epossession is a dirty business, but someone’s got to do it...
Drill whirring, he expertly shatters both front door lock and the former homeowner’s dream in under a minute.
When the repossession man arrives, it is truly the end of the line. A long one that trails back through a catalogue of missed mortgage payments, warning letters, final demands, visits from the bailiff and to a court writ.
That’s the piece of paper which officially states it’s game over. The house that was once someone’s pride and joy, their future, their own little castle, now stands as a semi-detached symbol of their biggest failure.
Their little bricks and mortar corner of the world has been reclaimed. And though it’s by a much higher power than the man with the Black & Decker - the bank or the building society, usually - it’s him that gets it in the neck.
“We get abuse and threats; we have to live with the fact that people automatically hate us because of the job we do,” says Emma Gregory, of Sheffield-based repossession firm Total Property Solutions.
Emma, who was a national account manager for Jewson’s before joining the family firm, explains: “This can be such a horrible job. Emotions can be very high. It’s understandable; people are losing their homes. It’s a terrible time for them.”
The mum of two, aged 38, is a co-director alongside husband Shaun, mum Sue and step-father Ken Hibbert. She says her team are caring and compassionate with distraught and bewildered homeowners.
“Our motto is: Property care by the people who care. And we do try to help and guide people as much as they will allow us,” she says, recalling a sad incident her firm walked into just last autumn.
“We entered a Sheffield house to discover not a thing had been packed. While we were switching off the electricity and draining down the central heating system the woman who lived there arrived. She was a mother of two and had no idea a repossession order had been served on their home,” she recalls.
“It turned out her husband had got himself into debt without telling her. He had hidden all the letters from the bank, then done a bunk.
“She was in total shock. She could hardly speak when the reality dawned on her.
“Ken took her down to Citizen’s Advice, but it was shut. So then he took her to the council housing offices and insisted they found the family somewhere to stay. He explained to her she had the right to get her belongings out within two weeks.
“We felt very sorry for her. You know how you would feel in her shoes, discovering you didn’t have a roof to put over your children’s heads.”
A number of people the repossession team meet are as innocent as that distraught mother.
TPS are seeing more and victims of dodgy landlord scams.
Crooks buy houses, takes bonds off unsuspecting new tenants, don’t use the rent to pay the mortgage, then they disappear, say TPS. “We arrive to find the occupants utterly unaware that the flurry of letters addressed to the landlord they had dutifully handed over were actually sealing their fate. It’s horrendous to witness how mercenary and cruel some people can be at others’ expense.”
But many losing their homes are in a mess of their own making.
“It’s hard to believe people can get themselves into such a position,” says Emma. “I think often it’s because they are so mortified by their debt and the prospect of losing their home, they shove their heads in the sand.
“They’re either too afraid or to embarrassed to tell anyone or ask for help; debt is still such a taboo subject.
“It makes you really aware of your own finances; of keeping your own house in order.”
A sixth sense for danger
Ken Hibbert has seen it all in his 12 years as a repossession contractor.
He shudders, remembering the day he lifted a loft hatch at an empty property only to have a rope noose drop straight in front of his face.
“It frightened the life out of me,” he says. “It was fastened to one of the rafters in the roof. Somebody had probably been at their wit’s end and contemplating ending it all.
“Other repossession men I know have actually come across dead bodies of home-owners who just couldn’t face living any longer, which is desperately sad.”
Says Ken, a former Woolley pit top worker: “You develop a sixth sense for danger in this job too. There are days when you feel you’re taking your life in your hands. Many’s the time our men walk in to a house and straight back out again because they know something doesn’t feel right. The houses we are entering are supposed to be empty, but often people come back.
“I once walked into a Sheffield house I’d put new locks on the previous day to find the tenant had broken back in and was upstairs in bed, with a Samurai sword either side of the mattress. I walked straight back out again.
“We’ve all been warned to wear stab vests after a colleague with another firm got knifed in the chest by a tenant who was lying in wait for him. The blade narrowly missed his heart.”
Emma nods knowingly: “People take it out on us. We arrive at the door when they are at their lowest point and they flip. When they get violent, that’s when the repossession team take their leave.
“But we don’t make the court orders and it’s not our fault that they got themselves into such a mess,” says Emma.
Her firm is one of many to get its work from national contractors dealing with the properties banks and building societies have been forced to seize after mortgages have gone unpaid and huge debts have amassed.
“Everything else has been tried. After the legal process has been worked through and the bailiffs have been and gone, it’s our job to arrive at the property at the time it legally becomes owned by the financial institution, ensure it is unoccupied and make it secure. We drill through the old locks, put new ones on. Then we have to get the property up to a level where it can be sold again.”
“Drug dens, squatters, scenes of crime houses... We see a seedy side of life most people never have to. Some nights when my husband comes home, he feels so dirty he can’t even kiss our kids.”
Less people turfed out
Repossession firms are hitting hard times too.
Anyone who has ever got so deeply into debt they have lost their home will probably say it’s divine retribution.
Or they would simply refuse to believe it. The last people you would expect to be struggling for work at the height of the recession are the people reclaiming the properies others have lost.
But incredibly, as more and more homeowners lose their jobs and end up in a financial mire, fewer of them are being turfed out by the banks and building societies. Which means less work for Emma Gregory’s repossession firm Total Property Solutions.
“The financial institutions are being forced to be more lenient on debtors by the stagnant housing market,” Emma explains. “It costs money to take back a property, restore it and attempt to re sell it. Houses can sit in an estate agent’s window for up to a year now.
“It can be more cost-effective for them to let the occupant stay put in return for a minimal monthly payment. Their view is at least there is some money coming in.
““But that means there is less work for firms like ours.”
Adds Emma: “People who have had the misfortune to fall into deep debt won’t feel sympathy for us. They probably think we deserve all we get.
“But we are just trying to do the job we are paid to do.
“We’ve got families to provide for just like anyone else.”
Things left behind
A tarantula spider
Large flat-screen TVs
Children’s birth certificates and photographs
Rooms left fully furnished