That Empty Feeling: To Mow Or Not To Mow That Vacant House Next Door

By TERESA M. PELHAM, Special to the Courant

November 7, 2010

When Hank Leftwich moved into his home in the Elmwood section of West Hartford in 2007, he quickly grew weary of walking his dog past a vacant house a few doors down with "waist-high grass."

He took matters into his own hands.

"I called the town and the health department several times, but they said there was nothing they could do," he said, noting that he had seen rats and raccoons in the yard. "So every time I mowed my yard, I would mow that yard, too. For the last couple of years, it was on my route of lawns to mow."

Yes, he did say his "route." In recent months, the house next door to his Richard Street home also became vacant, and he added that yard to his list.

"I can either spend two hours on the phone or one hour mowing lawns," he said, noting that a lawn service began maintaining the long-vacant house this August, and new neighbors recently moved in next door. "Either a landscaping company took pity on the house, or the town finally figured out whose responsibility it was."

Many homeowners whose streets are pocked with long-foreclosed or abandoned houses might take the same action as Leftwich. Although it raises issues such as liability and trespassing, such proactive measures address a tough problem. A blighted property or a house in foreclosure can affect sale prices for neighboring homes, and besides, it's an eyesore.

Exactly how much these houses affect sale prices of nearby houses is difficult to quantify.

"My job is to make a homebuyer understand that this is a temporary situation," said Ray Romero, a Realtor with William Raveis in West Hartford. "Once the property turns over, the pride of ownership will return."

So what can a seller or a concerned neighbor do if the house across the street has grass a foot high and phone books strewn across the driveway?

"You can't go onto the property and take matters into your own hands," said Evan Goldstein, a partner with Updike, Kelly and Spellacy, specializing in creditors' rights and bankruptcy issues. "The owner can bring a trespass action against you. If you're going onto somebody's lawn uninvited, you're opening up a Pandora's box of issues. I certainly wouldn't advise any of my clients to do that."

Goldstein said that if the homeowner is still present, a neighbor can knock on the door and ask if they would like help in maintaining the property. Other options include contacting one's local or state representative for help.

"If the house is bank-owned, the bank has an obligation to take care of the house," he said. "The worst situation is if the owner has walked away, but title hasn't vested in the name of the bank. That's the time period that's the most difficult and uncertain."

Some situations are easier for neighbors to manage.

In a prominent spot within a new Farmington development of well-kept lawns and homes under construction, a house sits vacant with a "For Sale" sign out front.

Owned by a relocated active-duty member of the armed forces, the house is now in a "short sale" situation, which many buyers avoid because of a potentially lengthy sale process. The house has remained empty for over a year, but neighbors are taking care of the property.

Although a full-fledged homeowners association will not be formed until more of the 158 homes in the neighborhood are completed, homeowners — working in tandem with the builder — are seeing to it that the lawn is cut and the property is maintained, with the help of a $140-per-month maintenance fee all homeowners pay.

"We're trying to keep the neighborhood looking good," said Kevin McCarthy, a schoolteacher and homeowner helping to oversee landscaping issues and upkeep in the neighborhood. "It helps maintain everyone's property values."

In fact, sales of new homes in the Snowberry Cobble neighborhood have stayed strong.

"That house hasn't affected us at all," said Nicholas Murano, sales manager for Bristol-based Stephen Realty, which has already built 43 houses in the planned development. "We just sold four new houses, all in the mid-fours. If anything, the traffic from that house has helped, because people come to see the house and see that we have this sales office and come in and buy a house."

At the other end of the spectrum, said Rob Giuffria, a Broker with Prudential Premier Homes in Farmington, is a property such as 2 Woodside Circle in Hartford's West End. The grand 7,000-square-foot brick mansion is owned by Bank of America, and its landscaping has not been maintained.

Giuffria points to 13 properties in the West End neighborhood listed above $300,000 that have been removed from the market or have had contracts expire since January 2009.

"What is the effect of this house being in disrepair?" he said. "It significantly and negatively impacts a West End homeowner's ability to sell."

Economist and West Hartford Town Manager Ronald Van Winkle believes that while having a home in foreclosure affects the ability of others in the neighborhood to sell a house, foreclosures haven't yet had an impact on pricing, at least in this area.

"It's important, but it's not driving the market like it is in Florida and in the Southwest," he said. "In a community with a lot of foreclosures, the foreclosures tend to set the price. In Connecticut, it's having an impact, but not a large enough impact to see prices going down. Prices are down because demand is down."

The town regularly gets requests to intervene when a property is being neglected, Van Winkle said, with 30 neglected properties now on its radar.

"But we can't go onto a private property and mow the lawn," he said. "We can issue a ticket for $67 for each day that a lawn is left to grow longer than 6 inches high."

Van Winkle said that although some homeowners do "leave the front door open and walk away," most people in West Hartford — even if in foreclosure — do take care of their homes.

"They don't let their houses deteriorate just because they're mad at their bank," he said. "Their neighbors are their friends."

Leftwich, on Richard Street, said he was not worried about getting into trouble for trespassing.

"I figured at least then I'd have somebody to ask to pay for my gas," he said.

Source: The Hartford Courant