Foreclosed homes a new blight
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
October 8, 2007 Monday
Daphne Sashin, Sentinel Staff Writer
SECTION: A SECTION; FINAL; Pg. A1
Dianna Cotter and her husband were tired of looking at their neighbor’s weed-infested yard, which had become home to snakes and other pests. So they gathered their lawn tools, walked across the street and went to work.
There was no one else to do it. The three-bedroom house in Cotter’s Ocoee gated community had been abandoned six months earlier and would eventually go into foreclosure.
Like Cotter’s neighbors, countless homeowners overwhelmed by their mortgages are taking off and leaving behind algae-filled swimming pools and knee-high weeds in communities where upkeep has seldom been a problem.
Lenders often are reluctant to take responsibility until the foreclosure is complete, which can take months. Even then, some banks won’t get involved. While the homes sit in limbo, neighbors throughout the region take matters into their own hands.
“We take pride in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t looking real nice. So we just went over and did what needed to be done,” said Cotter, 41, a mother of two boys and a home-school teacher. “It’s just a nice, neighborly thing to do.”
Most county code-enforcement departments report an increase in unkempt yards this year. Through August, code inspectors issued 55 percent more citations for overgrown lawns in unincorporated Osceola, 72 percent more in Volusia, 200 percent more in Lake and about 15 percent more in Orange, compared with the same period last year. One exception was Seminole, which issued 2.5 percent fewer violation notices.
Code-enforcement departments don’t keep track of which homes are in foreclosure, and officials say other factors likely compounded the upsurge in violations. But anecdotally, inspectors report they are handling more cases of abandoned and neglected foreclosed houses.
“When a person’s about to lose a piece of property, the last thing they’re going to worry about is mowing the lawn,” said Carol Kerrigan, Volusia code-enforcement manager.
Inspectors are finding overgrown lawns in lots of middle- and upper-income neighborhoods where they wouldn’t expect them. Walter Krujaick, Osceola building- and code-enforcement director, recently discovered several in one normally tidy subdivision off West U.S. Highway 192.
“I was shocked when I saw them,” Krujaick said. “The grass was up to my hips.”
Several cities and counties will cut the grass or fence the pool at the future owner’s expense, but the grass typically must be at least a foot high — higher in some counties — before it is deemed a violation. Other governments, such as Apopka, levy fines in most cases.
“They’re not in the business of cutting grass right now,” Apopka code-enforcement officer John Kraft said of city officials, who recognize there are so many abandoned homes that “it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
For now, Apopka engineer Wayne Mather and two neighbors periodically take turns mowing the grass and hacking the weeds at the vacant house on their street. The owner, who lives in Orlando, stopped paying her $239,000 mortgage in January, according to court records.
“It devalues the neighborhood, and there’s a lot of people trying to sell their homes in this neighborhood,” said Mather, 65. “We’re trying to keep the neighborhood nice.”
Some homeowners associations have covenants that allow them to mow the lawn when the owner isn’t doing so.
Last month in Chatham Park, an Osceola community with a mix of resident owners and short-term renters, the association agreed to dip into its coffers to keep the weeds under control at a handful of homes, including three in various stages of foreclosure. The association will attempt to recover the money from the future owners.
The neglected properties cast a jarring image among the community’s tidy landscapes. At one of the houses in foreclosure, the pool water was a dark shade of green and bugs swarmed in a thicket that was once the lawn. Weeds the size of small trees had sprouted.
“It’s not only an eyesore, but it’s also a health hazard because you don’t know what’s in all the high weeds,” said Tom Pinnel, 64, an association board member. “The whole community is concerned about it.”
Each month in Leesburg, two code-enforcement officers deal with more than 100 new cases of abandoned homes. Overgrown lawns aren’t the only problem. The vacant properties can become havens for vandals, squatters or drug dealers. This summer, two homeless men in Lake County were beaten nearly to death while staying in an abandoned house.
Cotter and her neighbors suspected but could never prove that a man was living illegally in the abandoned house near them. They frequently locked the home’s doors and closed the windows only to find them ajar days later.
Lawyers advise against trespassing on neighboring properties to maintain them.
“You have to be very cautious to know that one, you’re on somebody’s property without permission, and you are then liable for whatever damages will result,” said Peter Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney and co-author of The Law of Florida Homeowners Associations.
The surge in foreclosures has prompted many neighbors to assume the risks to protect their own health, safety and property values. And the real-estate agents working with the banks to sell the homes are thanking them.
“The only way we’re going to get out of this together is by people pitching in,” said Tom Songer, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker who specializes in bank-owned properties. “If you see something awry, chip in.”
Songer’s partner showed up at Dianna Cotter’s neighborhood in September, after the bank foreclosed on the house across the street. He hired a lawn service to maintain the property until the home is sold.
Now, Cotter waits for the day the house is no longer empty.