The street where I live in Mesa, Ariz., is probably very similar to most residential roadways in every other suburban community in America. It’s home to about 20 families plus at least one house that stands abandoned by all who once loved it.
Yes, my street has an abandoned property, and I suppose we were lucky because it happened very quickly after the onset of this country’s economic mess.
Things went bad from the start, but the bank, which now owns the property, was able to stabilize the situation before it ended up with too many properties to worry about — thousands of abandoned homes in its collection have since gone from bad to blight.
The house still stands empty, but it is no longer an eyesore. When the owners walked out 18 months ago, taking the garage doors and even the back door with them, the house was open to vandals and transients. Weeds grew, plants died, and the pool and spa turned into mosquito-attracting green swamps.
I’m not sure if neighborhood complaints or simply an assiduous employee at the bank spurred action, but over about six months the empty door frame was boarded up, the pools were drained and a lawn servicer started making regular visits. When subsequent vandalism occurred, someone always came out to right the situation and it seems the problem has been eradicated.
That, however, is a tale of a bank-owned vacant home. What happens when tenants move out of your investment home or second home, or worse: you have moved away from your primary house and it is still on the market?
In today’s environment, the short answer is that you’ve got problems, one of the principal ones being insurance. Insurance companies, needless to say, are not very excited about insuring a vacant home and they are cutting second-home owners off. If you still can get insurance on that investment property, expect to pay a lot more — and those bigger dollars won’t cover vandalism or things like water damage.
So here’s my quick solution: outsourcing. If you can afford it, hire someone to maintain and show the property.
The field for vacant-home caretaking has been growing because of demand, but the choices come down to two styles: maintenance and showcasing.
The latter is the most interesting because it involves actually moving someone into the vacant home to live there until the house is sold.
One of the pioneers in this business is Suzanne Carnevali, who has been doing this work for almost 30 years. Originally working out of Washington, her company, Vacant Home Caretakers, has been expanding into California and Idaho.
The idea behind Vacant Home Caretakers is that lived-in homes show better and sell faster than vacant properties. The temporary residents are called home managers, and in a sense are employees of Vacant Home Caretakers and not true tenants.
"Home managers pay a third of what they would normally pay in rent plus the utilities," explains Carnevali. "We do background checks, but most importantly we reserve the right to come and go at any time. If they are not doing a good job maintaining the home, we can have them moved out in as short as 48 hours. But we have never had that problem."
Home managers come in with their own furniture and Carnevali uses a professional stager to set up that furniture in correct positions. …CONTINUED
She tells me this story: Her company had been contacted by a Washington man who had a vacant home in a very high-end Seattle neighborhood. There were several homes on the block that were vacant, and organized groups of vandals had paid them a visit. This particular home had its front windows broken and the owner was trying to protect his property because his insurance was not paying to fix the destruction due to the vandalism.
"He was basically sleeping on the front porch until we could get someone in the home," says Carnevali.
Over on the East Coast, Brian Griffith runs a company called Vacant Home Care out of two Florida towns, Vero Beach and Land O’Lakes.
In addition to all the usual vacant-home problems, the folks in Florida have a whole other set of tropical plagues to combat.
"The first thing that happens to an abandoned home is that the pool goes green and grass grows," says Griffith. "On the exterior you get bees’ nests and wasp nests. If the roof begins to leak then you’ve got moisture and eventually mold. When water stops flowing through the traps under the sink, bugs journey in from the sewer. On the inside, ants come first, then the spiders arrive to eat the ants. Eventually, you might get rats, mice and snakes."
He adds, "We have gone into properties where we have seen fire-ant beds inside the garage doors that were 3 feet high."
Griffith’s company doesn’t showcase — his firm repairs, maintains and monitors vacant property.
Maintaining a vacant property in Florida is extremely necessary. "In the summer," says Griffith, "you not only have to keep the water running but the air conditioner on as well to keep the humidity out of the house as moisture, sunlight and lack of air movement create mold."
Griffith has one other service. Consider it the ultimate treatment in regard to abandoned property. When things get so bad — vandals have stripped anything of value out of the house, windows are gone, homeless people have squatted there and left piles of trash — then Vacant Home Care performs the final act of service on that house with no longer any redemptive qualities: demolition.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books, including "After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade."
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