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Foreclosed properties: Keeping up appearances

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By AJ Vicens

News of rising foreclosures and the subprime mortgage debacle has captured headlines of late, but one aspect of the foreclosure problem has been a quiet calamity.

As homes go into foreclosure and are vacated, they often become run-down and subsequently drag down the property values of nearby homes, making everybody’s bottom line suffer.

Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman told a group representing various South Jeffco homeowners that neighborhoods must come together to keep up the appearance of vacated homes to prevent area property values from falling.

“If you care about your property values, you will get together with other homeowners to maintain foreclosed properties in your area,” Hartman said last week. She made the original suggestion to a meeting of the Council of Homeowner Organizations For a Planned Environment, a coalition of homeowner associations across South Jeffco, in early November.

“In the foreclosure situation, I am recommending to neighborhoods and homeowners that the front yard of any foreclosed property looks good,” Hartman said. “If it was my next-door neighbor, I would be mowing the front lawn and watering the front lawn and making sure the trees didn’t dry. That will do more to help property values than all of the calling around and trying to contact financial institutions (to get them to help), which I don’t think will happen any time soon.”

“From the time that someone is required to leave a property because of foreclosure, and the time it actually gets sold, I’m not surprised if it’s a year or longer, and there’s very little maintenance in between,” Hartman said.

She speculated that if a local bank holds the mortgage, the property will be taken care of better than if it’s owned by one of the larger financial institutions that own huge mortgage pools.

It’s hard to determine exactly how many foreclosed homes are vacant, according to Cathy Bortles of the Jefferson County public trustee’s office. There were 437 foreclosures started in October 2007, but those are “all over the map” in terms of where they are in the process. A “fair” amount are withdrawn, she said, and a fair amount move forward and go all the way through the process, which takes a minimum of four months.

According to 2007 data released by the public trustee’s office, 2,991 foreclosures had been initiated in Jefferson County through October. That number is already higher than the 2,971 initiated in all of 2006.

“Kathy has a noble idea here,” said Justin Everett, COHOPE president. He emphasized that the organization hasn’t taken an official position on Hartman’s suggestion but offered some personal opinions.

“Whether it’s functional in practice, whether it will come to realization, I hope so, but I think that people need to make a decision,” Everett said. Either people will come together as communities and take care of vacant properties for the benefit of all local homeowners, or “you can point fingers and sort of take a draconian method where you go after that homeowner to take care of his own property, and sort of do it the punitive way. …

“That’s where you’re seeing a dichotomy there: People that are very heavily involved in homeowner associations (say), ‘Change that; get it done’ (and) point fingers, whereas a better solution would be (to) be a good neighbor and help that neighbor out,” Everett said.

In some cases, neighborhoods are looking for ways to address falling property values, Everett said, pointing to Columbine West as an example. In the November Columbine West Civic Association newsletter, neighborhood leaders ask fellow homeowners to beef up the civic association into a full-fledged homeowner association, which would give it more power to enforce community covenants.

Under a heading titled “Negative comments from prospective buyers and Realtors,” the newsletter states: “Realtors have been commenting that their prospective buyers have been turned off by the general condition and appearance of the Columbine West neighborhood.”

Everett says this goes along with Hartman’s idea for foreclosed properties, and that there’s no incentive for a bank or a homeowner involved in foreclosure to maintain a property — the onus is on the neighborhood.

“The incentive lies within the community, within the neighbors,” Everett said. “Do they want to maintain the property values until that property is turned over? If no one else is going to take responsibility, then maybe it should be the responsibility of the homeowners.”

Contact AJ Vicens at: aj@evergreenco.com.