EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 27, 2013

'Zombie' homes sit in limbo in Florida and nationally

By June Fletcher
Scripps Howard News Service

---- — NAPLES, Fla. -- Steven and Janet Sparker never planned to leave the house they purchased in 2006 in Golden Gate Estates in the southwest section of Florida.

But when Janet, 57, lost her six-figure job, and the home’s value fell by more than half from the $585,000 they had paid for it during the recession, they decided to leave their home and let the bank foreclose on it.

Only the bank didn’t -- and still hasn’t.

So the Sparkers’ home became a so-called “zombie” home -- an unloved, unlived in home in a twilight limbo state -- that’s become a pariah for the owner, the lender and the neighborhood.

Zombie homes are a burden to the owner who bears all the responsibility, yet reaps none of the benefits of homeownership.

“Many homeowners who stop making mortgage payments and abandon their homes are looking for a fresh start,” said Daren Blomquist, chief economist of RealtyTrac, which tracks distressed houses. “They don’t even realize that they are still responsible for taxes and bills.”

They’re also unwanted by banks that already have too many foreclosures on their books, and are in no hurry to assume the headaches of protecting and maintaining them.

Indeed, some banks let previous owners stay in their homes so the owners can keep them up after the banks have repossessed them, turning them into what the Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac calls “vampire houses.”

About 62 percent of bank-owned homes in Collier County and 54 percent in Lee County, both in Florida, fall into that category, compared with 47 percent nationwide.

Because Florida requires judicial review of foreclosures, banks are slow to repossess them, Blomquist said, which is one reason the state leads the nation in the total number of vacated zombie homes.

Of the 152,033 zombie homes nationwide, more than a third, or 54,410, are in Florida, Blomquist said.

Both nationwide and statewide, about 1 in 5 homes moving through the foreclosure pipeline are zombies, he added.

It takes the state an average of about 900 days to clear a foreclosure in Florida, the data firm says -- though HR 87, nicknamed the “foreclosure fast track bill,” passed by the Florida Legislature this spring, aims to speed up the process.

Though not as big a problem as they were during the height of the foreclosure crisis, abandoned zombie homes are still a problem for the community at large, making them a problem for government and law enforcement.

Lee County commissioners passed an ordinance Sept. 24 that will make banks register vacant, distressed homes, so they will not neglect them and allow them to become eyesores.

The ordinance also requires banks to: Name a local property manager and to have the manager’s contact information posted on a sign on the property; inspect the home every 60 days; keep the property free from graffiti, debris and other junk, ranging from abandoned cars to throwaway fliers; maintain landscaping and pools; and secure windows, doors and gates.

The new rule will become effective Jan. 1. Violators will be subject to fines determined by a judge or the county administrative code. If the bank fails to comply, the county can take the necessary corrective action and record a lien against the property.

Homes that sit vacant for long periods are a magnet for vandals and thieves, who steal everything from air conditioning units to copper piping, said Sgt. Mark Williamson of the criminal investigations unit of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Some also attract scammers, particularly in isolated, heavily landscaped areas with big lots.

“They’ll break in, change the locks, and rent the home to an unsuspecting victim,” he said.

That’s exactly what happened to the Sparkers, who went back to their vacated Golden Gate Estates home in April 2012 to retrieve some curtains and discovered a woman and her three young sons had moved into it.

“We heard music playing -- it was quite a shock,” said Steven Sparker, 58, a prototype tool and die maker.

“I wish the bank would take it back,” he said.

Reach Naples Daily News writer June Fletcher at june.fletcher@naplesnews.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.