Real-estate agent Naomi Campbell
Wreck room: Campbell in the kitchen of a foreclosed Des Plaines condo

“You might want to hold your breath, honey,” Naomi Campbell suggested as we started down the basement stairs of a foreclosed home in Norridge. By the time we reached the bottom step, I could feel my throat tightening, and, looking around, I saw black spots covering the walls from the floor up to chest level.

Back upstairs, Campbell—a real-estate agent planning to sell the home for its foreclosing lender—explained that as far as she could determine, the former homeowners had yanked out the sump pump, furnace, and air-conditioning equipment before leaving. What’s more, several inches of water had leaked into the basement, spawning a festering mural of what appeared to be mold.

There were other problems upstairs. The sink in the master bath had been bashed in, the plumbing fixtures were gone from the adjacent shower, and all of the interior doors had been removed.

“I understand how you feel if you’re having financial problems,” said Campbell, who nine years ago was newly divorced, unemployed, and $80,000 in debt. “But explain to me why they’d take out the doors. Those were probably $350 solid wood doors. Maybe they got $50 a door if they could find a builder who would take them.”

Over the last few years, Campbell has become an expert on the detritus of the foreclosure crisis. A Coldwell Banker agent based in Libertyville, she specializes in selling foreclosures and in short sales—bank-approved transactions where the listing price is less than the mortgage amount. She sold 65 distressed properties in 2009 (and a dozen conventionally marketed properties), and by early October of this year, she had sold another 40 or so (and made seven conventional sales). Last year, most of her buyers were investors, but that has changed: Campbell says that three-fifths of this year’s buyers, alert to the great deals, have bought residences they will move into.

(In October, when several major mortgage lenders called a temporary halt to foreclosures, Campbell expressed only minor concern. She acknowledged that her business was “slowing up a little bit,” but because she works with several lenders, she didn’t expect any significant impact on sales.)

From a tiny sliver of the overall real-estate market a decade ago, foreclosures have multiplied dramatically. In August alone, 14,339 homes in the six-county Chicago region were at some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. In early October, RealtyTrac ranked Chicago third among the nation’s big cities for foreclosures—behind Las Vegas and Miami but ahead of another Sun Belt boom city, Phoenix. Why would Chicago pop so high on the list? Real-estate experts say that the first rounds of foreclosures hit the Sun Belt earlier and harder; Chicago lagged behind, but with ongoing economic stagnation here (and around the country), more people are finally having to let go. The Chicago Tribune’s Mary Ellen Podmolik reported in September that as many as 204,000 local homes may still be at risk of being taken back by lenders.

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Naomi Campbell, 45, isn’t the most prolific of the foreclosure specialists in the Chicago area. But with her mama-bear manner, her animal-print clothes, shoes, and fingernail polish—she markets herself as selling property “as fast as a cheetah”—and her hypercaffeinated drive (not to mention the same name as the supermodel), she is the most fun to tag along with.

“Naomi shows up with all the documents that I’m usually chasing an agent to get,” says Robin Kramer, a Warrenville real-estate attorney who has handled several of Campbell’s transactions. “But then she’s giggling and telling me, ‘Check out my cute shoes.’”

Campbell started handling foreclosures in the mid-1990s, when working for a Chicago area bank. “The first one I went into was in Florida,” she recalls. “Somebody had taken a chain saw to basically rip the plumbing out of the walls.” Campbell quit working to be a stay-at-home mom, but after her divorce, she got into selling real estate about nine years ago. More recently, she started selling foreclosed homes as an agent for the banks—the right spot to be in when the first big wave of foreclosures swept in.

These days, Campbell regularly chats with her close contacts in various area banks’ REO departments (that’s bank-speak for Real Estate Owned). A bank can take several months to put a foreclosed house on the market, so she has a pretty good idea what’s going to be available soon. Buyers who have asked to be added to what Campbell calls her Secret Squirrel List get the high sign when something that meets their criteria comes around.

And they come scurrying. Last April, when she put out word that a new Glenview home, whose builder had priced it at $2.875 million before losing it in foreclosure, would now be on the market at $990,000, more than 70 potential buyers came to see it in the first 36 hours. At the close of the three-day showing period, the house went for $1.355 million.

Campbell generally operates through a sealed-bid auction. The selling bank sets a minimum price based on a competitive market analysis. (Most banks that Campbell works with set the price low to get the property sold.) Bidders then have a set number of days to place their best written offers. The bank picks the winner.

In mid-August, Campbell alerted me on a Friday afternoon that a Park Ridge house that had been priced at $1.549 million was going on the market with a minimum bid of $348,480. I got there 35 minutes after the opening, and the first potential buyer was already waiting. Dozens of items were missing from the house, but at the end of three days, Campbell had 12 all-cash offers to hand the bank. The place went for $552,000.

The Norridge house with the smelly and moldy basement, whose foreclosed owners had bought it in March 2007 for $650,000, went on the market in September (after the basement had been cleaned). The house had 53 showings in seven days and sold for $265,100. “Naomi found a niche that works,” says her Coldwell sales manager, Bob Ott, marveling at the pace of sales and paperwork she generates.


Photograph: Jimmy Fishbein


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Like many dedicated salespeople, Campbell is always selling. In the summer of 2009, she was invited to a party on a sailboat belonging to Geary Finn, a man she didn’t know. Less than a month later, Finn and his wife, Mariette, were drinking martinis with Campbell to celebrate writing what turned out to be the winning offer on a foreclosure in Mundelein that had been on the market for just one day. The Finns ended up paying the bank $69,300 for a three-bedroom ranch house previously valued at about $240,000. Geary, a contractor, put around $15,000 into the place, and he now rents it at $1,000 a month, enough that the home carries itself.

This summer, Campbell joined the Finns’ party on Michigan’s Mackinac Island after the storied Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. “She made three real-estate [phone] calls while we were walking to an event,” Geary says. “She laughs all the time and she’s fun, but she lives and breathes foreclosures.”

Spend a little time with Campbell, and you will think you’ve discovered the perpetual-motion machine. One minute she’s walking a potential buyer into the bashed-up master bath of a Park Ridge foreclosure, warning him that “there are no potties left in the house.” The next minute she’s standing in the foyer, signing off on a phone call while throwing her jewelry-bedecked hands in the air to welcome another client who is coming up the walk.

“I’m sure you’ve gotten some of her fast-typed, fragmented e-mails,” Ott says. “I’ve learned to translate them pretty well.” They tend to open with greetings like “Hello Baby Doll” and brandish countless exclamation points.

Campbell gives two reasons she can maintain the killer pace. The first is the man she usually calls “my wife,” her husband, Michael Wallisch. Although he works as a maintenance engineer at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, Wallisch handles virtually all the care of their two children, a 15-year-old daughter from Campbell’s first marriage and a six-year-old son, as well as their home in Algonquin. Her father, Robert Drwal, pitches in, too. (Her mother is deceased.)

The second reason? “I feel like I’m able to help people,” Campbell says. “If it’s a short sale, I can help them so it doesn’t get to foreclosure, [and if it is a] foreclosure, I want to be nonthreatening, help them get out of an embarrassing situation as gracefully as possible. I don’t want to see them get their stuff thrown out on the street, and I want them to know the bank doesn’t want to take their home.”

Campbell won’t reveal her income, but the commission is structured the same as for a conventional sale: typically around 3 percent each for the buying and selling agent. “I make a decent living,” she says. “I just bought a new car”—a $32,000 Volvo that she drives about 700 to 800 miles a week.

In the back of her Volvo, Campbell keeps equipment that a conventional real-estate agent would rarely need: rubber boots (for flooded basements), a hefty flashlight (for homes whose light fixtures have been carted away), duct tape, rubber gloves, a hammer, screwdrivers, and wrenches. On first entering a foreclosure, she never knows what to expect. There have been raccoons, roaches, trash bags stuffed with pot. “There are some [foreclosed homes], maybe 5 percent, that are cream puffs; 50 to 60 percent need something [repaired]; and 35 to 45 percent are not habitable,” she says.

Campbell understands the damage inflicted on a foreclosed house. “People get really sad when they lose their home,” she says. “I would. There’s a lot of anger and fear about what’s going to be the next part of their lives. They take it out on the house [as if they were] taking it out on the bank.”

What upsets her are the family photos she occasionally finds left behind. “I can understand if you’re moving out in a hurry you might leave some furniture,” Campbell says. “But pictures of your family? They’re your treasure. How can you go away without those?”