We’ve all heard accounts of rising home foreclosures and once-prominent neighborhoods now experiencing significant decline. But what happens when one of those homes is next door to you? And what role do banks, local government and police enforcement have in the maintenance, security and caretaking of these properties?
More specifically: when you have an issue with a property next door, who do you call when the bank, city and police pass you off to each other?
I live in downtown Chaska in a neighborhood of century-old homes of various condition, and I absolutely love the area’s history and small-town vibe. From our specific property, we can walk to the Minnesota River about a block away, across the street to a playground, up the alley to get pizza, coffee, Indian or Mexican food, up the block to the city square and library, a bit further to a movie theater, grocery store, etc. etc. It’s a great place, safe, and the perfect fit for my family’s needs.
We bought our 120 year-old house in late August and excitedly moved in and started fixing things up. I should note we bought an older home far outside the metro primarily due to our budget and desire not to purchase a home outside of our means. However, I’ve highly enjoyed tackling the projects and challenges involved with owning an older home, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
The house directly to our north actually sold for considerably more than our home in the previous year and appeared to be well kept up when we moved in. We didn’t see the neighbors there much, but they seemed friendly enough. Our biggest issue with them was the trash. They didn’t appear to pay for trash service and just dumped it out the back door on a regular basis.
However, sometime before Christmas this December 2008, the folks next door must of packed up their van and left forever.
We didn’t realize they were “gone” gone until January when we realized the usual traffic in and out had ceased, the trash pile was no longer growing, and random empty beer cans stopped appearing in our front yard. By this time, unfortunately, the trash pile numbered 20+ bags and was a wintry feast for local vermin. About this time the retaining wall between our properties started failing, too.
In February, a guy from the city’s municipal department stopped by to inquire if we had seen anyone around the property. Apparently the city noticed water consumption next door went from nothing to LOTS, indicating a water break. While that wasn’t a surprise, given that our own pipes froze around that time, but it’s never good to have the vacant home next door have a flooded basement.
The Maintenance Company
About a month later, the bank taped the foreclosure papers to the front door. That same day Safeguard Properties boarded up the windows on the property and hung this yellow door hanger on my door:
I’ll admit it felt good knowing someone was taking care of the property and was finally going to pick up the enormous trash pile. But they didn’t.
In fact, Safeguard has come to mow the lawn twice, but simply mowed AROUND the trash. They also broke down the backyard fence for some reason — the fence that was keeping trash inside the property boundaries and neighborhood kids out.
Since the yellow door hanger says to call if the property becomes unsecure, I gave it a try. In fact, I’ve called Safeguard three times, and each time they indicate they will pass word to the bank about the trash and 100 pound concrete chunks falling off the retaining wall.
Here’s a picture of the trash from April 11:
And here’s a picture from May 17 (note, Safeguard Properties just mowed AROUND the trash):
Here’s a retaining wall picture from April 13:
And here’s a picture from May 17 after I propped some of the wall back up (note the left side falling now):
It’s just going to get worse, and I don’t let my three year-old play on that side of the house for fear of more collapsing.
The City of Chaska
Last month I called the city again, and this time was transferred to the Chaska Police Community Service Officer Mariella Garcia. She promptly returned my call and graciously explained that the police can only enforce ordinances on citizens, not bank-owned properties. She indicated they were receiving several calls of this nature and expressed her empathy that the city did not have a system to address these kinds of issues.
The Friendly Neighborhood Lawbreaker
At that point, I’ll confess I broke the trespass law the filled my entire trash bin with the neighbor’s trash from the front yard one week. I simply couldn’t stand it, and it was clear nobody else was going to tend to the broken glass, open cans and dripping refuse.
Since then, I continually pick up the trash that blows into our yard, shovel out the failing retaining wall and kvetch with my neighbors about the game of hot potato foreclosed homes are right now.
Raccoons are now breeding in the backyard, and I’ve spotted multiple sets of racoon footprints.
Sidebar: this weekend, Qwest delivered six (6!) phonebooks to the foreclosed, vacant property next door and zero (0!) to the paid-up, lived-in property I own.
Today I called Safeguard Properties again and re-explained the entire account. I asked them why they would send folks out to mow AROUND the trash, rather than just pick it up. The answer: “We can only do what the bank tells us to do on a particular property, and the bank has not asked us to pick up the trash.” Which bank owns the property? They can’t disclose it.
I actually tried looking it up via public records, but apparently all Carver County Web sites are down, including the land records and assessor searches.
The City (again)
I called the city again this morning and was told, “I’m sorry, but no one is assigned to oversee foreclosed properties.”
On a whim, I left a message for Public Works Superintendent Tim Wiebe, whom I’m told is responsible for ensuring lawns are mowed city-wide. He just called me back and is definitely a stand-up guy. He walked down and checked out the property himself. He said he is going to make a few calls to see what he can do.
Why Do I Care So Much?
- Equity: I have only two next door neighbors in a small neighborhood that directly touches downtown. The valuation of my home has direct correlation to my neighbors. Broken windows, a flooded basement and collapsed retaining wall will bring the already-depressed value of the house (and thus my house) down even further.
- Safety: A vacant home is bad for neighborhoods. It invites miscreant behavior and breeds rodents. It presents an unsafe condition for the 8+ children who play in the alley behind the home.
- Civics: Regardless of the sheer number of foreclosed properties, it’s assinine the city doesn’t have a plan or process for dealing with abandoned properties.
What Do I Want From This?
- I’m willing to pick up the trash, but can’t afford the $50 charge I’ll incur from my trash company at hauling away this much. I’d like the bank/Safeguard/city to donate a trash barrel if I donate time to clean it all up.
- Chaska residents recently came together to pitch in for an annual event called “Christmas in May” — rehabilitating homes for residents who are unable to do it themselves (financially or physically). I’d love to see the city declare a similar day for foreclosed homes — even if it’s just to pick up windblown trash or re-board up windows and reclaim some of our community pride.
- I would love for the city to reevaluate it’s hands-off approach to foreclosed properties. As more people abandon their homes, those of us who continue making our payments need support from civic leaders to force lenders to — within reason — better care for their properties until auction.
Update, June 2:
It’s June 2 and not only hasn’t the trash been picked up, the grass hasn’t been cut for weeks. I called Safeguard again today and spoke to a phenomenal guy there, Christian (x1161), who said they will check in on the grass clipping, inquire about the trash and let me know they’ve requested a bid to address a failing retaining wall. He even took my name and number and said he would call back. Time will tell, but I’m temporarily hopeful.
Update, June 5
Today I called Safeguard again and spoke with a nice lady named Dee. The lawn hadn’t been mowed in weeks, they finally came to mow and mowed right over the garbage this time. It spread it just everywhere — all over the alley and my yard.
Dee said they just got approval to remove the exterior debris, remove garbage and paint thinner, repair the front stairs, trim a tree over the sidewalk and repair the cracked windows. She said they were still waiting for word on the damaged wall and that molded cement is not an easy fix. Apparently with an FHA property they have to get all the structural items up to code, which is great news. I asked when it would be sold, and she said she has no idea but definitely as soon as possible. She said they would get it ready, turn it over to HUD and it would be posted in a few days. Hooray. I just hope it’s a single family and not a landlord wanting to rent it out.
Update, June 8:
Six months after my neighbors ditched their house and left trash all over the lawn, someone finally removed it! Safeguard came on Saturday and picked up the trash. They also got all of the paint thinner and paint out of the garage. They were back on Sunday, and a nice guy was cutting wood and cleaning most of the afternoon. I spoke to him a couple times while I was out weeding. He said the interior of the house isn’t actually that bad, just a couple spots of mold (probably from the basement flooding) and some cosmetic stuff.
That’s great news for resale value and in-turn, my property value. While I’m happy things are moving, I seriously cannot believe how much buck-passing goes on with these homes.
Update, Oct. 1
The lights are on in the basement of the foreclosed house next door, but it’s still vacant. I called Safeguard back and found out the property was turned over to HUD about a month ago. Safeguard can’t do anything. Grrreeeat.
Update, Oct. 26
Lights are still on.
Update, Oct. 20
I was interviewed and quoted in the Chaska Herald about the property and the bureaucratic buck-passing that happens with foreclosed residencies.
The “Who owns it” question has also proved troublesome for neighbors.
In April, downtown Chaska resident Greg Swan called the city to report problems with a neighboring foreclosed house. While the bank had hired a property management company to mow, there were other problems, including trash in the backyard, broken windows, and a basement light that is constantly on.
Swan contacted the Chaska Police and said he was told that the department can enforce ordinances on citizens, but not bank-owned properties.
Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight said that code applies to all houses, regardless of ownership. “A home, whether it has been foreclosed on or lived in or vacant, code still applies to that property,” Knight said.
One of Knight’s key concerns is making sure a property isn’t deteriorating to the point where it becomes a public safety issue or attracts kids who would use it as a hangout. If that happens, the police will contact the owner and make sure they secure the property, he said.
However, finding the foreclosed home’s owner can be a game of “hot potato,” taking longer to solve a problem. “We can step in and do what we need to do to make a property reasonably safe if we have to,” Knight said. However, he added that taking action on a property can even become a “constitutional issue.”
“There are some things that are cosmetic, and probably distasteful to have to look at every day that don’t necessarily violate code,” Knight said.
Ultimately, the trash next to Swan’s house was carted away and the windows fixed, but apparently not due to any sort of intervention, Swan said. “I feel like the buck’s being passed a little bit,” he said.
“Legally there’s only so much we can do, but as a community I wish we could stand up and say ‘We’re not going to take this,’ or we need better support of this thing,” Swan said.
Update, Dec. 19, 2009
So very nice of the Chaska Fire Department to litter on the foreclosed houses in my neighborhood just before the holidays.
Update, Jan. 20, 2010
There has been a car parked on the property for a week, and we are assuming it’s abandoned. We called the police and the new property management company (it switched again!): Best Assets (612-333-7450).
I spoke with Sandra, who said the plan for the house is to clean it and sell it, although she has no idea of the timing.
She said they were unaware of the retaining wall issue and the abandoned car, but that she would send someone out to look at both. Here we go again…
Update: March 17, 2010
Nice of Sarpino’s to spam the foreclosed house with litter.
Update: March 23, 2010
This morning this trailer was in front of the house, and a guy was loading up all the abandoned furniture.
He told me the house will go on the market in the next month or so. I told him that it had been vacant since a year ago December, and he said he has seen homes empty for more than two years. We so hope a family will move into this house and that it won’t turn into a rental property. I guess we’ll see in about a month!
Update: April 16, 2010
After 17 months of buck-passing, the foreclosed house next door is ON THE MARKET! It’s the lowest price home in the entire area, which accounts for the steady stream of visitors last night — on just its first day on the market.
We’re still hoping for a family who will have the patience and take the time to renovate the home to what it once was. Worst case would be a landlord using it as an investment property. We don’t get to pick, and frankly, it will be nice for the home to be occupied at all.
Update: May 14, 2010
I’ve mowed three times since it snowed. The foreclosed house next door? Zero times. I’ve tried calling the property folks a few times about it. It’s to the point now where the grass is up to my knees in places, and the dandelions are so thick, you just now my yard will be all yellow this time next month.
Today Best Assets cold-transferred my call to a dead voicemail. I called them back, and the lady on the phone scribbled down the address and said, “She’d see what she could do.” I called City Hall again, and Public Works Superintendent Tim Wiebe got back to me that he would personally call the management company this time.
I have to keep looking up their numbers, so I’m just going to post them here to save me time:
Property Management Company:
Case #: 271-938517
Wallin Residential Properties
(they typically say they’ll call Best Assets themselves, although I’m not sure that happens)
I sent this e-mail to Wallin today, as well:
Hi Wallin Residential Properties,
The grass at one of your properties hasn’t been mowed since the snow melted. I called you last week, and you said you would “pass on the word,” but nothing happened in a week. I called City Hall, you and Best Assets again today, and I m continuing to update the post on my blog about the mis-management of the house — now including Wallin Residential Properities name and phone number in the round-up.
110 N Pine St., Chaska, MN 55318
Let me know you guys are on top of it when you can. Thanks.
Greg Swan, next door neighbor
ps- if you update the photo on the Edina Realty page, the house may attract more buyers. I think it was taken through a car window
And to Best Assets:
Hi Best Assets,
The grass at one of your properties hasn’t been mowed since the snow melted. I called you last week, and you said you would “pass on the word,” but nothing happened in a week. I called City Hall, you and Wallin Residential Properties again today, and I’m continuing to update the post on my blog about the mis-management of the house — including Best Assets name and phone number in the round-up.
Address: 110 N Pine St., Chaska, MN 55318
Let me know you guys are on top of it when you can. Thanks.
Greg Swan, next door neighbor
I sent them both an attachment of the above grass picture, too. We’ll see what happens, although I’ll admit I have low hopes.
Update: May 15, 2010
E-mail back from Wallin:
All I can do is notify them which I did. My company is not a property management company. The grass is supposed to be mowed every 2 weeks. They said on the last conference call that they are behind because of spring cleanups. The best I can do is pass on the information and they can add it to the list of the properties (there are many!) that need mowing. Hopefully it will be done soon.
Linda Wallin, Broker
Update: May 17, 2010
I updated Chaska Public Works Superintendent Tim Wiebe, whom I learned a year ago actually does have authority over grass. Got this e-mail back from him after our voicemail tag.
Greg, they company said it would be cut this week.
I will drive by a few times.
Thanks for the information.
Update: May 22, 2010
Another week. Still hasn’t been mowed. Very few folks are coming by to look at the property now, and I’m getting a little anxious about it. I e-mailed Wallin and the City of Chaska again.
Update: May 23, 2010
I mowed today. It makes the lawn all the more striking.
Also, got this buck-passing note back from Wallin Residential Properties:
RIDICULOUS! But I’m not a bit surprised. I hope you can get the city to come out right away and mow it and the bill will be tacked on the taxes. They can deal with it at closing.
Thanks for letting me know.
Update: May 24, 2010
Got this reply from the City of Chaska:
the city will be out cutting non complainant lots starting June 1st.
Thanks for the update.
Update: May 26, 2010
Still not mowed. I called Best Assets and was cold transferred to the voicemail for Gannett (sp?) G. I left her a very polite message that the lawn had not been mowed since the snow melted and requested an update. I sent them another e-mail, too. Then I called them back and asked to speak to a person. I actually got Gannett on the phone.
“Mowing is assigned to a vendor, and I will e-mail them. Wait, is this Hennepin County?”
No, it’s Carver. You had them listed wrong in the system, apparently. Is that why nobody mowed?
“Oh, then I will have to re-assign it to another vendor. I will send someone out.”
Wait, so when will someone come out? It hasn’t been mowed since the snow melted.
“I’ll have to call our vendor and tell them it’s a priority. They were supposed to mow between May 15 and 31, so they actually have some time left.”
But it hasn’t been mowed for two months. The grass is almost to my waist. That’s a ridiculous excuse.
“That’s why I’ll make it a priority.”
And then after they mow will they wait another two months before mowing again?
“Once they come out once, they will start mowing every two weeks.”
Sigh. Best Assets is a horrible horrible company.
Update: May 27, 2010
Got a call from Gannett at Best Assets. She didn’t recall our conversation on Monday at all. She said she would call someone to come mow right after we hung up. Uh-huh.
Update: May 29, 2010
So the lawn got mowed today. Finally. On May 29, the first time after the snow melted, Best Assets finally sent someone out to mow the lawn.
One guy with a simple push mower came out to tackle grass that was almost waist high. He would hold the mower up on its back wheels and drop it down on the grass. You could hear the mower being bogged down and dying every time. I went out to watch for a bit.
Overall, he did a really crappy job, actually. The mower didn’t have a bagger, he left the clippings all over, and he left the grass tall enough that *now* it needs to be mowed.
But that’s not the most infuriating part. The guy killed his lawn mower. His strategy for mowing waist-high grass completely wrecked the motor.
So he came next door to my house and asked if he could borrow my mower to finish the job. We went out back, and I saw how much he had left to cut (more than half of the backyard). I explained that I just bought a brand new push mower, and although I could sympathize with his situation, there was no way I was going to let him use it on that tall grass.
He said he would gas it up and clean it out, but I explained that if he wrecked my mower (like he had wrecked his), that nobody would be liable for it. Heck, nobody is liable for this house, so who would reimburse me for a wrecked mower?
He huffed off and knocked on doors up and down the block. Some poor, unsuspecting soul lent him theirs, and I soon heard the familiar sound of a mower being bogged down and dying.
Now if only they would send someone out to mow the grass. Guess I’ll have to call them again.
Have I mentioned Best Assets is a horrible, horrible company? Oh, well they are.
Update: June 22, 2010
The house is no longer listed on MLS, so we assumed it sold. Today a realtor and contractor were over there and told me the house sold but “something was funny,” so the sale wasn’t going through. They said not only does it need all new plumbing, but it has some foundation issues. So I’m assuming those issues were discovered in the inspection, and that’s why the sale fell through.
In other news, Qwest littered a giant sack of phone books on the property for the second year in a row.
Qwest saw my post on Posterous and said I personally needed to call them. So the responsibility to stop corporate litter is for the neighbor to call?
Okay, so I called Qwest, and they said you have to have a phone number to opt-out. That is RIDICULOUS. They are littering their corporate spam on vacant properties and aren’t able to stop without a non-existent phone number? I have a full post on this issue.
Also, SW Metro Transit littered on the property, as well. Whose responsibility is it to stop companies from littering on vacant properties? Surely this is a local government issue. I wonder if I should call the cops?
Update: July 1, 2010
Carver-based Ash Borer Tree and Lawn littered a flyer on the foreclosed house next door, even though the property is clearly in foreclosure and vacant. I still don’t understand why Chaska Police can’t enforce littering laws on companies like this one, Qwest Dex, Sarpinos, SW Metro Transit, Chaska Fire Department and other businesses who continue to dump their trash on vacant properties.
Update: July 8, 2010
The Chaska Herald wrote a feature story about the struggles we’ve had with the foreclosed house next door. Check it out.
Update: July 23, 2010
I was out mowing and noticed the retaining wall between my property and the vacant house next door has new plants growing out of increasingly bigger cracks in it.
You can see in this photo above what happened last summer when this happened in another part of the wall — giant 50 lb chunks of concrete fell into my yard.
With small children playing out there, it really bothers me. Safeguard Properties wasn’t interested in repairing the wall at that time, and subsequently it’s continuing to deteriorate. Now that Best Assets is managing, we’ll see what they do. I called today and spoke with both Ramona and Gannett. They both called me back and indicated they would look into it. Ramona said an inspector is coming out to see it Sunday and then they would submit a work order to HUD, who would then approve it and send someone out to “probably remove the wall.” I said that the way the property is you can’t just remove that wall without replacing it. That wall is holding their house and yard up from falling into my yard. She said the inspector would come over and talk to me Sunday but didn’t know what time. This Sunday is church, then the Chaska River City Days parade, plus my parents from Florida are here, so I’m hoping we can connect.
Update: August 9, 2010
Talked to Gannett at Best Assets who said they sent an inspector out to take photos, talked to the city about retaining wall regulations and as of last Friday he was going to e-mail her the bid (but he hadn’t yet). I let her know it’s been two weeks, and I have to go mow around giant chunks of cement in yard tonight. I asked if it will be fixed before winter, and she said yes. I asked to be better informed, as they need to access my property to do these repairs. She said she would call me between today and Friday with an update. BONUS — direct line: 612-253-2823!
Update: August 11, 2010
I mowed around the giant chunks of cement tonight and under the overhanging plants and trees. Since Best Assets isn’t going to maintain the property, I’m thinking about doing some illegal pruning so I can actually fit my mower beneath the underbrush to mow my yard.
Update: September 17, 2010
Someone bought the house. They closed today. That’s all I know. To be continued…