On Wilson Avenue in Wayne, NJ, a shady street of well-kept homes, the wood contemporary at No. 96 stands out. It’s been empty for years, thick moss grows on the roof and, neighbors say, water from a broken pipe flooded the interior and poured down the street several years ago.
On Berdan Avenue in Fair Lawn, a piece of black tarp hangs off the roof of a brick Cape Cod, and two dead evergreens stand sentinel at the front steps. Get close to the house and you’ll catch a whiff of mold.
On Cumberland Avenue in Teaneck, weeds grow through the patio behind a vacant brick ranch; inside, paint is peeling off the walls in sheets.
Neighbors call these homes eyesores. Real estate experts have another name: “Zombie” houses — homes in foreclosure that stay empty and neglected for years.
A decade after the housing market began its slide into the worst downturn in generations, New Jersey still has about 4,000 homes left empty because of foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac, which follows the foreclosure market nationwide. That’s about 6.2 percent of the total number in foreclosure in the state, higher than the national rate of 4.7 percent.
These abandoned homes are a headache for towns and neighbors. Under New Jersey law, the properties have to be maintained by the mortgage lender while they’re in the foreclosure process, but neighbors say the maintenance usually doesn’t go beyond mowing the lawn and making sure the doors are locked.
Visits to 10 vacant homes in middle-income North Jersey neighborhoods recently turned up places with cracked windows, fallen tree limbs, weeds growing through cracks in driveways, ragged shrubs and usually a notice glued to the front door — often from the property maintenance company hired by the lender. Many smell of mildew, signaling water damage inside. (However, most of the lawns had obviously been mowed.)
The number of zombie houses in New Jersey is higher than the national average because the state is still working through a backlog of distressed properties heading into foreclosure. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, in the first quarter of this year, New Jersey led the nation in foreclosure starts as it continued to deal with the fallout of the housing crash. About 11.5 percent of New Jersey mortgages were either in foreclosure or late on payments in the quarter, compared with 6.5 percent nationwide.
New Jersey has been slower than the rest of the nation to get through the foreclosure crisis because here, as in about half of states, foreclosures go through the courts, which slows the process. New Jersey’s pipeline was further slowed about five years ago when state courts required the mortgage industry to answer accusations of trampling homeowners’ rights in the rush to evict.
These forlorn houses stand out among the neighboring homes, which are usually carefully maintained. Neighbors find them disheartening.
Nancy Dyrsten lives across the street from the home at 4-03 Berdan Ave. in Fair Lawn, which was repossessed by the lender earlier this year after sitting empty for years. The landscaping is overgrown and a lamppost tilts at an angle. The roof appears to be damaged, and inside, large pieces of Sheetrock are missing from the walls and ceilings.
“I’m sure the whole house is just destroyed from water damage,” Dyrsten said. “It’s a very upsetting situation. It’s sad and it’s not good for our property values. There is something wrong when a house is allowed to sit like that.”
“A vacant house of any sort is bad for the neighborhood because it’s a home that’s not going to be maintained,” said Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac vice president. “They show obvious outward signs of disrepair that is going to lower the value of homes in the area.”
Under state laws passed after the housing crisis, foreclosing lenders have to maintain these properties. If the lenders fail to do so, the town can fine them up to $1,500 a day and send in municipal workers to, for example, mow the lawn, then place a lien on the house to recover the cost.
These laws have given towns new tools to make sure the properties are maintained, according to Edward Purcell, associate counsel for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. But the issue remains “a hot topic” for town officials, he said. At the league’s conference last November, a session on abandoned houses drew an overflow crowd and had to be moved to a bigger room.
Banking industry representatives say these empty homes could be sold and rehabilitated more quickly if the foreclosure process was sped up, at least in the case of abandoned properties where the homeowner isn’t fighting the foreclosure.
“If the property is vacant, why can’t they move up the sheriff’s sale?” said Michael Affuso, executive vice president and director of government affairs for the New Jersey Bankers Association. He said lenders didn’t do extensive work on properties in foreclosure because they might never benefit from such work, since a homeowner in default can reclaim the property until it goes to sheriff’s auction.
If the lender and homeowner can’t work out a way for the homeowner to stay in the property, “let’s get to a faster foreclosure process,” said Joe Pigg, senior vice president for the American Bankers Association.
Now, according to RealtyTrac, it takes an average of more than three years to complete a foreclosure in New Jersey.
“If a property sits in the process for three years, it’s more likely you’re going to see homeowners leaving the home and moving on with their lives and not trying to continue to fight the foreclosure,” Blomquist said.
Ellen Rand is a writer who lives on Cumberland Avenue in Teaneck, a few doors from a brick ranch that’s been vacant for several years. The surrounding neighborhood is well-kept and includes houses assessed at more than $600,000.
When she sees the empty house, Rand said, she’s sad for the family that once lived there. “I wish there would be another family there,” she said.
The property is scheduled for sheriff’s auction next month. Almost $450,000 is owed. The township assesses the property at $421,000, but in its current state, it would likely sell for much less.
The house on Wilson Avenue in Wayne has been vacant for years. According to property records, it sold for more than $800,000 in 2005, as the housing bubble inflated. The home was repossessed by the lender in a Passaic County sheriff’s auction last October. It was recently for sale for $500,000, before being taken off the market last month.
The home, in an upscale neighborhood just blocks from a country club, has five bedrooms and 4,000 square feet, plus an indoor pool, on a lot of nearly half an acre.
According to neighbors, the former homeowners left late at night, hastily packing their belongings into their vehicle. After they departed, neighbors say, a pipe inside the house broke, sending water cascading down the street. They assume the interior has water damage.
When a reporter visited the house recently, the lawn was neat. But neighbors said that over the years, the maintenance has been spotty, leading some of them to take on the job of blowing autumn leaves into the backyard.
Bill Siegrist, who lives in a well-kept Cape Cod across the street, said that aside from the effect on property values, the vacant house is “a safety and security concern.” He said it’s been broken into more than once.
“We would like to get some nice, normal neighbors in there,” said another neighbor, Allison Solimine. “I feel if there are people around, it feels a little bit safer.”
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