How to fight back when ‘zombie house’ is eating away at property values


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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I live next to a vacant home that’s become an eyesore, to say the least, over the past 10 years. I’m planning on selling my home because of it. I was wondering if I have legal grounds to sue the owner since his negligence will affect the value of my home.
— D. Dresbech

Dear D.,
A lawsuit like that would have virtually no chance of succeeding and, even if did, it would likely net you nothing for your court fees other than a little temporary self-satisfaction, a term that has 3 S’s, none of them dollar signs.

Try talking to owner of “zombie house”

Before you meekly offer up your home at a discount and flee the neighborhood, you might try a few tactics to force the hand of the owner of the blighted home to either make the property presentable or turn it over to a more fiscally able party. Assuming you know the owner and can contact him, try to do so without overt judgment and suggest ways he can work with the neighborhood to spruce up the property, maybe even commiserating with him about his dire situation. Owners of so-called “zombie homes” often got mired in foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorces, lawsuits or other legal problems and have just given up.

The owner may at least grant you permission to visit the property to help maintain it. However, please don’t enter to mow or do anything else without permission because you can be held in trespass.

If that doesn’t work, try Plan B

Failing that, call your city’s code enforcement office. Among actionable code violations are:

  • Garbage piling up.
  • An old pool collecting stagnant.
  • Mosquito-breeding rainwater.
  • Tree limbs on power lines.
  • Broken windows.
  • Squatters/illegal visitors.
  • Overgrown grass or noxious weeds that harbor vermin.

Realize code violations are not automatically enforced, although when you file a complaint in person at the zoning office with specific violation complaints, the city is more likely to respond.

But also know that a down-on-his-luck absent owner generally won’t read threatening city notices or pay fines. Sure, the city can put liens on such houses, especially if they’re in tax arrears, then eventually take possession for resale or redevelopment, but that’s a long and pricey process, so cities tend to shy away from it.

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If you can’t locate the owner, look up the property deed in county records to see if a lender has a lien on the house, then call that lender to determine if it now owns the place. If so, ask what the bank’s plans are for it. Anti-eyesore legislation in New York, California and elsewhere is putting pressure on lenders to take responsibility for their vacant foreclosed-home portfolios. Cities in other states are also enforcing vacant-property ordinances requiring lenders to maintain such homes or suffer stiff fines. Do a little Web research to see if there’s any such law where you live.

Band together with your neighbors

If you really want to rattle cages, take as many irate neighbors as you can to the next city council meeting and state the problems with the vacant house. Then directly ask your councilperson to explain what he or she plans to do about all the codes being violated in your neighborhood.

Another possibility: Consider buying the property as an investment or extra yard, but only if the city plans to first tear down the vacant house on it due to any local laws requiring bulldozing of uninhabitable/condemned properties. A demolition can put you back up to $20,000.

But your concerns over values are legit. Over the years, researchers have shown that properties close to such eyesore homes suffer 3% to 5% losses in property values.

Good luck!

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