Foreclosure Aftermath: What We Leave Behind

Our homes tell the story of where we come from and who we are. What happens when we lose them?
S.J. Dunning photo by Tyrah Dunning

The author, S.J. Dunning, stands before the burning remains of her childhood home, razed for new construction.

Photo by Tyrah Dunning.

When my father told me, in 2006, that he was “going into foreclosure,” I had reservations. I knew he wasn’t being literal: he had not owned a home since he split up with my mother in 1989, and my family lost our home in the aftermath of divorce. I knew, also, that he wasn’t using foreclosure as a metaphor for his physical condition. For two years, he’d been working as a realtor. The shuffling of paperwork and the relative idleness of the showings he did was a respite from the manual labor he’d done most of his life (construction, excavation, housing rehabilitation). My father was in good shape for a man nearing 60, his body seemingly impervious to the wear and tear it had endured. 

I was worried about something else. 

Our last name connotes the very enterprise I assumed my father might be undertaking. A “dunning letter” is a written demand for the payment of a debt—as in “Dear Sir: This is your final notice.” And this coincidence, though merely linguistic, was too much for me, not to mention the irony inherent in such a prospect—that a man regretful of his own past displacement would agree to oversee the displacement of others. My father once lost a home. Did he really have the heart to be a Repo-Man? 

Much to my relief, the answer was no. This new venture of his would not (at least directly) involve him booting families out of their homes. It would, however, end his sabbatical from manual labor.

Our homes shelter us, after all—they hold the stories we tell about where we come from and who we are. And when we lose a home, aren’t we burned a little, flooded by regret? 

“I will handle what’s left behind,” he said.

He explained it this way: He’d recently sold a home to a man we’ll call Joe, a 30-something family man. Joe had “a good thing going” in the field of foreclosure cleanup and could use a man like my father—jack-of-all-trades, strong, unattached. Joe’s email inbox was flooded with work orders each morning, and my father, for better or worse, was sick of sitting at a desk. The housing bubble, he said, was bursting, and such a career shift would therefore be “prudent.” So it went—in a matter of days, he hit the road, and that is where he’s been ever since, and where, eventually, I joined him. 

Despite any misgivings I might have originally harbored about what my father’s work entailed, in June of 2009, what began as a “Take-Your-Daughter-to-Work Day” on my father’s part and a writer’s curiosity on mine, evolved quickly into what we like to call “a joint (ad)venture.” For a little over a year, I helped my father empty and clean the once-homes of strangers, Real Estate Owned properties (REOs). 

The scenes in REOs are post-apocalyptic and wrought with loss. Weeds invade overgrown lawns, and leaves pile up on porches, sidewalks, patios. Gutters, clogged, dangle from roofs, torn loose by wind. Forgotten chimes have tangled. Newspapers and phonebooks turn to papier-mâché in plastic bags tossed against doorsteps: no hands to collect them, no eyes to read their pages. There are rusty cars, litter tumbled against their wheel-wells, tires flat, batteries dead, no keys—no feet to push their pedals. 

62 Cover
Couches preserve the imprints of legs and arms in living rooms, and there are shelves lined with books and photo albums, and there are Christmas trees, boughs brittle, lights plugged in but not aglow. TVs, blank-screened, are layered with dust on entertainment centers with no one to entertain. Children’s drawings and lists of things-to-do remain secured by magnets to fridges. In freezers, TV dinners, their contents long since thawed, host hearty colonies of mold. 

There are bars of soap in showers. Eye-shadow and glitter and baby powder and shavings of beards line bathroom drawers. Spiders, their legs retracted, their bodies ashen, float across linoleum at the fall of feet. Bright rectangles of carpet verify where beds have been, and women’s blouses and men’s slacks hang morosely from wire hangers in closets. Children’s toys lie dormant in basements. In garages: tires and paint and tins full of bolts and screws clutter countertops—so many projects left undone. 

Some REOs advertise more devastation than others. Some are gutted by arson, for instance—their roofs and walls display holes the size of large windows. Dust and ash spiral through the rooms inside. Some people flood their homes on purpose, leaving walls blackened with mold, soft to the touch. Some leave notes. There was this written on cardboard in crayon: “I hate Mom.” And from the same REO, on paper torn from a spiral notebook: “I’ll be home soon. Love, Mom.” I found an appeal for mercy, addressed to “My life, my world,” in another REO: “I think I have paid my dues for all of the wrongs I have done. I just want my life to be normal…Please help me do this, please.” “Dear Shack, You were a good house” was written in black Sharpie on the wall of an REO in the process of a remodel job.

By the time we were dispatched to service an REO, everything had become “trash.” Everything had to go—to the dump, to charity, or to our own respective homes. I pocketed many of the notes I found—evidence of hardship and heartache I could not, in good conscience, completely eradicate. 

I lamented the damage we encountered. Who could burn or flood their own home? In retrospect, however, I empathize with the impulse toward ruin, with the desire to leave faucets running, to strike a match—not to go without leaving a mark. Our homes shelter us, after all—they hold the stories we tell about where we come from and who we are. And when we lose a home, aren’t we burned a little, flooded by regret?  

The typewriters I salvaged from REOs line the shelves of my home today—most of them inoperable. I could not let them go to a landfill. I wish I could tell their stories. I wish the fingers of those who once hammered their keys could somehow reappear, here, within mine. But I can only hazard a guess as to who lived within the REOs I entered, and what happened, and why. I can only wonder whether or not all the pieces of “trash” I sifted through, let alone the homes themselves, are missed by those who lost them. Once we emptied an REO, once we changed its knobs and deadbolts, we drove away, and those stories dissipated until all that remained was my father and me and the miles we were tallying. 

What did home mean to those strangers?

What did it mean to my father and me to handle what they left behind?

 “The place Joe picked up is real nice,” my father said in 2006.

He described Joe’s property with what I now recognize was longing. He painted a picture of Joe’s good fortune as if painting a picture of Joe himself—the kind of man my father, too, used to be, before he lost the home we shared.

America Underwater Family, photo courtesy of The New Bottom LineMortgaging the Future: Portraits of Underwater America
Eleven million homes underwater is more than we can afford.

 That’s the way I see it now. If there were any debt for which either of us was demanding payment in the field of foreclosure, it was a debt we felt we owed to ourselves and to each other—our “joint (ad)venture” one of reparation. We emptied and cleaned the once-homes of strangers in an effort to hold onto something of our own. 

But to what end? 

“We’re not sight-seeing. We’re working,” was my father’s catchphrase on the road, and he was right. Though we could have toured at least one of the Wonders of the World on account of the miles we traveled together, the field of foreclosure was certainly no vacation. What we did tour: the deflation of a dream, the “wrong” destiny manifest, the real estate wastelands of the West. But perhaps it’s just as well. For if there is anything I learned in the process, it is that what we hold most dear is what we are most liable to lose, and it is with caution we must navigate the ruin, the dross, the shadow-lands of hope.


  • The fight against unjust evictions just got fiercer as the national Occupy movement joins forces with community anti-foreclosure groups.

  • How have foreclosures transformed the layouts of Detroit, Las Vegas, and other cities? Artist Kathryn Clark’s mapped it—in quilts.

  • A sense of history and community tugged at the heart of Mindy Fullilove and pulled her back to the Jersey home she'd forsaken.
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