The Wall Street Journal gets a Debit this week for a flimsy page-one story on supposed buyers’ revenge causing foreclosed homeowners to trash their homes.

These days, bankers and mortgage companies often find that by the time they get the keys back, embittered homeowners have stripped out appliances, punched holes in walls, dumped paint on carpets and, as a parting gift, locked their pets inside to wreak further havoc. Real-estate agents estimate that about half of foreclosed properties to be sold by mortgage companies nationwide have “substantial” damage, according to a new survey by Campbell Communications, a marketing and research firm based in Washington, D.C.


Wow. “About” half the foreclosed properties—trashed! Those borrowers are animals! Half of them, anyway, according to “estimates” from a “survey” by the world-famous-for-a-day “marketing and research firm” Campbell Communications.

How many again? Well, there were 2.2 million foreclosure filings in 2007, and 493,000 foreclosed homes actually on the market in January. No, but we’re talking about half of foreclosed properties “to be sold by mortgage companies.” That number is not shared with readers. But, right. Who’s counting?

Still, the Journal might have told readers that Campbell has a list of mortgage-industry clients a couple of subdivisions long. This is relevant, of course, because mortgage industry has a vested interest in making foreclosees out to be irresponsible brutes—better them than the real animals, sorry, the financial-services professionals, who created this mess.

The WSJ doesn’t otherwise back up the 50 percent number.

Still, with “half” of hundreds of thousands of foreclosures winding up with “substantial” damage, according to those sorry agents, it must be pretty easy to find at least a single one of those vandals. But, um, no.

A damaged house is described, and readers are strongly led to believe was trashed by the previous owners, though no one really knows or can prove who did it. Oh well.

Light switches, outlet covers and thermostats were smashed. There was what looked to be crowbar damage along the staircase. A large pool of paint had hardened on the living-room carpet. It appeared that someone had dripped motor oil in a trail that wound its way through every carpeted room. The appliances were gone, as were most light fixtures. A cabinet door had been removed and left soaking in a full tub of water. Not a wall was left without a hole the diameter of a closet rod, including the pink child’s room once carefully decorated with a floral wallpaper stripe. It’s damage that Mr. Carver [an agent] described as “a vengeance-type thing.”

Or a “vandalism-type thing” by local kids. Who knows? Us, we think it was Agent Carver. But, sure. Whatever. It’s only journalism.

A second anecdote lays out the story of an unnamed owner of a house in foreclosure who did not damage his house and did not even say he was going to damage his house, but:

He called Mr. Carver after receiving the cash-for-keys note, but was left cold by the bank’s initial $500 offer to leave the house soon, intact and broom-swept. “If I stay here it will cost them a lot more money,” both men remember the former owner saying.

Obviously, the borrower (a 43-year-old father of two who had his mortgage payments jump to $4,000 from $1,800) is simply trying to make eviction as difficult as possible, which is not vandalism at all, is it?

The man says he was just pointing out that eviction is expensive for the bank and says he had no intention of damaging the house. But he had “pushed the right buttons” for Mr. Carver. “He didn’t actually come out and threaten the property in any way,” Mr. Carver says. “But I assumed that he probably wouldn’t be too happy if he got evicted and locked out.”

So, a story under a headline: “Buyers’ Revenge: Trash the House After Foreclosure” contains zero examples of an actual buyer trashing a house, and uses a PR survey to support its “half” claim.

The subheadline, “Banks Pay People off to Deter Home Rage; Loose Pets, Paint Spills,” or the headline on the accompanying video, “Banks Offer Bitter Homeowners Money,” is the more accurate summation of the story.

Of course, some unknown number of borrowers have trashed some unknown number of houses. We’ve seen this before from the Journal.


Leading by example

Leave it to The New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson, along with Jonathan D. Glater, to show by example just how lost the WSJ’s front page is journalistically and morally on the borrower side of the mortgage story:

Foreclosure Machine Thrives on Woes

The piece continues Morgenson’s superlative work (second item) on lenders’ abuses of the bankruptcy process.

Anna Bahney is a Fellow and staff writer for The Audit