Cleaning Up Abandoned Homes in New Jersey

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Homeowners in New Jersey who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments and have received notice of foreclosure on their home from their lender actually have a number of options. Depending on their financial situation, desire to keep their home and other case-specific factors, it is quite possible to make a responsible and sound decision even after falling into foreclosure.

Unfortunately, a significant number of NJ residents simply don’t know enough about the foreclosure process. Fueled by fear of eviction by their lender, a lot of distressed homeowners flee the scene, putting as much distance between themselves and their foreclosed property as possible.

“Out of sight, out of mind?”

The problem with this strategy is that the foreclosure timeline in New Jersey is significant, often taking many, many months for a single foreclosure case to reach completion. The abandoned properties left by vanishing homeowners must sit, unoccupied, while their paperwork slowly makes its way through the court system.

During this time period, the home and lot it sits on become an eyesore: grass and weeds grow to exorbitant heights, and the structure itself is often vandalized. Word of zombie homes travels quickly, and unfortunately to the wrong people. Abandoned homes often turn into crack houses and are frequently stripped of things like copper pipes and copper wiring, which are then sold. These types of activities not only cause significant damage to the property, but also create fear among neighbors while simultaneously causing local property values to plummet.

Zombie foreclosures are problematic around the country, but because New Jersey has the highest foreclosure rate in the US, the number of abandoned homes in the garden state has spurred some towns into action.

This action comes in the form of creating a record of all foreclosure properties so that town or county officials have contact information for responsible parties. This will enable town leaders to ensure that empty properties don’t fall into disrepair and that illegal activities aren’t occurring inside the homes.

Participating municipalities are requiring that all foreclosure properties be registered with the town by the responsible party. If the homeowner has left town and is unreachable, the onus for registration (including paying the registration fee) falls on the lender or lien holder.

For now, individual towns set their own registration fees, which are currently ranging from $100 to several hundred dollars. Part of the process involves filing a ‘Registration and Maintenance of Properties Pending Foreclosure’ form with the town’s clerk. An example of information requested on this form includes:

  • Property location information: Block number, lot number and physical address
  • Identification of the party responsible for the property: Homeowner, lender, lien holder, trustee, management company, agent, or other.
  • Contact information of responsible party: Name, address and current phone number where an in-state person can be reached in the event of a problem with the property in question.

A property checklist will also be included on the registration form. The responsible party must certify that all of the following items are attended to:

  • Grass/weeds must be kept under 10 inches high.
  • Dead trees, fallen tree limbs and dead shrubbery must be removed.
  • Snow shall be removed from any public sidewalks as needed.
  • Waste, trash and other rubbish is to be cleared from the property.
  • No illegal or hazardous activity shall be performed on the property.
  • Standing water should not accumulate anywhere on the property.
  • All enclosures (fences and gates) are to be maintained and functional.
  • Any pools or hot tubs must be kept clean and either maintained or drained so as to not attract mosquitoes and other insects.
  • Pools must be kept covered whether full or drained to prevent accidents.
  • Basements must be kept watertight and clear of rodents.
  • Exterior walls shall be maintained and kept free of holes and rotting wood so as to protect the interior of the home from water and rodents.
  • Doors and windows are to be kept in stable and locking condition to prevent unauthorized entry.
  • The roof must be in good condition so that water does not enter the home.
  • The exterior siding, brick, stone, trim, soffits, moldings and any other decorative material is to be kept in good repair.
  • Chimney/flue must be functional and weather tight.
  • Exterior stairs, porches, balconies and walkways must be safe for use.
  • Street address (number) must be visible on the front of the house; the numerals must be at least three inches high and two inches wide.

Failure to comply with anything contained on the registration form may lead to the summons of the responsible party by the municipal court.

Hopefully more New Jersey towns will initiate the foreclosure registration process in the near future, keeping our neighborhoods cleaner, safer and more attractive while we slowly bounce back from the housing crisis.

Image credit: darkday
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