5 rules for the empty home next door

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Few things rattle a neighborhood like an abandoned home. Nearby homeowners worry about how such an unpleasant eyesore might bring down property values, create health hazards or invite crime.

If you live in a neighborhood that has an abandoned house, know your rights. Here are five rules to follow when trying to prevent a vacant home from damaging your community.

1. Research local land laws

Check out your community’s codes regarding vacant homes.

“Every town or borough has ordinances that deal with abandoned property. The first step for a homeowner is to familiarize themselves with these laws,” says Michael Baytoff, a Realtor with Pinnacle Realtors in Bedminster, N.J.

The ordinances are often very specific, with regulations for trash and yard cleanliness, peeling paint and broken windows.

They also address matters that could affect public safety, such as tree limbs on power lines, abandoned animals and deserted backyard pools that attract mosquitoes.

5 rules for abandoned homes
  1. Research local land laws
  2. Check with the local municipality
  3. Contact the homeowner
  4. Don’t trespass on the property
  5. Enlist real estate agent’s help

There may also be additional rules if the dwelling is part of a homeowners association, says Alan Jablonski, a consumer rights attorney in Long Beach, Calif., and author of “Successfully Navigating the Mortgage Maze.”

“When a homeowner signs a contract with (a homeowners association), they’re giving the association a lot of rights, and that association could force the maintenance of the property and bill the homeowner,” he says.

Many times, laws regarding vacant homes are available online at a local government Web site or at a local municipal building.

2. Check with the local municipality

If you think a home’s condition is in violation of the law, contact the local municipality and ask them to fix the situation.

“Many times the ordinances are not automatically enforced, but if you know the ordinance, you can take this information to the zoning office to have it enforced,” Baytoff says.

In Chesapeake, Va., inspectors are more likely to respond to homeowner complaints than to look for unreported violations, says John King, the city’s zoning administrator.

“Once we receive a request, we do our initial inspections within two to three days,” he says.

In describing how the process unfolds, King cites the example of a complaint of overgrown grass. After receiving such a complaint, King sends out an inspector to verify the violation.

If the infraction exists, the inspector places a sign on the property, contacts the problem homeowner and establishes a 10-day deadline to correct the problem.

If the homeowner doesn’t address the problem within that time frame, the city hires a contractor to cut the grass within seven days. The city zoning office places a lien on the structure to cover the cost.

“The whole process would last about a month,” King says.

“Counties are staying on top of these requests because they don’t want them to pull down property values, which then reduce the amount of property taxes collected,” says Ken Beasley, a real estate broker and owner of Equity Share Group in Danville, Calif.

Although zoning inspectors can resolve small issues, they usually are not authorized to handle major repairs without the homeowner’s involvement, King says.

“We send out a notice of violation to owners, and if we don’t get response, our only recourse is to issue a summons,” he says.

At that point, the cases in Chesapeake typically can be resolved in court within 60 days. But in some instances, the case may drag on for a long time.

“If the summons can’t be served — when the owners have moved out of state, for example — it can be indefinite,” King says.

3. Contact the homeowner

Sometimes the quickest, most direct solution is to try to work out an agreement with the owner of the abandoned home.

“In the past, a homeowner who was facing foreclosure may have left town with no forwarding address, and it was something the other neighbors didn’t talk about,” Beasley says. “But today, with the increased volume of foreclosures, there may not be as much embarrassment.”

If the homeowner does leave the community, you can contact the owner in question and suggest ways to work together to keep the property in good shape until it’s sold, he says.

At a minimum, the homeowner who has abandoned the house can give you or other neighbors permission to enter the property to help maintain it.

If you’re unsure of the homeowner’s identity, research local county records for the property’s deed, which lists the owner. You also can find information if the bank has a lien on the property, Baytoff says.

If the property has gone through a foreclosure, ownership generally goes to the bank. At that point, it’s often easier to work with the financial institution because it likely has a system in place to deal with vacant homes, he says.

“Every town or borough has ordinances that deal with abandoned property.”

“Call the bank and ask for their asset management team,” he says. “They are the people the lender hires to manage the property.”

Baytoff suggests telling the asset management group how long the property has been empty, detailing the resulting problems, such as broken windows, and making a request to remedy the situation.

“Offer to e-mail the company digital pictures of the property,” he says. “Once they realize it’s a problem, they’re usually quick to solve it.”

4. Don’t trespass on the property

If a house has been abandoned for weeks or months, you may feel justified going on the property to mow the lawn, pick up trash or otherwise clean the grounds.

Unfortunately, that could put you into legal trouble if you don’t have the owner’s consent, Jablonski says.
“The first inclination may be to try to maintain the abandoned property,” he says. “But if you do, you could be stepping into a trespass issue.”

For example, if you mow the lawn and mistakenly cut a cable, you could be liable.

“Your homeowners insurance policy may even be targeted by the owner to collect damages,” Jablonski says.

Despite his warning, Jablonski admits concerned neighbors rarely follow the “no trespassing” rule.

“People will go on the property to pick up trash or maybe drop some chlorine into an abandoned backyard pool,” he says.

5. Enlist the real estate agent’s help

Some abandoned properties may be listed with a broker. If there’s a “for sale” sign on the property, contact the agent if the property is in violation of a local ordinance.

Many of these offerings are distressed properties, so agents aren’t going to be hosting open houses often, Beasley says. In sluggish real estate markets, months could go by before there is a showing on the property.

Add these factors together, and it could be a while before the agent physically sees the property to identify an issue. For this reason, it’s important for nearby residents to “partner” with the agent.

“If a neighbor calls and complains, the agent would usually take care of it quickly,” Beasley says. “The agent may have a clause in their contract to care for the upkeep, so they’ll handle the repair issues. They’ll probably put the maintenance bill into escrow.”