The big, bright, four-bedroom Florida dream house was proof for Dr. Dan Howard and his fiance, Nickie Struthers, that they had finally made it.
"I think of being proud and showing her 'Look, I can provide this, you know, for our family," said Howard, a surgeon. "That was a good moment in life."
Howard, who is beginning to establish his medical career, and Struthers, a real estate agent and mom, stretched their budget to buy at the top of the housing bubble. Then their own bubble burst, with a one-two punch of illness and economic downturn.
"My being ill and not being able to work full-time for nine months hurt, a great deal," said Struthers.
"We, we had planned on two incomes," said Howard. He and his fiance both dismissed the notion that someone in the medical field might be immune to economic hardship.
"Things happen to doctors' families too, "Struthers said.
"Yeah, the same way it happens to Joe the Plumber," added Howard.
Falling behind in their payments, the couple asked their bank for a loan modification -- a lowered interest rate that would bring their monthly obligation way down.
The bank said no, but then Struthers received a phone call from an acquaintance.
"Out of the blue I get a call from somebody I knew and said he was doing loan modifications and was just calling to see if I knew of anyone that could use help," she recalled.
It seemed like a way out. A professional would negotiate with the their bank, and the couple wrote the man a check for almost $3,500. What they didn't know was that they were being sucked into a whole new industry, often staffed by former mortgage brokers who helped fuel the crisis and are now making their living off troubled homeowners.
Jay Nichols, who worked in just such a place, says now it's "not what I signed on for."
Last year, Nichols was employed as a salesman at what he describes as an aggressive loan modification company, People's First Financial in San Diego.
He said the mantra was: "Sell -- sell hard ... trying to get as much money as they could, as quickly as they could." He said the sales staff was revved up at training sessions that included such movies as "Boiler Room," which glamorized a hard sell.
Negotiating loan modifications can be a legitimate service, but a current People's First Financial employee who asked not to be identified said customers were signed up even when they had almost no chance of qualifying for bank renegotiation.
"And sometimes the salesperson just didn't care to check if they even could," the employee said.
Former customers said they were lured in by talk of huge cuts in monthly payments, and some say they were even told it was a government-sponsored program. Nichols confirmed that other salesman made this kind of false claim.
"I thought, you know, that kind of sounds too good to be true," said former customer Debbie Dillon."But he says, he goes, we have numerous people that we have helped and cut their payments in half."
Debbie Dillon and her husband, Don Dillon, live 2,000 miles from San Diego, in tiny Boyceville, Wisconsin, and they, too, were facing the loss of their home.
"We wanted the payments to go down, and our mortgage holder would not work with me," said Debbie Dillon.