Friday, November 27, 2015         

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Foreclosures feeding local economies

By Tamara Lush

Associated Press


CAPE CORAL, Fla. » Across the nation, troubled homeowners have cheered the news that some banks are slowing the foreclosure process to review questionable documents. Then there are places like Lee County, Fla., where not everyone is applauding.

Foreclosures became so common here that they spawned a cottage industry. Real estate agents had homes to sell, landscapers and plumbers had work to do and furniture stores and restaurants benefited, too.

So in October, when some big banks suspended foreclosures in states like Florida where lenders need a judge's approval to foreclose, some local businesses became alarmed. Foreclosures had become good for business.

The situation created a Catch-22 for Lee County. Hundreds of homes were seized a month, some possibly with flawed foreclosure documents. A slowing of foreclosures helps guard against wrongful evictions. Yet until the resale of foreclosed homes picks up, many local businesses might struggle.

Jason Ruggles, a foreman for B. Perez Landscaping in the Lee County city of Fort Myers, said he has cleaned and cultivated greenery at only a handful of foreclosed homes for banks and new owners in the past month. Without a pipeline of foreclosed homes with new owners, business has all but halted.

"Now we have to search for work," he said. "Sometimes we have to underbid for a job, and we're doing fliers now. We don't like to look needy, but we have to do something."

In other places clobbered by the real estate bust -- Las Vegas, parts of Arizona -- foreclosure sales have become a rare bright spot in otherwise bleak economies. Now, as the pace of foreclosures slows, many local economies could, too.

In October the number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders fell 9 percent -- the sharpest monthly drop this year, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

The slowdown occurred as lenders suspended tens of thousands of foreclosures after allegations that bank employees signed but did not read foreclosure paperwork. In Lee County, foreclosure filings last month numbered 565, the fewest in any month since 2007.

Some big lenders say they are resuming foreclosures, though at a more measured pace, to review documents more closely.

One, Bank of America, has restarted the foreclosure process in about half the country, including Florida, though its nationwide halt in foreclosure home sales remains in place. Another, Ally Financial's GMAC unit, is resuming some foreclosure actions, too.

The number of homes lost to foreclosure should eventually begin rising again. But with some large lenders like Bank of America halting foreclosure sales, purchases will remain sluggish. And attorneys general in Florida and other states argue that the systems the banks used to process foreclosures likely remain flawed. Their investigations could further slow the pace of foreclosures.

Peter Murphy, a Florida real estate consultant, is among those who worry about a slowdown in foreclosures in areas like Lee County. He argues that keeping foreclosures going, and thereby clearing a vast supply of vacant homes, is necessary to stabilize the local real estate market.

"We are not going to see any kind of recovery until this mess resolves," Murphy said.

Consider how the local economy depends on people like Gene Richards of Burlington, Vt., who wants to invest in a $30,000 foreclosed condo in Lee County. Richards is still waiting for the foreclosure sale to be approved.

If he and other would-be buyers of foreclosed homes could complete their purchases, they could send money flowing through Lee County. Richards planned, for example, to spend thousands on renovations. That money would have helped support the jobs of a plumber, electrician and carpet installer.

He also intended to buy new beds and sofas at area stores. Those retailers won't get that money for now. Neither will the management company that would benefit from his plan to rent the condo to seasonal residents -- people who would shop at stores and eat in restaurants in Lee County.

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