A Foreclosure-Boat-Tour Operator on What He Saw During the Great Recession

Marc Joseph in 2009. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A decade now after the 2008 financial crisis, the cultural and psychological imprint that it left looks almost as deep as the one that followed the Great Depression. Its legacy includes a new radical politics on both left and right; epidemics of opioid-abuse, suicides, and low birthrates; and widespread resentment, racial and gendered and otherwise, by those who felt especially left behind. This week, New York continues our retrospective on the crash and its aftermath by publishing interviews with some of those who were closest to the events. Here, Marc Joseph, a foreclosure-boat-tour operator photographed above in 2009, looks back on his “best days” during the recession.

The height of the market was 2005. And then it was like musical chairs of death. Everybody was interested in what was going on down here. We were the mecca for foreclosure disasters. I got the idea for foreclosure tours from someone out in California, when I saw it on TV. I thought I need to be the first one to do that here. The first time I took the boat out, I was so nervous. I’m like, “Is anybody going to want to do this?” Oh yes, they sure did. I had to get two boats. It was crazy. Those were some of my best days. Who showed up? Investors, a lot of investors. There were also seasonal Floridians. Even though it was bad economically, people were still visiting because of the nice weather. I had a lot of people who were there just to, you know, have a looky-look. Like, “Hey! We’re from Iowa and we heard how bad it is down here and we want to see.”

I had repeat visitors. They would show up on a Monday, and then I’d see them on a Friday, and I’m like, “Weren’t you just on my boat?” They’re like, “Oh yeah, but my friend was in town and I told her how nice it was, so she wanted to come, too.” I’d give them free water and little bag of chips. I had a whole bunch of tourists. There was one jackass in the front who wouldn’t stop talking. And then he complained about the free chips I gave them: I gave him Doritos, and he wanted Pringles! Like, Come on dude, shut up. The majority of my buyers were older. Looking back over my 28 years of doing real estate full time, from about ’08 till about the end of maybe ’13, a five-year run, were by far the best five years I ever had.

The media burned me a bit. Once I was live on CNN. It was just me and a woman interviewing me, and I think, Why are there two empty chairs? Who are they for? She’s like, “Yeah, there will be some people sitting next to you.” I was naïve, I hadn’t really done media before. So then they put a Vietnam vet who was losing his house in that chair right next to me! And another angry person. Then the camera rolls and she looks right at me and says something to the effect of, “This man served our country: How does it feel to be the one who’s been taking houses from people like him? You’re down here making money.” I was like, Oh my God. On live national TV. But I get it. I get it. There’s ratings.

There was two sides to the job. When you’re making sales, it’s all happy. Then the dark side is when you’re doing cash for keys, you’re throwing somebody out of their house. I’d do about four evictions a week. I’d finish the bus or boat tour and grab a sandwich, go do an eviction, and then put on a happy face on and go home to my wife and kid smiling saying that everything is great. That part was so ugly.

The way I was brought up is you should only buy what you can afford to pay for in cash. The American Dream. So when I was about 30, I bought a house for a million dollars. I wanted to retire by 45, and I had about a million bucks in this thing, cash. Then the market just totally dropped out. I’m watching to market drop and drop and sold it in ’08 and got $435,000 for it. I lost $600,000, hard money. It’s catastrophic because if you compare me to the neighbor that did a 3 percent-down loan, he walked away and he still had all his money because he only put 3 percent down. There was no bailout plan for the guy that paid cash. Still working and I have no debt — but I’m still working and I really thought I was going to retire at 45. I had everything paid off. Still, I had a very good run in foreclosures. I adapted to the market — that’s how you make money. I did very well.

I had a filmmaker come watch me do an eviction. I told him, “You need to see what I see.” He was floored. Then I told him I tape all my evictions, so we went back to my office and, to make a very, very long story short, he created a movie called 99 Homes and 90 percent of it’s all me. Michael Shannon’s the lead guy. He actually came down and hung out with me for a week. Anyway, the opening of that film is one of my hardest heartaches, and when I went to the red-carpet event in New York, I had to leave the room because I can’t watch that part of the movie. It’s an elderly man who is being evicted. It breaks my heart to see what I had to do to a guy who had nowhere to go.

It’s still happening. About two weeks ago, I threw a guy and all his contents out, and he didn’t even have a moving truck. He had nothing. He’d been living there for 31 years, and he had to stand at his driveway while the cleanout crew literally drug his stuff down the driveway and threw it on the ground in front of him, and after 31 years, you can imagine how much stuff was in this man’s house. Beautiful waterfront home.

*A version of this article appears in the August 6, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Foreclosure-Boat-Tour Operator on the Great Recession