November 2016 - End of the Road?

TheMReport — News and strategies for the evolving mortgage marketplace.

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26 | TH E M R EP O RT FEATURE F or as far back anyone in the property pres- ervation industry can remember, the answer to how best to shore up doors and windows on vacant properties was always the same word: plywood. Even today, when a house goes vacant, the first solu- tion is to literally board a place up. The Easy Way Out Is an Easy Way In I t's easy to understand why. Plywood is cheap, and it's readily available. You can buy sheets of it for a few bucks from any large hardware store, and those are pretty much everywhere. Plywood is also easy to handle. Just hold a piece up, pop a few bolts into it, and you have a temporary barrier against pests, weather, and intruders. The reason for boarding up a property to begin with, of course, is because glass windows and sometimes flimsy doors are pretty easily broken through. If the wrong people get wind of a prop - erty being vacant, what's going to keep them from getting inside? A pane of glass? Hardly. Even if you take away the prospect of intruders, what hap - pens when there's a storm and a branch hits a window? Now there's broken glass letting in whatever natural elements come along, and that can quickly lead to rot, mold, and infestations. So plywood over a window or other opening is better than gaping holes and leaving things to chance. The trouble, though, is that despite all of its seeming advantages, plywood is not that good of a deterrent. For one thing, plywood is easily broken through or removed. Pests and other inva- sive animals can easily chew and dig through it, and anyone with a pry bar, a screwdriver, or even a strong enough kick can quickly make an opening. Over time, plywood warps and deteriorates and ends up looking terrible—and some properties can sit vacant for anywhere from several months to multiple years. A Factor in Neighborhood Blight M ore than anything, though, the problem with boarding up a vacant property is that the boards make the property stand out in the wrong way. Whenever you throw plywood up on a vacant property, regardless of the community it's in, plywood puts a big red X on that property. It immediately becomes a beacon for squatters, drug users, and thieves who break in to steal appliances or copper wiring because ply - wood makes it very apparent that no one is home, and no one will be for a long time. Aesthetically, of course, plywood just doesn't look very good. Even when you put it up brand new, it still looks like cheap wood where a window or door should be. And let's face it; nobody wants the property next door to them to be boarded with plywood. For one thing, no one wants to look out their own windows and see that; and for another, it's bad for neighborhood property values to have boards up on the block. Some pretty depressing data shows that properties sitting next to plywood- boarded houses suffer in value. This, of course, affects investors and mortgage servicers too. It's hard to sell a house with boards on all the windows because, frankly, a prospective owner oc - cupant has a hard time envi- sioning his or her future house without the plywood attached. And despite what a lot of peo- ple outside the housing industry might think, banks and servicers don't want to own abandoned, boarded-up houses. They want to sell the properties, preferably to someone who will live there. That gets a lot harder to do when the place looks terrible due to plywood and has, in plenty of cases, become a destination for unpleasantness. Beyond property values and money, there's a very real safety factor at play for neighbors. Think about it—if you were to live next to a big red X of an abandoned property, you stand a good chance of that house having unwanted visitors, whether people or animals, hanging around just a few feet from you and your family. That's not alarmism either. Smart Growth America, in fact, once found that vacant properties gener - ate nearly three times the number of calls for drugs and twice the calls about theft as occupied prop- erties. And by the way, all those calls are a significant drain on local police, fire, and ambulance services; and those calls just pass more costs on to taxpayers. So, what can be done about this? Well, fortunately, there are some very good alternatives avail- able for mortgage servicers and property preservation companies that can keep a property safer and even keep it from looking abandoned at all. Strength in Steel O ne solution popping up is 14-gauge steel door and window casings. Steel is a huge theft deterrent. Yes, it does make it apparent that no one is living at the property, but it's still a steel wall between the bad guys and the inside. Intruders see it and pretty much know to move on to the next place, which is probably boarded over with plywood. Steel, of course, is not the ideal solution for all communities. But it's becoming more common in higher crime areas, where break- ins and property theft of items and materials left inside a building are more likely. We've seen this solution work extremely well in major urban areas around the whole country, in fact. Despite how daunting it might sound to have to work with steel, the truth is, the professionals who install the barriers can do it fast and properly. Steel casings go up on the front and rear doors and over all the windows, and the system works on a rental basis. In other words, the company putting up the barriers owns the steel. They come and put the steel screens up Prying off the Plywood The age-old remedy for vacant houses—plywood—is not only unsightly, but also unsafe. Banks and servicers are starting to seek out other options. By Chad Mosley

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