01/19/2011 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Distressed Domiciles

He was trying to elicit referrals from me; he boasted how many homes he had in inventory. "Enough to fill the wish list of every client you send my way. I'm one of the leading listers of distressed properties in [the area]."

I had already spoken to two clients who'd reached the ends of their financial ropes that day, and neither one of them had minced words when it came to their degree of desperation. Therefore, I was in no mood for this real estate agent's euphemistic tap dance around the houses he was hustling.

"Distressed properties? You deal in houses suffering from mental anguish or ones in physical pain?

He snorted, thinking I was making a joke. "Nah. I'm guessing you know what I mean. My listings are REOs. Bank owned properties. Foreclosures. Short sales. Anything your clients want, I have it or will get it."

I sighed. "I know what you mean, but I really hate to label houses as 'distressed.' The people who lost their jobs and couldn't pay their mortgages or their real estate taxes, or more likely both, suffered mental hardship. The people who got sick and couldn't pay their medical bills, let along their mortgages, felt real anguish on top of their ailments. Hell, even those who took on mortgages they couldn't afford or cashed out more faux equity than they should have must have felt some misery when they lost their homes, don't you think?"

My semi-unsolicited harangue was understandably too much for this agent, who was merely using some down time to cold-call real estate attorneys for new business. Snappish now, he clairvoyantly knew which side of the bed I had gotten out of in the morning, also labeling me as someone possessing malevolent magic powers.

I wasn't offended by the insult he hurled at me before he abruptly hung up. After all, I had transformed a polite business call -- albeit an unsolicited one -- into a tirade over the troubles in our current real estate market. What upset me was marketing homes wrested away from homeowners incapable of repaying their obligations as "distressed properties."

I'm neither inexperienced nor naïve; I've been practicing real estate law for almost three decades. I've seen more than my fair share of ploys, plots, scams, and schemes practiced by borrowers and lenders alike. With my real estate radar honed to cynical perfection, I'm not misled by vanilla real estate marketing terms like owners who "decouple" rather than divorce, or those who "transition out" rather than die on the premises.

However, I think sanitizing the sorrow suffered nationwide by our friends, neighbors, and relatives is a far worse deception. If all that remains after foreclosures are distressed properties, the human toll taken by our economic downturn will continue to be largely ignored. Until the focus shifts from the what (as in getting houses back on the market to revive the real estate market) to the who (keeping people in their homes), we won't see viable measures to curtail foreclosures.