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JUNE 5 - 11, 2009



With Real Estate, Help Wanted, Services and Personals

Foreclosed homes a problem in hurricane season By Tamara Lush The Associated Press LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. — Mike Manikchand points toward his neighbors — a half-dozen empty, foreclosed-upon homes, sitting on weed-strewn yards — and he wonders: What will happen if a hurricane slams into southwest Florida this year? His simple answer: “A lot of these places will get destroyed.” Unoccupied, these homes would be defenseless in a storm; there will be no one to put up shutters, batten down garage doors and otherwise secure them. But that’s not all. Nearby homes and their residents would also be at risk from wind-propelled debris. Lehigh Acres and other communities at the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis are coming to realize that this year’s hurricane season, which began June 1, represents yet another pitfall. Hurricanes could make hazards of thousands of foreclosed-upon houses, and their diminished value could decrease even more. “Here’s your choice,” said Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa-

based Institute for Business and Home Safety. “Spend a little bit of time and money to secure the properties to withstand wind and water, or not do the right thing and have the homes become damaged and valued less.” The Associated Press Economic Stress Index — a month-by-month analysis of foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment rates in more than 3,000 U.S. counties — confirms that some of the areas most likely to be struck by a hurricane are suffering the most in this recession. In March, there were 281,691 homes in foreclosure in Florida and coastal counties in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Lee County, where Manikchand lives, is among the hardest-hit counties in the country. A 22-year-old pharmacy student, he took advantage of a dismal housing market and bought a foreclosed duplex for $36,000. In coming months, he and millions of others along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts will dutifully track tropical weather forecasts and stockpile batteries, flashlights and tins of

tuna, hoping that hurricanes blow harmlessly out to sea. But who will secure all the foreclosed homes if a storm does approach? No one really knows. In some cases, a propertymanagement company hired by the bank could do the work. Or it could be a real-estate agent, a homeowners’ association or even resourceful neighbors who clear debris from yards and board windows. Yet no state laws mandate who prepares buildings before a hurricane; even officials from the Florida Division of Emergency Management say that securing foreclosures isn’t a concern. Quick evacuation will be the priority, not securing vacant homes, if a major storm looms, others say. But shutterless homes can be a major safety hazard in a hurricane. And a region full of destroyed or heavily damaged homes would depress realestate values even further. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters have projected a near-normal year for hurricanes. They predicted nine to 14 named tropical storms, including four to seven hurricanes. One to three

of the hurricanes are expected to be major. Randall Webster, director of the Horry County Emergency Management Department in South Carolina, said if a storm does hit, properties in foreclosure could slow recovery if the county can’t immediately find the owner, “especially if it were in a neighborhood where others around it were taking care of business and this one gets in rough shape,” he said. The issue of who cares for vacant homes during a time of crisis seems simple: The legal owner is responsible for securing the property. But communities are already struggling to get banks to mow lawns, much less put up hurricane shutters — if they weren’t swiped from the foreclosed home along with appliances, copper wiring and air conditioners. If the bank hasn’t yet taken the title of a home, the property is in a kind of limbo, and local officials or homeowners’ associations may have no legal right to trespass and secure it. And many hard-hit counties don’t have the money or manpower to do it.

There are some places that are trying to board up windows and batten down garage doors, although largely to stave off crime. Wellington, in Palm Beach County, has gone to court to receive the legal OK to board up homes. And in Cape Coral, city officials have passed an ordinance that requires the owner of a foreclosed home to pay $150 to register the address and provide a contact number for the person who will maintain the property. Some banks say they have a plan for hurricanes; JP Morgan Chase says it will use property management companies and bank field employees to make sure properties are stormready. And if the homes are damaged or destroyed during a storm, said Michael Fusco, a spokesperson for JP Morgan Chase, the bank “acts just like a homeowner” and will file an insurance claim. But one real-estate agent in the Fort Myers area said the process of putting the maintenance work out to bid and then getting approval from the bank that owns the property might not be workable as a storm bears down. ■

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PGN June 5 - 11, 2009 edition  
PGN June 5 - 11, 2009 edition  

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