Abandoned house © Scott Prokop/Shutterstock.com

Dear Real Estate Adviser,

There’s a dilapidated and abandoned home next to me with the roof caving in, wood rotting, grass overgrown and all kinds of creatures dwelling there.

Some of the rats, snakes, skunks, etc., are now migrating to my property. I found out who the owner is and tried contacting him several times, with no success, about buying the property.

What would cause such neglect? Can I lay claim to the house by mowing the grass and otherwise maintaining it for a set period of time? If not, are there legal ways of obtaining it?

— Josh B.

Dear Josh,

Your second question refers to a gray area of law called adverse possession or “squatter’s rights,” which in some circumstances allows people to gain control of land they’ve been using and maintaining for a set time period, determined by state law.

But that’s not an option for you because that period ranges from 5 to 30 years, with an average of around 10 years, and the squatter strategy is at best iffy. You certainly don’t want to risk waiting a decade to try to rid the neighborhood of that rotting home next door.

In the meantime, though, please do not enter that property to inspect the house, mow, remove debris, fence it in or anything else without permission because you could easily injure yourself and be accused of trespass.

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Is the property in violation of city code?

First, check out the online municipal codes for an abandoned home in your town. There are usually specific violations affecting public safety that will trigger city action, including old pools collecting stagnant water or other mosquito-breeding areas, broken windows, kids playing on premises, and overgrown grass and weeds harboring vermin, the latter of which you’ve personally experienced.

Don’t be hesitant to report the problem. Inspectors are far more likely to respond to citizen code-enforcement complaints than seek out unreported violations. Spurring some of your conscientious neighbors to file complaints as well will shed more light on the issue, not to mention complaints to your city councilman or woman.

After you file a code complaint, if the homeowner doesn’t address the problem, which is likely, the city will hire a contractor to cut the grass and weeds and remove any dangerous junk and standing water (hopefully). The city will then place a lien on the structure to cover its costs.

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What leads a lot of abandoned homes down the path to perdition? It’s usually some kind of traumatic or life-changing event experienced by the owner such as fire, divorce, serious illness, death of a spouse, bankruptcy or foreclosure brought on by risky borrowing practices such as adjustable-rate mortgages and interest-only loans.

Does a bank own the property?

In fact, odds are that the mortgage lender/holder owns the place by now. Try going to the county tax assessor website and typing in the property address. If it’s indeed a bank that owns this ramshackle dwelling, contact the institution yourself or have a real estate agent do so, offer in hand.

You can just offer to pay the agent a set fee, contingent on whether he or she is successful in facilitating a sale. If you do buy the property, realize there may be liens on the place for unpaid taxes, unpaid repair work (mechanics liens) or unpaid maintenance bills from the city that you’d have to retire to buy it free and clear.

An agent can help you establish a price for the land, ideally discounted to cover your demolition and (or) lien expenses, if the bank won’t pay them.

If the lender, assuming one is involved, won’t hear you out, keep the follow-up complaints coming. Many communities are enforcing vacant-property ordinances, forcing such lenders to maintain the properties they’ve seized then imposing penalties and fines if they don’t.

As you might expect, too many abandoned homes in any area can initiate a self-perpetuating cycle of blight. A study done in Philadelphia showed housing sales prices declined most when a for-sale house is within 150 feet of an abandoned building.

So get to work posthaste. Good luck!

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