A good repo man is hard to find

Matt Levin Nov 7, 2023
Heard on:
A good chunk of used cars come from repossessions. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

A good repo man is hard to find

Matt Levin Nov 7, 2023
Heard on:
A good chunk of used cars come from repossessions. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Kyle Barnes is showing me how quickly he can tow a car with his repo truck.

We’re in a 4-acre auto yard at Zane Investigations in Sparks, Nevada, a repossession agency just outside Reno. Picture rows and rows of fairly new-looking SUVs and sedans on dusty gravel, like some forlorn car orphanage. They average about 35 repos a day here.

Barnes flips on the power takeoff, or PTO for short, and a loud mechanical hum provides the soundtrack to the tow truck’s boom sliding underneath a recently repossessed Hyundai Elantra. The car is off the ground in a matter of seconds.

“See, you don’t even have to get out of the truck,” said Barnes, 26. “I can do this in my sleep, man.”

Barnes has been working as a field agent here for more than three years. He said ideally, he won’t leave the truck to strap the car in more securely until he tows it a few blocks away from the owner’s address. He said he’s seen former owners approach his truck with guns four or five times.

Barnes is married and has a kid. Shockingly, his wife doesn’t love the idea of him being a repo man.

But he loves it.

“I consider myself kind of an adrenaline junkie,” Barnes said. “When you get that car and you’re taking off, and say they come running out of the house screaming at you, running at you, no matter how long you do it, it gets your heart pumping.”

The repossession industry is struggling to find enough people like Barnes. This past spring, Harley-Davidson partly blamed $53 million in credit losses on a shortage of repo agents — the people lenders hire to take away a bike or car when borrowers fall behind on their payments.

With interest rates on the rise, about 1.5 million cars will be repossessed this year, according to Cox Automotive. That’s the highest total since the pandemic hit.

What to look for in a repo agent

When Zane Investigations co-owner Kristen Ithurburu interviews potential repo agents, she asks less about how many fights they’ve won and more about how they keep their cool in dangerous situations. A big part of the job is the art of de-escalation.

She also asks what’s in their closets.

“Your clothes, are they all in order by color?” Ithurburu asks. “Do you hang your pants or do you fold your pants? You have to be self-disciplined to work here, specifically in the field.”

Finding a Marie Kondo-type who can drive a tow truck has always been hard.

But the last couple years have been extremely tough. Across its Reno and Las Vegas locations, Zane Investigations lost half its field staff early in the pandemic. Many of those positions are still open.

Ithurburu said with bonuses, her top performers can make six figures, and base wages are $40,000 to $50,000. But she’s still losing candidates to other industries.

“I think at this point, post-COVID, we’re competing with anybody that’s paying,” Ithurburu said.

After the pandemic hit, several states passed moratoria on repossessions. Lenders were unusually flexible with late borrowers, and stimulus checks helped cover missed payments.

That’s all over now. But Ron Brown at the repo agency network Eagle Group XX said the labor shortage isn’t.

Agency closures

“A lot of the people who were in the business, a lot of them closed their agencies,” Brown said. “A lot of the old professionals, they got old, they quit doing the work, they’re retiring.”

Brown said the flat fees repo agencies get per car, anywhere between $200 and $500, haven’t budged in decades. The cut individual agents get from that fee has similarly remained stagnant.

During the Great Recession, middlemen companies called forwarding agencies began negotiating those fees on behalf of auto lenders. And they’ll often only pay on contingency — no repo, no compensation.

Brown said that model invites confrontation.

“No metal, no money is what gets people killed,” Brown said. “The repossessor doesn’t get paid anything unless he repossesses the vehicle. He’s gotta make a living, so he takes chances and risks and does things he normally wouldn’t do.”

While forwarding agencies may only pay them on contingency, some larger repo companies, like Zane Investigations, pay an hourly wage to their field agents to disincentivize reckless behavior. They add bonuses based on the number of cars an agent tows.

License plate scanners

Mark Zane is driving me around in Zane Investigations’ “scanner car” — basically a sedan with license plate-reading cameras strapped to the hood. Lots of repo agencies have these.

Scanner cars just drive around residential neighborhoods and parking lots, randomly scanning every license plate until a siren goes off inside the scanner car. That means a license plate matches a vehicle that needs to be repossessed. In this case it’s a Kia Soul, parked outside a Bank of America.

“We still haven’t shaken out the pandemic,” said Zane, co-owner of the company. “You know, there were so many lenders that put all of those missed payments on the back of those contracts.”

Zane said even if you’re not late on your payments, you might feel the shortage of repossessors anyway.

A good chunk of used cars come from repos, and banks will charge higher rates on auto loans if they can’t get their collateral back.

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