June 16, 2008

Cleaning Up the Fallout: Banks Must Maintain Foreclosed Properties

By Andrea Koskey, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif.

Jun. 16--Every day Steve Nickless and his crew load up a trailer with mowers and weed trimmers and get to work on lawns. The homes they visit, though, are unoccupied.

Nickless, as an employee of BV Home Services, is hired to maintain hundreds of abandoned and foreclosed homes in the Central Valley.

Thursday, the crew of four was in Plumas Lake on Golden Gate Drive to clean, mow and cut weeds to make the home at 2193 look more presentable.

"It's a pity we're not able to get the (grass) green," Nickless, job foreman with BV Home Services, said as he stood at the home's garage door overlooking a brown, but freshly-mowed lawn.

"But it's typical of what we see," he said.

The conditions -- dry brown grass, overgrown plants and weeds, and sometimes piles of debris -- are present at the thousands of foreclosed and abandoned homes in Plumas Lake and throughout the country.

Yuba County alone had 357 foreclosed homes and another 650 in pre-foreclosure stages for the first quarter of 2008, according to DQNews, a real estate and data Web site. Many of those foreclosures were in the Plumas Lake and Edgewater communities.

BV Home Services, a Roseville-based home inspection company, maintains hundreds of homes within a 100-mile radius of Sacramento.

Mike Meyers, vice president of BV Home Services, said the company is contracted by banks for minimum upkeep and maintenance. Not all homes, though, are tended to.

"This is unacceptable," said BV owner Vianey Santibanez, of the 2-foot-tall weeds and dry grass at two homes on Branding Iron Way. Santibanez had just completed a job across the street.

Santibanez said the six crews in his company work on roughly five homes each day. The job includes yard maintenance and safety checks for hazards or damage to the property. Water, though, is not included in the work.

"Banks don't turn on the water because the cost would be astronomical," he said referring to the number of homes that are bank-owned. "Some neighbors have asked if they could water the property, and I tell them go ahead because this is an allergy nightmare."

The hundreds of vacant properties and the lack of upkeep on those homes caused Yuba County to address the issue through code enforcement.

Tuesday, county supervisors will be asked to approve an amendment to a property maintenance ordinance that will define an abandoned property or foreclosed home.

Jeremy Strang, division manager for Yuba County Code Enforcement, said the amendment will allow the department to clean properties as necessary and bill responsible parties $93 an hour for work done. An additional $100 administrative fee per day will be charged if an owner is late on payments.

Finding responsible parties, though, may not be easy.

"It's going to be difficult," Strang said. "This is a new type of violation we haven't seen before. We've had vacant homes before but not to this level."

Strang said the county is not going into the landscaping business and does not plan to maintain and water lawns. Instead, through code enforcement, it will try to prevent safety and fire hazards from overgrown yards.

Plumas Lake homeowner Sue Cason, 68, said she hasn't seen this many foreclosures in one neighborhood either.

"We moved here because it was new," she said. "It hurts to see it."

Cason's one-story home on Branding Iron Way has a well-manicured lawn with full-bloomed flowers and fresh greenery.

The position of Cason's front door provides a direct view of other well-manicured yards in the neighborhood, but that is not the case right next door.

"When I go to the mailbox, I shield my eyes," she said jokingly of 2-foot-tall dead weeds on the lawn adjoining her property.

Others in Yuba County, though, have taken the matter into their own hands.

Tim Straling, 24, of Grove Avenue in Edgewater, contacted the previous owners of a neighboring home to have the water turned on so he can keep up its appearance.

"We don't want to have to look at it," he said. The previous owner "had been gone for a month, the house was not sold and the lawn had gone dead."

Straling said several times a week for the last two months he and Christopher Parker water, mow and trim the property's bushes.

"We try to keep it up so it doesn't begin to look like all the others you see around here," Parker said.

Water at many abandoned homes in Plumas Lake, though, has been shut off to prevent theft.

"We were sending out bills for water use where no one lived, so we weren't getting paid for that water," Olivehurst Public Utility District General Manager Tim Shaw said. "But this is not only a problem at foreclosed homes. We turn off water to anyone who doesn't pay their bill."

Plumas Lake resident Jackie Baxter, 59, of Branding Iron Way, said her son mows an abandoned home's lawn just to keep the weeds down.

"It's sad to see the dead lawn," Baxter said. "We try to mow them every couple of weeks so it doesn't look so bad. We're living in a new neighborhood and want it to look nice."

Supervisor Mary Jane Griego, whose district includes Plumas Lake, observed the blighted conditions as she campaigned for re-election this spring.

"It's depressing," Griego said. "To see these repercussions in houses of subprime loans where families left, it's a little depressing."

Griego said she hopes the ordinance will change the conditions of some homes and hold mortgage companies or lenders responsible for the work done.

While the county and some neighbors try to find ways to keep up neighborhood appearances, Nickless and the BV teams clean up after what homeowners, often hastily, have left behind.

"You never know what you are going to come across," Nickless said while walking through the Golden Gate Drive property. "Some have been destroyed inside and in others items are left. You never know what you're going to come across."


To report an abandoned or blighted home, contact Yuba County Code Enforcement at 530-749-5455.

Contact Appeal-Democrat repor-ter Andrea Koskey at 749-4709 or [email protected]


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Copyright (c) 2008, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif.

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