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Foreclosures present eyesores
The dead lawn and wilting landscaping give clue that the occupants have left this house. It's even more obvious when the house, such as the one on White Oak Drive in Eastgate, has been stripped of its window coverings.

The problem of foreclosed homes and the resulting eyesores are growing in virtually all neighborhoods in Ceres.

"It's a problem all over the place," said Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella. "I've heard that as many as one in 30 houses in Stanislaus County are being foreclosed on."

Cannella feels the pain in a personal way. He invested in a home in the upscale River Ranch subdivision a few years ago. He's now staring at two properties on Sarah Therese Way where the lawns are brown and dying. His complaining has been privately muttered but now he's considering calling the banks which may - or may not yet own the in-limbo properties - to force them to abide by the private deed restrictions which call for properties being maintained.

As a private citizen, the mayor is keeping an eye on the properties to make sure nobody breaks into them. But he can't water the lawns because the water service has been turned off.

"I share the frustration with everybody."

City officials met with code enforcement personnel last week to discuss the problem and ways to tackle it. The issue is a complex one.

"We're getting complaints as to code enforcement," said Fire Marshall Brian Nicholes, now in charge of code enforcement. "We get two or three calls a week, sometimes on the same houses."

The city has money appropriated for code enforcement but not enough to adequately cover the costs of cleaning up eyesores. One idea is to order a clean-up and then have the costs placed as a lien against the property.

"We are considering whether we have sufficient codes to deal with them and explore our options," said Art deWerk, director of Ceres Department of Public Safety.

"The neighbors are upset and see foreclosed properties as nuisances," said deWerk.

He, too, is concerned about vacant homes as breeding grounds for problems, such as hang-outs for the homeless, illegal activities and mischievous juveniles. Some teens have found the converted backyards of abandoned houses into drinking spots.

But it's mostly an issue of aesthetics for people who wanted to live in a neighborhood with higher standards. Eric Ingwerson, a real estate agent with PMZ Real Estate in Ceres, said the problem seems to be worse in Eastgate, Ceres' most recent housing development.

"There seems to be quite a few more in that area," observes Ingwerson.

The sight of dead lawns appears to be more of a problem with the people who live next door to them rather than potential future buyers.

"As far as overall impact on the market, no I don't think that's an issue," Ingwerson said. "The buyers realize that eventually somebody else is going to buy it and clean it up."

Stanislaus County has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, and is sandwiched between the number one trouble spot in the nation: San Joaquin County and another troubled county in Merced.

"We're in the middle of Foreclosure City," noted Ingwerson.

During the second quarter of this year, the percentage of foreclosures In Stanislaus County increased by 74 percent. Indications are that things will get worse before they get better.

"To filter out this inventory it's going to take two to three years," Ingwerson predicted.

"It's frightening," said Cannella, who noticed how many homes in Patterson's Walker Ranch subdivision were abandoned during a recent bicycle excursion. He estimated that 20 percent of the development was abandoned.

Dead zone

Ingwerson said the lack of maintenance seems to be occurring in what he calls the "dead zone" - the period of time during which the foreclosure process takes place. It can be months from the time a defaulting homeowner bails until the time the bank legally takes possession of it. By then the grass is dead and the backyard pool is turning green and breeding mosquitos. When the bank takes title, it can hire a clean-up crew, turn on the water service and begin the process of restoration.

"The dead zone can be 111 days to get through the process."

The process of foreclosure begins when a buyer fails to make payments. Realizing that the borrower is financially unable to pay off their debt, the lending institution records a notice of default, the beginning of foreclosure. The owner/buyer has 90 days to bring their payments up to date. If not, the bank begins the process of repossessing the house.

By then, the occupants have left. Sometimes if an owner knows he's going to lose the house, he or she won't put any effort into maintaining the house before leaving it.

Nicholes agreed that "the limbo period is our problem." But it's tough getting a handle on how big the problem is. The city wants to get an accurate picture on numbers and that's difficult in itself with a wildly fluctuating discrepancy in numbers. Numbers are different, depending on which website you visit. Some websites are weeks old, said Nicholes, and one has to be careful to notice which houses are in default, in foreclosure or in bank possession.

There are currently 106 properties being foreclosed on in the 95307 zip code, according to the website on Tuesday. Another 59 are in pre-foreclosure.

Hughson has 10 foreclosures and 15 pre-foreclosures.

Keyes has 15 foreclosures and six in pre-foreclosure.

Overall in California, notices of default are up 158 percent to 53,943 compared to 20,909 last year.

The solution to foreclosure eyesores may be a little old-fashioned neighborly volunteerism. Some neighbors don't mind watering and mowing adjoining properties until a new family moves in. One of them is code enforcement officer Frank Alvarez himself who has taken it upon himself to prevent an eyesore in his west Ceres neighborhood.

The city's hands are tied in most cases, noted Nicholes, who is in charge of code enforcement in Ceres. He has used Honor Farm work details to do some clean-up of front yards in some high profiled areas. But backyards are trickier.

"It may be in foreclosure but it's still private property. If the gates are locked we can't go back there... we can get a summary abatement warrant but it's a process to go through."

The city has more tools if backyard weeds or slimy pools are visible from the neighbor's two-story windows, he said. "But we can't go sticking our heads over the fence."

The matter of a green pool can be handled more expeditiously through the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District's use of public safety laws.

The city can force a clean-up if there is no one to care for the property and it get it out of the public nuisance category. But the problem is who to go after to pay for the clean-up.

"If they've skipped out on the house, we have no one to get to foot the bill. Then it becomes a problem of taxpayers paying for private property maintenance.

"It's the same with citations. We can cite a person for not maintaining their property, but who do you cite for it? What good is it to cite if there's nobody around?'