When Brent Hammonds left the mental health field to become a real estate agent in 2001, he worried about losing the altruism he felt in helping people work through their troubles.
But Hammonds' skills from his previous career as a therapist have come in handy in recent months.
The agent now works for a loss mitigation consulting firm - reaching out to downcast families in foreclosure to discuss their often limited options.
"That's very much like a therapy session half the time," he said.
As foreclosure rates continue to catapult upward, Valley real estate agents are not just playing the role of salesman but of pseudo-therapist as they try to aid depressed owners about to lose their homes.
Hammonds said many struggling homeowners he approaches are defensive and think he is the bad guy. It's important to tread lightly and let them know there are solutions, he said.
"I have about 120 seconds to get that message across when I knock on that door," he said.
It's also often the first time they've had to confront the reality of their situations, Hammonds said. It's not an easy thing when they see on paper that they're hundreds of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the hole, he said.
"I think a lot of people kind of do the ostrich thing and hide their heads in the sand," he said.
Keeping people in the communication loop is crucial, Hammonds said.
They hear horror stories from friends and start filling in the blanks with wrong information, he said.
Hammonds also said he hunts for rental housing early, before an owner's credit takes too much of a beating.
"It helps them feel more safe or secure," he said.
By the time many homeowners in trouble come to an agent, they've maxed out credit cards, cashed out 401Ks and borrowed on cars, said Mark Willis with Avalar Real Estate.
"They've tapped everything out," but didn't have to go that far, Willis said. "They don't have to have left themselves in a financial wreck."
Avalar has a growing team of agents who specialize in short sales - when homes are sold for less than what borrowers owe.
Owners seem to have a more realistic view of the market these days, Willis said.
"At the point that we talk to them ... they're spiraling downhill," he said. "The sentiment and the emotional attachment to the home is falling away, and they're actually in survival mode."
Avalar's agents try to ease into conversations, Willis said. The last thing people want to hear right away is that they'll have to sell the house, he said.
It can be an emotionally draining experience for agents, Willis added.
"It's discouraging because there's not a lot of choices for them," he said.
Today's sluggish market can also be stressful for buyers. Banks are so inundated with foreclosures, it can take weeks, sometimes months, to receive a response on a short sale offer. "You can call the bank all you want," agent Mary Jane Homewood said. "You just sit and wait."
On a recent morning, Homewood learned the appraisal for a buyer couple she's representing came in $8,000 below what they had offered for the home. The seller is already upside down in the house and doesn't want to drop the price further, but the buyers don't have the extra cash, she said.
When taking on a tough listing, Homewood said she reminds herself first that she isn't responsible for the down market or her client's choices.
Agents just have to hear clients out and do everything they can, she said.
"You're not letting them down," she said. "The market is what it is."