you're talking about the last days, when it was trying to sell off its stock.

JAMES: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: And must have been difficult days for all you, because they were your last days as employees at Circuit City.

JAMES: Yes. And a lot of us are college students. And we're - I'm law-school-bound myself. So, it - but there were - most of the old-timers were gotten rid of in 2007 when they fired all the people making above a certain amount. So we didn't have much sympathy for the company. We understood why people were there. But people would lose something in the store - several times this happened - they would scream: This is why you're going out of business, something like that.

CONAN: Ooh.

JAMES: And, yeah. It was - and I've actually heard that that has happened at other Circuit Citys across the country. So, just the nastiness of people shopping for a bargain sometimes.

CONAN: It's interesting, Jennifer, you talked with a psychologist who said, you know, we tend to rationalize these kinds of behaviors. We feel badly because there are clear winners and losers. And by blaming people like James, the employee, saying this is why you're going out of business, you can rationalize paying - being the winner.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. She says that's sort of how people rationalize this sort of predatory behavior, which another psychologist I talked to actually says is an important role for people to play in capitalism by helping to sort of create the bottom of the market and get us out from there.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. Did you find - have you found work?

JAMES: I'm temping right now.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you.

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go next to Steve, Steve with us from Wichita.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. The way I look at it is why should it matter? Because look at it from the side of the seller: They're selling it because they need to sell it. I don't see how you could be hurting someone by buying something that they have for sale, because they need to sell it.

CONAN: And, indeed, some of the people you talked with, Jennifer, felt exactly the way Steve does.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. One man, an elementary school teacher in Las Vegas, says, if someone needs to sell it, they are selling it. And if I'm willing to pay what they want, and if not, someone else will. That was an attitude a lot of the buyers took.

CONAN: And what have you been buying, Steve?

STEVE: Pretty much nothing. I haven't been shopping like that very much. We haven't had too much situation like that here in Wichita. We've been fairly lucky. A few more houses for sale than there had been in the past, but we've gotten by pretty lightly here in Wichita.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad to hear that. And continued good luck to you.

STEVE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next to Jana(ph), Jana with us from Grand Rapids.

JANA (Caller): Jana, yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JANA: Jana.

CONAN: Jana, go ahead.

JANA: We - my family has always been big garage salers, and my grandma used to take us when we were little. And just recently, in the past couple months, even at the garage sales in springtime, there's so much more desperation for people wanting to sell their stuff.

You know, with, like, a big antique market here in Grand Rapids, stuff that I know is worth more than what these people are selling it. But they're just coming up to you at the sale, saying, I'll mark it down for you. I'll mark it down to this. I'll mark it down to this. And there's almost a guilt in wanting to buy that and wanting to have that piece, but knowing that it probably does have a great impact on this person that's selling it to you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JANA: So...

CONAN: And do you still go ahead and do it?

JANA: It depends. It depends on the pieces with whether or not I need it or I feel that I need it. You know, like I said, like the earlier caller said to you, you know, if someone is selling it and they're selling it for reasons, for something that they'd rather have the cash than the item - so there's that. But there is a moral dilemma when it - this could be something that's an heirloom that they have to get rid of, and you're helping them get rid of that. Whether that's good or bad is kind of morally conflicting, at least for me, in the purchasing of it.

CONAN: Jana...

JANA: And there are pieces I haven't purchased.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JANA: Thank you.

CONAN: There is one person you wrote about in your piece, Jennifer, who actually paid more.

Ms. SARANOW: Yes. It was Michael O'Reagan, a 36-year-old firefighter in Fall River, Massachusetts. And he recently went to the home of an elderly woman who was selling her brother-in-law's World War II memorabilia, including a uniform and medals, she said, to get her heat turned back on.

And Mr. O'Reagan, who had put an ad on Craigslist and in local newspapers offering to buy military items to help take the sting out of the poor economy, says he took the items for $600, twice as much as they were worth, just because he felt so bad for her.

CONAN: We'll end with this e-mail from Deborah in Sacramento: I'm looking for a house to buy, not because of the great deals out there. It's just a coincidence. I need a house at this time. Anyways, I looked at a home twice that was very interesting to me, and before leaving on the second trip out, asked the owner - whom I'd gotten to know a little - what she was going to do after the sale of her home. She said, she hoped to keep the house. I walked away knowing that this house was not for me. She was not interested in selling her house, and therefore I could not make an offer, even though it was a very nice house.

Jennifer, thank you very much for you time today.

Ms. SARANOW: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Jennifer Saranow Schultz is a freelance reporter who recently published an article, "Trading Morals for Dollars in a Recession," in the Daily Beast. There's a link to it at our Web site, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us today from member station KQED in San Francisco.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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