John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Sergio Velasco: "My dream was to get a good job and a better life.”
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2009 6:23:01 PM ET 2009-07-15T22:23:01

Sergio Velasco is running on empty.

“I just need to survive,” he said, looking out from sad, tired eyes that often see 4,000 miles of interstate highway a week rushing under the wheels of his big diesel Ford F-350.

Like the Jackson Browne standard, Velasco, 43, finds it hard to explain how crazy his life feels. Unlike the song, he knows exactly what he is hoping to find.

Velasco and wife Diana Castillo’s real estate and mortgage businesses have become road kill in Elkhart County’s economic wreck, and he has turned to long-haul RV and vehicle delivery to pay the bills. The couple wants to keep their mortgages current and credit rating good, sell their home and other properties, then return to Castillo’s native Texas and the real estate business that was once so good to them.

Velasco could be a character in a latter-day Horatio Alger novel. A native of Veracruz, Mexico, he arrived in Elkhart County in 1995 via Mexico City and Tijuana after studying business.

“My dream was to get a good job and a better life,” he said. “That’s the main thing, get your own house and have a good career that pays nice.”

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Unable to speak English, he started out working in jobs that were then plentiful in the area’s numerous factories. He met Castillo in 1998 when she moved to the area for the same kind of work.

Castillo, who grew up speaking both English and Spanish, quickly left the factories for a car lot when she discovered strong demand for bilingual salespeople to serve the region’s burgeoning Hispanic population. Soon, she moved on to selling mortgages.

Eying his wife’s success, Velasco studied English and became a citizen. The couple soon opened their own mortgage brokerage firm.

“Then the people started asking us to help them buy the house,” Castillo said. Because of their language skills, “The trust was there and they wanted us to help them all the way.” Castillo and Velasco both obtained real estate licenses.

When their businesses hit full speed, they sometimes sold 15 houses or more a month between them to their 95 percent Hispanic clientele, working out of a bustling office on South Main Street in Elkhart.

‘We were doing so good’
They also built their own real estate portfolio of single-family rentals and commercial buildings. The bought a brand-new house for themselves and their 8-year-old son, Sergio, a 1,725-square-foot rambler with nine-foot ceilings in an upscale neighborhood.

“We were doing so good,” Sergio said

Last year, the good times stopped faster than they had begun. The first casualty was their mortgage business, a victim of the credit crunch. Then came the real estate firm. Unable to sell a single house after May 2008, they closed the office earlier this year.

They put all their properties on the market. So far, only a commercial building in Goshen has sold. They gave another back to its previous owner. Castillo took an office job. And Velasco bought his truck.

He drives on a contract basis. His rate recently was cut from $1 to 88 cents a mile. That might sound like easy money, but the cost of fuel, now back above $2.50 a gallon, consumes about half. Tires, oil changes and other work on his truck take another bite.

Federal rules bar Velasco from driving more than 11 hours a day. Special speed limits for trucks in some states and rough roads in others can limit progress to under 600 miles a day. And then he has to get back to Goshen, paying for that fuel, often without a return cargo.

On a recent 2,000 mile trip to Phoenix, he got a premium rate because he was able to haul three small units on a trailer. “They paid me $2,600, but I spent $1,300 on fuel,” he said. Even “eating just hamburgers, hot dogs, junk,” adds up, along with motel bills, and his net was quickly below $1,200, on which he owes taxes. That’s for six 11-hour days behind the wheel.

In essence, Velasco has bought himself a job that pays $12 to $15 an hour.

That’s a far cry from the golden days, when he and his wife each made six-figure annual incomes. “We miss those days,” Velasco said. “On one sale you’re making $3,000, easy. Now to find that money, I have to work a whole month and I am away from my family a lot.”

Velasco hopes he can keep running on fumes long enough to sell the real estate. He is keeping his real estate broker’s license active so he and Castillo can set up shop more easily in Texas, where the market is still good.

The couple is convinced that the Elkhart County economy won’t come back quickly enough for them to hang on in Goshen.

“I don’t want to have this kind of life when I’m 50,” Velasco said wistfully. “I want to be at home and doing good, spending time with my family.”

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