Local News

'Zombie' homes still a problem

SEBRING - Foreclosures are down, home prices are up and a new housing boom is starting, but Florida still has a problem with abandoned homes. "We live in a 4-plex in Spring Lake - a very nice area," Nancy Barlaug wrote on Highlands Today's Facebook page. Tenants moved out when the complex went on the market. "We didn't move because we pay our rent every month and we do the upkeep on the lawn," Barlaug said. "Meanwhile, there is no one living in the other three apartments and the place is really starting to fall apart." The complex is for sale, but the roof is falling in one apartment and the sceptic tanks have problems.
Highlands County officials don't track abandoned homes. Nor does Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre, but he's aware the problem exists. "There there no database," McIntyre said. "It's a private property issue." What is known is that almost 3,000 Highlands homes have been foreclosed in the past three years; most have been resold and a few have been on the real estate market for years. Some, however, are zombies: no real estate signs, no outward signs of ownership, junk litters unmowed yards, doors and windows are broken. Although abandoned homes become the responsibility of the bank or mortgage company, some don't. Some properties have been taken over by squatters, the practice of living in abandoned or unoccupied spaces. Wikihow.com even offers online advice about to squat through a dubiously legal process called "adverse possession." Andre Barbosa moved in a vacant $2.5 million Boca Raton mansion, but got evicted by Bank of America in February, according to ABC.com. Kevin Clark hoped that feral cats stalk the thick bamboo jungle in the backyard of the abandoned home next door to his Tampa house would check the huge rats, the Huffington Post reported. "That, unfortunately, hasn't proved to be the case. "After the housing market collapsed in spectacular fashion six years ago, Florida became known as much for its abandoned houses as its white sand beaches and palm trees. Many homes fell into disrepair and became the target of looters and vagrants," the Post reported. "Yet, despite the intense demand for seemingly anything with four walls and a roof, abandoned properties like the one that is vexing Clark and his family still dot Florida's cities and suburbs. These are homes that are vacant, but have not yet been foreclosed on. In many instances, these 'zombie' properties sit empty for years, as foreclosures wind slowly through Florida's courts." As of May, there were 55,500 abandoned homes in the state, one-third of the national total, a figure the Post attributed to RealtyTrac, an online real estate company. "That's been a problem," McIntyre said. But neither county officials nor the police can keep track of it. They need the help of watchful neighbors who call when they see suspicious activity, he said. "It's a shame this is happening," Barlaug said. "I'm just hoping I can hang in there before mold sets in. I love living out here." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828