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Jardine: Modesto reservist trying to protect his investment

Oscar Rodriguez has spent parts of the past 30 years protecting his country.

Now he's trying to protect his finances.

Rodriguez is an Air Force reservist called back to active duty by presidential order a year ago as part of the Afghanistan surge. A senior master sergeant, he worked with the 349th Aircraft Generation Squadron, which supports C-5 Galaxy cargo planes, the largest in the Air Force's fleet.

The 50-year-old moved to the valley in 1986 and has been a licensed contractor since 1999.

Upon being deactivated from the Air Force in November, he returned to Modesto and resumed work on a home he was building for a client on Rembrandt Way in north Modesto.

The client had gotten his loan through IndyMac Bank, a lender notorious for making loans without proof of income or ability to repay. The home went into foreclosure.

On March 1, Rodriguez received notice from the new noteholder — OneWest Bank of Pasadena purchased a chunk of IndyMac's assets in 2009 — that it would put the unfinished home up for auction three days later on the Stanislaus County Courthouse steps.

On Friday, clad in his Air Force duds, Rodriguez attended the auction hoping to dissuade potential buyers from bidding on the place. Why? He figures he is due nearly $200,000 for his time and materials in the home, including work he continued to do at the bank's behest in trying to bring the project to 95 percent completion.

If he owned the property, he could have found some sanctuary under the Service Members Relief Act, which offers those on active duty some protections against eviction or foreclosure. President George W. Bush signed the Act in 2003, a year after Rodriguez fended off a foreclosure attempt on his own home by Bank of America, which began proceedings the day after he was deactivated.

But it won't help Rodriguez in this particular case because he is only the contractor, not the foreclosed-upon homeowner. Consequently, he might be out of luck and $200 grand.

Rodriguez has a mechanic's lien against the property, which is a legal claim to recoup his losses for time and materials. If the bank sells it at auction, "senior" liens such as property taxes and IRS back taxes against the previous owner take precedence. Mechanics liens are considered "junior" because they amass after the loan is originated. In some cases they have no standing and are wiped out by the foreclosure.

But prospective bidders often avoid properties with mechanic's liens because they, in other cases, can supercede the deed of trust. That can complicate a sale or reduce the profitability to the point where it isn't worth the trouble.

Yes, Rodriguez understands, the bank is within its rights to foreclose. Still, he wondered, is this how corporate America treats those who serve their country? He spent six years as an Air Force regular and has been a reservist since 1986, willingly going on numerous deployments that disrupted his business and personal life.

That's what compelled him to attend last week's auction at the courthouse.

"It's just disturbing," Rodriguez said. "I couldn't just sit here and let the bank roll over me. At least I could present my case in uniform. I was ready to plead with anyone interested. Fortunately for me, nobody was interested in the property. It reverted back to the bank."

Indeed, there were no takers for the $125,000 beginning bid. Sympathy for the man in uniform?

No, one potential buyer told me.

"There are anywhere from 10 to 40 people at those auctions," he said. "If there wasn't any money (or chance to profit) in it, that's why it didn't sell."

So Rodriguez remains in contact with the lender and has offered to buy the place himself so he might someday recoup his losses.

He's even continued to pay a worker to live on the property to protect it from vandals.

"(The caretaker) was there while I was activated," Rodriguez said. "He's there now. I'm not about to let anything happen to my investment."

A spokeswoman for OneWest said bank officials will consider his proposal.

That might be the best course for all involved, Air Force reservist and investors alike.

In fact, you might say they'd be doing each other a service.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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