Clues to Determining Occupancy Editorial by Safeguard Properties AVP of Inspections Jen Jozity

In the September issue of MReport, Safeguard Properties AVP of Inspections Operations Jen Jozity discusses the challenges of determining the occupancy status of defaulted properties.

Clues To Determining Occupancy

In the board game Clue, by Parker Brothers, players try to determine who murdered the game’s victim, where the crime took place and which weapon was used.  There are six potential suspects, six weapons, and nine rooms that could be the scene of the crime.  Players try to narrow down each possibility by strategically moving around the game board and collecting clues from the other players.  Once a player thinks he or she has narrowed down the suspect, weapon, and room, they make an accusation.  The player who guesses all three details correctly wins the game.

There are about 324 different winning scenarios possible in the game of Clue, and just like in the game, the mortgage servicing industry’s possible ways of indicating occupancy at defaulted properties are endless.

 Every industry faces challenges that it must overcome in order to conduct business properly and effectively.  Some   are internal, while others deal with issues that, on the surface, can seem to be out of their control.  Effective    businesses find solutions to these problems and establish best practices—often setting the industry standards.

In the housing industry, and especially since the crisis it faced several years ago, keeping people in their homes is the number one priority.  When all loan modifications and other alternatives have been exhausted, or when the homeowner has abandoned the property, mortgage servicing companies must find the most efficient way to not only maintain those assets, but also protect neighborhoods and communities from blight.  They hire field services companies to manage such on their behalf.

One of the most challenging issues that the field services industry faces is the determination of occupancy. Inspectors have clues they look for in determining if homeowners still reside in their properties, or if they have abandoned them for whatever reason.  But it is not cut-and-dry, and it can be a challenge even when all of the clues appear to be present.

Challenges Faced in the Field

When field inspectors and contractors get their orders to inspect or perform work on a property, they must review it for specific notes or instructions.  For inspectors, each inspection requires a different level of service, and there are some that need extra care in following those orders.

Bankruptcy and no-contact inspection orders are particularly sensitive.  Inspectors are instructed to snap the required photos from the street to avoid making any contact with the homeowner.  This can make it more difficult for inspectors to identify key vacancy indicators as they try to complete their work from a distance and not violate the work order instructions.

Some of the other challenges faced when determining occupancy at a defaulted or foreclosed property include timing, utilities, and information issues.

Timing issues can occur for homeowners who travel for work or leave for a period of time to care for a relative out of town.  The property is technically vacant, but it may be maintained as the grass is getting cut and the mail is being held by the post office or picked up by a neighbor or relative.

One of the key indicators for determining occupancy is checking if the utilities are on or have been used recently. Utility companies are often hesitant to give out information to a third party, therefore it is difficult for inspectors to determine usage when they are left on but other indicators show the house to be vacant.

Information regarding the property is often difficult to come by.  During bankruptcy and no-contact inspections, there is obviously little to be collected; but for contact, exterior and interior inspections, information may be a key indicator of vacancy.

Confusing or conflicting information is a big issue in determining occupancy.  Sometimes a house can be vacant but maintained because the homeowner is trying to sell it through a real estate agent before the foreclosure process takes its course.  The agent may not want an inspector to place a vacancy sticker on the door if the home is being shown to potential buyers because of the negative connotation of the word vacant.  Field services companies would report that home as vacant, but the real estate agent may disagree.  This may delay work that bears completion on the property as subsequent contractors may be unsure of the property’s occupancy status without the sticker.

Additionally, some municipalities have ordinances prohibiting the use of vacancy stickers, because officials think they bring unnecessary negative attention to the abandoned properties.

Good sources of information for field services inspectors when determining occupancy are the neighbors—but they also can be sources of misinformation.  A property may be determined as vacant by the inspector when one of the key indicators is the information received by the neighbors who said the homeowner left the property months ago. When trying to complete work on the property for damages, the insurance claims may get denied because the adjuster talks to a different neighbor who says they saw the homeowner at the property a few days ago.

Sometimes there are people at the property when it is actually vacant.  For example, during a contact inspection, an inspector arrives at the property and is greeted by someone at the door.  The person who answers the door says they are the homeowner.  The inspector does not know what the homeowner looks like and may assume that the property is occupied.  It turns out that the person at the door was a squatter who has been staying at the property for some time and has caused a significant amount of damage to the home.

Additionally, some indicators may not be what they seem. For example, an inspector sees a car in the driveway or garbage in the trash can outside.  Normally this would indicate that someone was living in the home, but the car may belong to the neighbor who knows the home is abandoned and started utilizing the extra parking.  The same could be true for the trash; in some communities, the number or size of garbage cans is limited, so the neighbors may be using the extra ones at the vacant home nearby.

No Clear Definition

Although field services companies set indicators for vacancy for their inspectors and contractors to use when determining the occupancy of a property, no clear definition of what is considered “vacant” has been established by the industry or government regulators.  And, even if those indicators were set by the industry or government entities, there are always exceptions to every rule as every property and homeowner situation is unique.  Some struggling homeowners may not maintain their properties at the same level that they once did.

Recently, the Akron Beacon Journal, a newspaper in Akron, Ohio, published an article featuring the work of surveyors cataloguing homes in that city.  The article highlights some of the challenges they faced while trying to determine if a property was occupied or vacant.

“Determining if a house is indeed vacant or just not being kept up well is among the challenges faced by the surveyors who are inputting data on the 98,000 parcels in Akron.  They look for obvious signs like boarded-up doors and windows, a lack of an electric meter, and notices on the door, and more subtle hints such as recent mail, an absence of blinds or window coverings, and the presence of seasonal items like a kiddie pool or flowers in bloom. Sometimes a neighbor will offer information about how long a house has been unoccupied or how vermin have taken over.”

While checking one of the properties that the surveyors had determined was vacant and marked accordingly on a city-issued iPad, a woman and two children walked up the street and entered the home.  In the article, the surveyors said they were shocked that anyone would occupy that property in its current condition.

Field service companies doing the ground work for the mortgage servicing industry face those same challenge when  determining the occupancy of defaulted properties across the country.  To help reduce any confusion, field services companies must set best practices for determining occupancy and provide tools for their inspector and contractor networks out in the field.

Best Practices

Field services companies must manage different scenarios for determining occupancy for areas across the country. By using business intelligence of the data collected in the field, they can identify property trends in the industry and establish best practices that can be reviewed regularly.

For each order, inspectors are tasked with using their best judgment based on the training and previous data collected in the field.  For properties on orders where contact with homeowners is permitted, not only should the attempt be made, but inspectors need to look for the visual clues for vacancy.

Some of the clues that indicate a property is vacant include:

  • No personals/empty through  the windows
  • Tall grass or yard not maintained
  • Overflowing or excess mail
  • Notices or citations posted
  • Build-up of fliers or phone books
  • Previously-posted vacancy notices
  • Disconnected or removed utility meters
  • Property damage or vandalism
  • Snow not shoveled (where applicable)
  • Abandoned vehicles
  • Confirmation from neighbors

Field service companies need to equip their inspector and contractor networks with a detailed script to follow to more accurately determine the occupancy of a property.  The vacancy indicators listed above should be included in the questions on that script. Inspectors must also submit multiple photos to prove that determination.

The increased use of mobile applications in the field also helps play a role in determining occupancy.  Those apps should function so that the script questions can be answered in a way that will prompt the inspector to review their determinations.  If a question is answered a certain way, then a secondary question will need to be answered, and so on.  The apps also should allow only the proper photos to be uploaded with the order.  This helps to streamline the inspections process and deliver a more accurate determination.

Multiple quality control checkpoints at the internal field services company level also help to ensure the occupancy of a property.  Those updating the orders and verifying the work completed serve as a quality checkpoint. The orders also are subjected to quality checks from the company’s internal quality control department to ensure work is done to the highest standard.

Another best practice comes from the feedback of mortgage servicers.  As regulation increases, so too do the audits performed by servicers on their field services partners as an intensive look into the company’s business practices, processes, and procedures.  This can provide another look at whether or not properties are being identified properly.

Having these multiple levels of quality checks, from the beginning of the work order process to ensuring the proper procedures are in place, is important in aiding in the verification of occupancy at a property.

Piecing the Clues Together

In today’s housing industry, piecing the clues together to determine the occupancy of a defaulted property is not as easy as deciding it was Col. Mustard, in the ballroom, with the lead pipe in the game of Clue. All of the key indicators may be there, but as the industry recovers from the financial crisis of a few years ago, these are not always cut-and-dry.

Having a hard-and-fast rule or definition of occupancy is something the industry should consider for the near future, but establishing best practices based on the property data the inspector and contractor networks collect every day is something the field services companies need to do now.  That, coupled with multiple quality control checks, can help the mortgage servicing industry solve the occupancy mystery and protect properties and neighborhood from blight.

Jennifer Jozity is the assistant vice president of inspections operations at Safeguard Properties.  She can be reached at Jennifer.Jozity@safeguardproperties.com.

Please click here for Clues to Determining Occupancy article  in PDF.

About Safeguard 
Safeguard Properties is the largest mortgage field services company in the U.S. Founded in 1990 by Robert Klein and based in Valley View, Ohio, the company inspects and maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for mortgage servicers, lenders, and other financial institutions. Safeguard employs approximately 1,700 people, in addition to a network of thousands of contractors nationally. Website: www.safeguardproperties.com.

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CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Alan Jaffa

Alan Jaffa is the chief executive officer for Safeguard, steering the company as the mortgage field services industry leader. He also serves on the board of advisors for SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Alan joined Safeguard in 1995, learning the business from the ground up. He was promoted to chief operating officer in 2002, and was named CEO in May 2010. His hands-on experience has given him unique insights as a leader to innovate, improve and strengthen Safeguard’s processes to assure that the company adheres to the highest standards of quality and customer service.

Under Alan’s leadership, Safeguard has grown significantly with strategies that have included new and expanded services, technology investments that deliver higher quality and greater efficiency to clients, and strategic acquisitions. He takes a team approach to process improvement, involving staff at all levels of the organization to address issues, brainstorm solutions, and identify new and better ways to serve clients.

In 2008, Alan was recognized by Crain’s Cleveland Business in its annual “40-Under-40” profile of young leaders. He also was named a NEO Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® finalist in 2013.

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Chief Operating Officer

Michael Greenbaum

Michael Greenbaum is the chief operating officer for Safeguard. Mike has been instrumental in aligning operations to become more efficient, effective, and compliant with our ever-changing industry requirements. Mike has a proven track record of excellence, partnership and collaboration at Safeguard. Under Mike’s leadership, all operational departments of Safeguard have reviewed, updated and enhanced their business processes to maximize efficiency and improve quality control.

Mike joined Safeguard in July 2010 as vice president of REO and has continued to take on additional duties and responsibilities within the organization, including the role of vice president of operations in 2013 and then COO in 2015.

Mike built his business career in supply-chain management, operations, finance and marketing. He has held senior management and executive positions with Erico, a manufacturing company in Solon, Ohio; Accel, Inc., a packaging company in Lewis Center, Ohio; and McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company in Aurora, Ohio.

Before entering the business world, Mike served in the U.S. Army, Ordinance Branch, and specialized in supply chain management. He is a distinguished graduate of West Point (U.S. Military Academy), where he majored in quantitative economics.

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CHEIF INFORMATION OFFICER

George Mehok

George Mehok is the chief information officer for Safeguard. He is responsible for all strategic technology decisions, new systems deployments and data center operations supporting a national network of more than 10,000 mobile workers.

George has more than 20 years of leadership experience dedicated to high-growth companies in the mobile telecommunications and financial services industries, spanning startups to global industry leaders.

George played a senior role in the formation of Verizon Wireless, leading the IT product development and strategic planning team. He led the integration planning for the Verizon merger including: GTE, Vodafone-AirTouch, Bell Atlantic Mobile and PrimeCo.

As chief information officer at Revol Wireless, a VC-backed CDMA wireless communications network operator, George’s team implemented an integrated technology infrastructure and award-winning business intelligence platform.

George holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Eastern Michigan University and an M.B.A. from The Ohio State University. He is a board member of Akron University’s School of Business Center for Information Technology, in addition to an advisory board member for OHTec.

In 2013, George won the Crain’s Cleveland Business CIO of the Year award for his team’s work in completing a major acquisition and technology transformation at Safeguard. In 2015, George’s team was recognized by InformationWeek’s annual Elite 100 ranking of the most innovative U.S.-based users of business technology. The mobile inspection technology developed at Safeguard was selected as InformationWeek’s “One of the top 20 ideas to steal in 2015”.

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General Counsel and Executive Vice President

Linda Erkkila, Esq.

Linda Erkkila is the general counsel and executive vice president for Safeguard, with oversight responsibilities for the legal, human resources, training, compliance and audit departments. Linda’s broad scope of oversight covers regulatory issues that impact Safeguard’s operations, pro-active risk mitigation, enterprise strategic planning, human capital and training initiatives, compliance and audit services, litigation and claims management, and counsel related to mergers, acquisition and joint ventures.

Linda’s oversight of the legal department along with multiple compliance and human capital focused departments assures that Safeguard’s strategic initiatives align with its resources, leverage opportunities across the company, and contemplate compliance mandates. Her practice spans almost 20 years, and Linda’s experience, both as outside and in-house counsel, covers a wide range of corporate matters, including regulatory disclosure, corporate governance compliance, risk assessment, executive compensation, litigation management, and merger and acquisition activity. Her experience at a former Fortune 500 financial institution during the subprime crisis helped develop Linda’s pro-active approach to change management during periods of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

Linda previously served as vice president and attorney for National City Corporation, as securities and corporate governance counsel for Agilysys Inc., and as an associate at Thompson Hine LLP. She earned her JD at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Linda holds a degree in economics from Miami University and an MBA. In 2017, Linda was named as both a “Woman of Influence” by HousingWire and as a “Leading Lady” by MReport.

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Chief Financial Officer

Joe Iafigliola

Joe Iafigliola is the Chief Financial Officer for Safeguard. Joe is responsible for oversight of the Control, Quality Assurance, Accounting and Information Security departments, and is a Managing Director of SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Joe has been in a wide variety of roles in finance, supply chain management, information systems development, and sales and marketing. His career includes senior positions with McMaster-Carr Supply Company, Newell/Rubbermaid, and Procter and Gamble.

Joe has an MBA from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and holds a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University’s Honors Accounting program.

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AVP, High Risk and Investor Compliance

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer is the assistant vice president of high risk and investor compliance for Safeguard. In this role, Steve is responsible for managing our clients’ conveyance processes, Safeguard’s investor compliance team and developing our working relationships with cities and municipalities around the country. He also works directly with our clients in our many outreach efforts and he represents Safeguard at a number of industry conferences each year.

Steve joined Safeguard in 1998 as manager over the hazard claims team. He was instrumental in the development and creation of policies, procedures and operating protocol. Under Steve’s leadership, the department became one of the largest within Safeguard. In 2002, he assumed responsibility for the newly-formed high risk department, once again building its success. Steve was promoted to director over these two areas in 2007, and he was promoted to assistant vice president in 2012.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve spent 10 years within the insurance industry, holding a number of positions including multi-line property adjuster, branch claims supervisor, and multi-line and subrogation/litigation supervisor. Steve is a graduate of Grove City College.

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AVP, Operations

Jennifer Jozity

Jennifer Jozity is the assistant vice president of operations, overseeing inspections, REO and property preservation for Safeguard. Jen ensures quality work is performed in the field and internally, to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations. Jen has demonstrated the ability to deliver consistent results in order audit and order management.  She will build upon these strengths in order to deliver this level of excellence in both REO and property preservation operations.

Jen joined Safeguard in 1997 and was promoted to director of inspections operations in 2009 and assistant vice president of inspections operations in 2012.

She graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in business.

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AVP, Finance

Jennifer Anspach

Jennifer Anspach is the assistant vice president of finance for Safeguard. She is responsible for the company’s national workforce of approximately 1,000 employees. She manages recruitment strategies, employee relations, training, personnel policies, retention, payroll and benefits programs. Additionally, Jennifer has oversight of the accounts receivable and loss functions formerly within the accounting department.

Jennifer joined the company in April 2009 as a manager of accounting and finance and a year later was promoted to director. She was named AVP of human capital in 2014. Prior to joining Safeguard, she held several management positions at OfficeMax and InkStop in both operations and finance.

Jennifer is a graduate of Youngstown State University. She was named a Crain’s Cleveland Business Archer Award finalist for HR Executive of the Year in 2017.

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AVP, Application Architecture

Rick Moran

Rick Moran is the assistant vice president of application architecture for Safeguard. Rick is responsible for evolving the Safeguard IT systems. He leads the design of Safeguard’s enterprise application architecture. This includes Safeguard’s real-time integration with other systems, vendors and clients; the future upgrade roadmap for systems; and standards designed to meet availability, security, performance and goals.

Rick has been with Safeguard since 2011. During that time, he has led the system upgrades necessary to support Safeguard’s growth. In addition, Rick’s team has designed and implemented several innovative systems.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Rick was director of enterprise architecture at Revol Wireless, a privately held CDMA Wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana, and operated his own consulting firm providing services to the manufacturing, telecommunications, and energy sectors.

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AVP, Technology Infrastructure and Cloud Services

Steve Machovina

Steve Machovina is the assistant vice president of technology infrastructure and cloud services for Safeguard. He is responsible for the overall management and design of Safeguard’s hybrid cloud infrastructure. He manages all technology engineering staff who support data centers, telecommunications, network, servers, storage, service monitoring, and disaster recovery.

Steve joined Safeguard in November 2013 as director of information technology operations.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was vice president of information technology at Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana. He also held management positions with Northcoast PCS and Corecomm Communications, and spent nine years as a Coast Guard officer and pilot.

Steve holds a BBA in management information systems from Kent State University in Ohio and an MBA from Wayne State University in Michigan.

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AVP, Mobile and Analytics

Jason Heckman

Jason Heckman is the assistant vice president of mobile and analytics for Safeguard. He is responsible for both Safeguard’s mobile development and strategy as well as the company’s data warehousing and business intelligence. Jason oversees the design, development and release of all Safeguard’s internally developed mobile applications. He also oversees the development and delivery of operational and analytical data technologies throughout the organization.

Jason joined Safeguard as manager of mobile in 2012. During that time he led the development and integration of Safeguard’s mobile applications across the company’s vendor network to provide real-time data from the field. In 2014, he was promoted to director of mobile applications and named assistant vice president in 2017.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Jason was the director of application development and business intelligence for Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana.

Jason holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

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AVP, Business Development

Tim Rath

Tim Rath is the AVP of business development for Safeguard. He is responsible for developing innovative growth strategies for Safeguard and developing and overseeing potential partnerships, mergers and acquisitions.

Tim joined Safeguard in 2011 as project director and has filled numerous roles within Vendor Management, most recently serving as director of vendor management, a role he assumed in 2011.

Prior to Safeguard, Tim worked as director of supply chain at PartsSource Inc. in Aurora, Ohio, a provider of medical replacement parts, procurement solutions and healthcare supply chain management technology services. He also has held sales positions with Rexel, ComDoc, and Pier Associates, all based in Ohio.

Tim holds a degree in marketing and sales from The University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. He also earned his FAA Certified Commercial UAS (Drone) Pilot license in 2017.