Part 2 in a series.
While Spaulding Decon’s mission is helping grieving families clean up the mess after a horrific crime or tragedy, its founder soon realized the public’s insatiable appetite for a look behind the scenes at operations and the lucrative business behind buying hoarding houses.
Laura Spaulding founded Tampa-based Spaulding Decon after becoming disenchanted with her career in law enforcement and realizing the unmet need for decontamination services. Less than a decade later, Hollywood came calling.
Between 2012 and 2014, Spaulding said several Los Angeles-based reality show producers began contacting her in the hopes of “filming the sizzle” and then pitching the idea of a non-scripted television show to various studios. After numerous approaches, Spaulding realized there must be an eager audience. However, network television executives were concerned with the nature of her work.
“We kept getting denied for a reality show, and the reason was they were afraid that it’s too graphic for TV,” she said. “So, I decided in 2019 to kind of take it into my own hands and film our day-to-day, non-censored, what we do on every job as kind of an educational type thing.”
Spaulding said her staff initially pushed back on the idea, unsure how the public would respond. Spaulding pressed forward, however, noting that most popular TV shows and podcasts are crime-related.
“Luckily, I was right,” she said.
Spaulding said over 100,000 people subscribed to her YouTube channel in under four months. In just two and a half weeks, her Tik Tok following reached 2.3 million.
Three years later, Spaulding Decon now boasts over 6 million social media followers – 4.3 million through Tik Tok alone – and over 51 million views on YouTube. While Spaulding called those numbers and the public interest in her line of work “insane,” she still hopes to secure a reality show under the right circumstances.
“We don’t feel like we’re a good fit for cable,” she said. “We feel like we’re a better fit for like a Netflix or Amazon Prime or something that doesn’t rely on sponsors.”
Providing entertainment for the masses was not the only lucrative endeavor emerging from Spaulding Decon’s original business model. The company began adding hoarding cleanup services, which quickly overtook crime scenes as the most requested service.
Hoarding is a mental illness that causes a person to keep everything in their life, typically having a disastrous effect on their home and health. According to its website, Spaulding Decon specifically trains technicians for these sensitive jobs and arranges counseling services from a social worker or psychologist to assist the hoarder and their family. Spaulding said hoarding cleanup now comprises about 68% of the company’s business.
Spaulding was always interested in real estate investing but said it never dawned on her that she could merge the two businesses until working on an unattended death case in Tampa. The deceased’s family lived in Wisconsin and told Spaulding that following the cleanup process, they planned to sell the house. She countered with an offer to buy it, saving the family the cost of the cleanup services.
“And I just flipped it to a developer, and now it’s like a mansion on that lot,” she said. “It started there and just ballooned after that.”
A recent hoarding house that Spaulding was able to double her investment with will go down in company lore as “the rat house.” Spaulding explained that the homeowner was a man living alone with his dog in Valrico for several years, and rats started to infest his house. Rather than attempting to mitigate the infestation, the man began feeding the rats and keeping them as pets.
Spaulding said for two years, the man’s neighbors called code enforcement to no avail. Eventually, the neighbors called a pest control company, which she said found between 800 and 900 rats, covering every square inch of the home. Spaulding said the pest control company had few options to eradicate the rodents.
“They tented it, gassed it and killed all the rats, and then literally left,” she said. “So, we were left to clean up the bodies, and they were behind the walls – they were everywhere.”
Spaulding said the homeowner’s sister, who lived out of state, became involved. The sister was incredulous that her brother lived in those conditions, and she expressed a desire to sell the house and walk away from the mess.
Spaulding purchased the house, which she said needed a “full-gut, down to the studs,” for $92,000 in September 2021. She then spent five weeks and $55,000 rehabbing the entire property.
She sold the house for $287,000 in just two days – more than doubling her investment.
While the sheer number of rats made that job stand out, Spaulding said the situation is fairly typical. She added that she is currently working on a hoarding house in Carrollwood, and she found the homeowner’s dead cat underneath the pile of junk. Spaulding bought the house, removed the trash, left the stuff the previous owner wanted to keep and arranged for a moving truck to bring it to her new residence.
“We do a lot of this – whether it’s been a death, a hoarding situation or just anything where they’re like, ‘oh my God, I just got walk away from this, it’s overwhelming,’” she said. “They either can’t afford to fix it, or they just have bad memories and don’t want to deal with it.”
Spaulding said she offers to buy almost every house she decontaminates. She added the neighbors are always happy to see her after dealing with an eyesore or infestation nearby for years. While Spaulding prefers to keep the houses she purchases and renovates and use them as rentals, they must first meet her criteria. Specifically, the home must be in a good neighborhood.
While buying the problem houses has proven lucrative for Spaulding, she said her social media videos of the death and crime scene cases attract the most viewers. However, TV producers continue to pitch both the crime scene concept and a show focused on flipping hoarder houses.
“I think, in general, people are very voyeuristic,” said Spaulding. “You know, you’re always curious about how other people live … because this is not something you see every day.”
Read Part One here.