How to deal with an abandoned home
An abandoned home in an otherwise thriving neighborhood can be an eyesore — or worse.
What happens if the lawn goes uncut for weeks or months? If a pipe bursts inside? If a squatter takes up residence?
This abandoned property can quickly move from nuisance to become a real hazard. And if you're trying to sell your home, an empty property next door can scare away potential buyers or lead to lower bids than if your neighbor maintained that property.
You don't need to fight this battle alone, though.
There are resources available to help turn that property around, whether you just want to cut the lawn or try to get it out of the hands of an owner who is trying to squeeze every dime out of the property at the expense of your street. Here's who to call in what situation.
If the issue is a safety hazard — like tree limbs leaning on power lines or a walkway that hasn't been shoveled after multiple snowstorms — your city or town might be able to help. Public works departments can take care of these potentially hazardous situations (or ones that are not so hazardous, like unmowed lawns), and then charge the homeowner for their services, either through tickets or fines.
Whether or not that will make a difference depends on the homeowner. A lien put on a property for unpaid maintenance costs could spur an owner into action, though most likely not if there's already a lien there for unpaid property taxes. It's worth a shot, though.
Also, getting the home on the city's radar is a good idea in case squatters try to move in or thieves start to take away whatever they can get their hands on, like copper pipes.
If the town's not going to do anything immediately, you can search property tax records to find out the name of the owner.
You can find this with your county government (many of which have put their databases online). These records may have another address for the owner, which could lead you to a phone number as long as they're listed.
If it's a tenant who has left, a landlord might not know, especially if the tenant was already deadbeat or a family member who was supposed to be maintaining the property in exchange for a free place to live.
If the owner isn't particularly interested in changing the way he or she treats the property, you can at least get permission to cut the lawn or clear the sidewalk. That way, you can't be arrested for trespassing.
Make sure you write down when you talked to the homeowner, and notes from the conversation, just in case.
If the home is in foreclosure or is bank-owned, the bank should have an asset management team that maintains the property, so that's where you would direct your complaints.
It could be that they're dealing with a lot of properties at the moment, but this shouldn't be as big a problem now as in 2009 and 2010 when a record number of houses were falling into foreclosure.
If all you want to do is cut that lawn, still reach out and ask for permission. Again, you don't want to get slapped for trespassing.
If you don't know the status of the home, Foreclosure.com and RealtyTrac.com keeps foreclosure information, but they charge a fee for access. A Realtor can also let you know.
Zillow.com shows foreclosure information for free if you register at the site. Typically, Zillow lists what stage of foreclosure the property's in, and the bank or attorney in charge of it.
If the property is empty and for sale — and has been that way for a long time — call the real estate agent listed on the sign out front. It's possible that, if there haven't been any showings for some time, no one with an interest in selling the home knows there's a problem.
"That's what we're here for," said Ann M. Delaney, of Powerplay Realty in Avalon, N.J., which is located at the Jersey Shore. There, most of the homes for sale or for rent are empty in the off-season.
"If I notice it, I'll take care of it," she said of any possible problems.
If it's more than something simple like closing a window or shutting off a light, she can contact the owners and start working with vendors to fix the problem.
Delaney says she — and the owners — would rather know about the problem now before it gets any worse.
If you're part of a homeowner's association, it can help, too.
"HOAs have broad powers to enforce standards for homeowners," says David Reiss, professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School in New York, where he teaches courses on real estate practice.
How much power they have depends on the HOA's bylaws, rules and regulations, but HOAs can impose fines for noncompliance with standards laid out in those rules.
"Some might go further and allow an HOA to enter onto a property to conduct maintenance," Reiss says, which can take care of immediate problems.
He warns, though, that an HOA should consult a lawyer before taking that step, not only to make sure what they're doing is allowed according to its bylaws, but also because, even if the owner is delinquent on maintenance, they could still accuse the HOA of trespassing or stealing for entering the property.
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