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Kai Ryssdal: There was some better-than-usual news about the housing market today. New home sales rose last month. The number of houses hanging around on the market fell. Those are both good things. But they're not going to do much to change the damage that the real-estate market did on the way down. Millions of people have lost their homes to foreclosure. We've heard a lot of those stories. What we don't hear so much about is what happens after foreclosure. To the people who lost the house. And to the house they lost. We sent Krissy Clark from American Radio Works to Las Vegas to find out.
KRISSY CLARK: You've probably never been to Broxburn street in Las Vegas. But you've seen places like it. When I first visited, six months ago, Broxburn was just another half-empty street in what was becoming a suburban ghost town, a ghost burb I guess you'd call it. Empty stucco houses, brown lawns, a row of signs that said, "For sale -- bank owned." And...
Rob COLE: Smell it?
CLARK: Oh yeah...
A terrible stink.
COLE: It's just a very distinctive, like algae, you know?
Algae, rotting leaves, a drowned bird. The smell was coming from three filthy swimming pools in the backyards of three foreclosed homes, right next to each other. I was with a guy named Rob Cole. His job is to clean pools that have been abandoned.
COLE: There's more things living in that pool than in that house. A lot more.
But there are traces of the people who used to live here. A bird house nailed to a tree, the ruins of a rock-lined fish pond.
And, looking through a window into the living room of 3613 Broxburn...
CLARK: Wow, look at what it says there.
COLE: Oh yeah, that's really sad.
There's a message spray painted in neat black letters on one of the walls.
COLE: After 15 years here, thanks.
So, what happened to the family who spray painted this message, once they moved out? And what happened to the house they left behind?
Kimberly TEEL: Hi, hi how are you?
I found the answer to the first question a few miles away from suburban Broxburn street, but also a world away at the Oasis RV Park. In lot 652, a woman with bleach blond hair is sitting in a lawn chair, holding a Coca-Cola glass full of pink wine.
TEEL: I'm a little nervous. I've had two glasses of wine today, but I have iced tea for you.
That's Kimberly Teel. She and her husband Mike are both in their 50s. They used to own the house at 3613 Broxburn. Kim spray painted the message on the wall right before they left. She gets emotional just talking about it.
TEEL: I wanted the new owners to know. Look, this is my home, take care of it.
Now, Kim and Mike have a new home, a 25-foot motor home.
KIM: This is where we live.
Mike TEEL: Now.
KIM: Now. This used to be our party rig, OK.
The tour of the party rig doesn't take long. It's just one room, plus a toilet in a closet and a nook in the back for the bed.
Kim: I gutted it all out, put in all new wall paper in, and...
Mike: It's home.
Kim: It's home.
They've barely finished showing me their new home, before they turn to memories of their old one. The only one they ever owned. Where they lived with their two daughters, and their aging parents.
HOME VIDEO: Happy thanksgiving. Happy thanksgiving.
Mike puts on this home movie from Thanksgiving a few years ago.
HOME VIDEO: And this is our turkey this year, looks kind of good.
Kim can't take her eyes off the screen where her smiling relatives flicker by.
HOME VIDEO: You've got a beautiful home here.
Kim: I used to have a nice house, huh? Look at it.
Mike: Yeah, we did it all ourselves, just her and I. We redid all the cupboards, put all new appliances in, redid the floor, everything in there is all brand new. For somebody else.
Kim: For somebody else.
The Teels lost their home in a way that's become painfully familiar. They refinanced, for the second time, at the peak of the real-estate boom to an adjustable-rate mortgage. But they didn't read the fine print about how much the interest rate would rise after a few years. Once it did rise?
Kim: I actually read the fine paper work, and we got screwed.
They couldn't afford it. Kim was at home full-time taking care of their sick parents -- one had Alzheimer's, another cancer. And as hard as they tried to stretch Mike's income as a slot machine repairman, it just wasn't enough to cover the mortgage. Finally, last November, the bank gave them three days to get out.
So Mike and Kim moved into their motor home. Not long before, both their elderly parents had passed away, and their older daughter had already moved out of the house. But their younger daughter had just graduated from high school, and was still living at home. Now, she's couch surfing with friends.
KIM: Do you know what that does to my heart? I've worked my whole frickin' life to make sure my kids have everything, and now the whole family is...
Mike: They're all over the place.
Kim: They're everywhere, because they haven't got a centering point.
Mike: It's really hard to see, I'm sure, to see your parents go from a house, into a motor home, in a park.
Kim: Tell her how they treated you at work. Tell her that. "Trailer trash."
Mike: Oh yeah, they call me trailer trash. I'm sure they don't mean any harm in it, it's just a joke to them, but it's not a joke to me.
And it's hard to forget the home they used to have. The Teels haven't gone back to their home on Broxburn street. But I have to see what life-after-foreclosure has been like for the house.
CLARK: I'm standing in front of the house. Looks like somebody has moved in.
There were moving boxes stacked on the front porch. Three dogs barked at me through the door.
A woman in her 50s named Keri Michelle Reeves bought the house in April. With cash. For $120,000. That's 10,000 less than it cost when the Teels bought it 15 years ago. Reeves didn't want to talk on tape about how she'd benefited from someone else's misfortune. But she did let me come inside and see the house.
She's gutted the place. Knocked down walls. Repainted everything, including the spray-painted message that said, "After 15 years here, thanks."
I asked her how she felt about that message that the Teels had left. And she said, "I feel sad for them. But they made bad decisions. Their loss is my gain."
KIM: OK, this is our local bathroom. Now you think I'm a weirdo, come on in here.
Kim Teel is taking me past rows of motor homes to the public bathroom at the Oasis RV Park. This has become her refuge.
KIM: If you turn this on steam, and you sit in here and put your music on. OK, now you're going to do yourself all in salt and olive oil, and then you're going to dye your hair, cuz you can't do it in the rig.
When she's not giving herself spa treatments in the public bathroom, Kim is busy looking for a job. It's hard in this economy, but not as urgent. Now that the Teels don't have a mortgage. The income that they do have goes farther, and they can spend it on things they couldn't when they owned the house on Broxburn street.
Mike: Fixing her teeth up.
Kim: Yeah, I got a lot of money in my teeth, OK.
Mike: So there were a lot of things we let lag behind, like going to the doctor for the skin cancer I have.
Kim: But you have to have co-payments. But we wouldn't even think about that. But we are taking care of ourselves a little bit better now.
Kim's gotten into photography recently, and she shows me a picture she took on her cell phone, from the door of their motorhome.
Kim: Look at this.
One of those perfect sunsets, with the light streaming through the clouds.
Kim: I mean if you have to go to bed every single night and look at this. It can't be that bad, can it?
In Las Vegas, I'm Krissy Clark for Marketplace.