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Dealing with the Impact of Foreclosures in a Neighborhood Near You
Mirror, mirror on the wall where will the next foreclosure in our community fall? Little hints can be found almost like bread crumbs left along the trail that identify which home may be the next to fall into foreclosure or bankruptcy. Tell tale signs like untrimmed grass, weeds in previously groomed flower beds, and a fence gate falling into disrepair begin to appear. In the beginning it is almost unnoticeable but over time an eyesore until finally a legitimate concern that this nearby property could have a negative impact on you. The neighbor’s issue could start becoming personal to you.
Questions begin swirling around in your head. Questions like: “will my property values be negatively impacted? What if I want to sell, will I be able to secure the highest value for my home? Will our community be able to attract responsible homebuyers when we have homes looking like this?’” Another question you might not have asked is if there is anything we can do about it.
As foreclosures and bankruptcies continue to be on the rise in Washington, more and more community associations are facing these difficult questions. February, 2011 statistics released by realtytrac.com indicate Washington State had 4,385 foreclosure properties. This represents one in every 642 housing units. With an estimated number of association governed communities in the United States reaching into the 24.8 million unit category (www.caionline.org/info/research), it is realistic to have many communities feeling the pressure of foreclosures and bankruptcies.
It is one thing to not be able to collect the assessments these homes represent and the impact this has on a community but a growing problem is how to deal with the lack of care and maintenance of the properties. Banks and lending institutions who have taken possession of these homes are often lax in maintaining repossessed properties allowing them to become neighborhood eyesores.
Homeowners and board members alike are looking for creative solutions to help maintain neighborhood appeal and property values. Most counties across the state have continued to see decreased property values. As an example, Snohomish County saw an 8.9% decrease in assessed property values in 2010. Because of this, homeowners are taking a second look at the importance of maintaining street appeal.
Many governing documents have an allowance for board members to hire maintenance and/or repairs to be performed on properties and charge this expense back to the owner. If this alternative is a possibility for your association, be proactive to verify any legal consequences with the association attorney. Once this is understood, and only then, proceed with sending correspondence to the registered legal owner. Indicate what type of maintenance needs to be performed. Ask them to take care of the needed maintenance. If the legal owner does not respond, send additional correspondence indicating the actions the Board will be taking and when. Although this is a solution, it may not be cost effective for cash strapped associations to foot the bill for grounds maintenance of vacant properties.
What can be done if hiring grounds maintenance is not an option for an association? In some cases, homeowners are volunteering to mow the lawn, trim bushes and weed flower beds. Obviously, this can be the most cost effective way to keep vacant homes looking their best. With spring here and lawn mowers poised and ready for action, it is important to verify the legal consequences of a non-owner entering a property. Even if the volunteer is well intended, the legal consequences could be greater than the benefit.
Request the board investigate the liability and see if they have the authority to authorize this type of access. It may be well worth the cost to have the Board consult with the association attorney. In either case, if the Board has the ability to hire maintenance or is willing to allow volunteers access to vacant properties, work with your attorney to develop and adopt a policy regarding vacant property maintenance.
In any case, proceed with caution and although the grass may be getting tall, don’t put the cart before the horse. Once properly planned and volunteers have the green light to proceed, who knows, volunteer maintenance on vacant properties could become so popular with residents it replaces the annual neighborhood picnic!