BANGOR, Maine — Four years ago, Jim Kearns was working for Bank of America as a bank officer and credit analyst. Today, the Bangor native is still working for Bank of America, only now as an independent business owner who has found a silver lining to the ongoing home mortgage crisis.
As one of several hundred BOA employees nationwide who were given severance packages as part of a corporate downsizing move in 2008, the Bangor native had to find a new career.
“I was a residential handyman doing light work for a couple years, and then I got a call one day from NAPA [the National Asset Protection Agency]. They asked me about going out and mowing some lawns and doing some other stuff,” Kearns recalled. “The next thing I know they’re sending me 15 to 20 properties to maintain, clean out, and work on. It’s a very lucrative business. I’ve been very surprised.”
In two years, Kearns, 39, has gone from a job generating about $15,000 in annual income to one that he estimates will earn him at least four times that amount this year.
Kearns used to manage business portfolios for companies such as L.L. Bean and Bass Pro Shops. Now he manages abandoned properties for banks and mortgage lending institutions. Primarily they are properties abandoned by homeowners or business owners who took on mortgages they were unable to pay.
“Just in the Bangor area, honestly, I would say that’s a low estimate,” Kearns said. “Just in Bangor I probably maintain 20, and there are a lot more out there.”
That has created a demand from mortgage holders who want to secure and maintain the abandoned properties as well as preserve their remaining resale value.
“It’s created a multibillion-dollar industry,” said Michael Daley, chief operations officer of NAPA, a national and international property preservation company he co-founded two years ago. “It’s created a ton of jobs for people who may have been laid off from the construction industry.”
“Our growth has been explosive over the last two years,” he added.
The Tampa, Fla.,-based NAPA acts as a middleman agency for mortgage institutions to find local contractors and maintenance companies that can secure, clean, fix or maintain abandoned properties nationwide.
“Banks need to know if A, the property is still there, B, what condition it’s in, and C, if anyone is still living in it or not,” Daley said. “Also, they want to know the approximate amount of investment required to make the property sellable.”
Kearns — whose Your Maine Handyman business now employs five people, including business partner Willy Littlefield — deals with NAPA and similar businesses such as America’s Infomart and Mid American Property Management. Those agencies represent regional, national and international banking institutions such as Bank of America, Ocwen Financial Corp., and Cambridge Savings Bank.
“They don’t want to have to find hundreds of individual people nationwide to work on these homes. They prefer to deal with national companies which make it more manageable by lining up contractors all over the country,” said Daley.
Kearns’ territory stretches from Augusta through Bangor on up into Millinocket and east to Machias and Calais.
“I think I had around 20-25 properties after getting going with NAPA, and now that it’s started to take off, we’re probably dealing with 60-70 properties in all,” said the Orono resident. “I get calls to go to the Kittery and Portland area and I turn them down because you have to draw the line somewhere.”
Kearns doesn’t get to see his fiancee or her two children as often as he’d like because he has to work six days a week to keep up with demand. He said he has seen it all the past two years. There have been cooperative people who are resigned to losing their homes and angry ones who don’t want to leave without a fight; houses that look almost as good as they did when occupied and those that have been gutted; $400,000 mansions and two-bedroom saltboxes.
“I’d say 60-70 percent of the properties I go to are missing the copper tubing and fixtures,” Kearns said. “You have two types of vandals: the ones looking for any metal of value and the homeowner vandal, who is so pissed off at the bank, they wreck or take as much as they can before leaving. There was a beautiful house in Stockton Springs I went to where the only thing left was the laminate kitchen floor.”
And then there’s the other extreme.
“We just looked at one about three weeks ago in Lincolnville that had to be at least $300,000-$400,000 with a beautiful, in-ground pool and the only thing we had to do was mow the lawn,” he said. “It was in great shape.”
As the mortgage crisis continues to ripple through the housing market, Kearns doesn’t see much reason to believe that things will improve in the near future.
“Right now, even though they’re selling fairly regularly, we’re still getting tons of new properties coming in that need to be maintained,” he said.
“It’s not that the rate of home sales is coming back so much as it’s the number of homes that need to be rehabbed,” Daley said. “We still haven’t seen the end of that supply yet.”