As huge numbers of foreclosed homes continue to work their way through the real estate pipeline, another problem is blossoming — mold.
In most homes, as residents go in and out and the seasons change, natural ventilation sucks moisture up to the attic and out through the roof. It's called the "stack effect." And in many parts of the country, it's driven by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.
But no one is going in or out of most foreclosed homes — regardless of climate, and the effects can be devastating.
In some states, it's estimated that more than half of foreclosed homes have mold and mildew issues. Realtors across the country say they're seeing the problem in everything from bungalows to mansions.
Bob Bennett runs Farsight Management in Northeastern Ohio, which specializes in cleaning up water-damaged buildings.
A full quarter of his work now comes from moldy, foreclosed homes where the electricity's been shut off. No electricity means no sump pump or dehumidifier for months, even years, and that often means mold. Slimy black or green patches creeping up drywall and blanketing bathroom fixtures.
"Here, water came out of the sump, and it got underneath the carpet, came over to the wall, and then wicked up the side of the gypsum board, so you can see this banding where the top of the wicking stopped," he says.
Even minor mold abatement can start at $5,000 and cost much, much more. In this particular case, Bennett estimates more than $6,000, plus the cost of new floors, walls and carpet.
A Manifestation Of The Foreclosure Crisis
He wears a head-to-toe protective suit on most jobs, while Realtor Rebecca Terakedis shows an increasing number of abandoned, foreclosed and moldy, but otherwise fine, homes to prospective buyers.
"I have a release form that I use, and if the property's got a lot of mold in it, I don't even let my own husband go in it without signing this disclosure because I don't want the liability," she says. "I had one really interesting [one]. It was the middle of winter, there were icicles coming out of the windows above the garage, no heat, but it was 80 degrees inside of the house because it was self-composting."
Realtors say they don't think banks mean to incur thousands of dollars in mold damage just to save on monthly utility bills. But the mold problem appears largely to be a manifestation of the foreclosure crisis. Bills go unpaid, houses sit vacant and the whole process takes much longer than anyone wants.
Ohio Bankers League President, Mike Van Buskirk, says by the time the banks process foreclosure paperwork, its often too late.
"There are a lot of steps in government, the courts, county sheriff that are involved in it," he says. "While it varies across the state, some of them, thinking they're helping the consumers, are really dragging out the process, so that it can take two or three years."
Realtor Jill Flagg says many lenders won't sell a home for less than the mortgage note, so the house sits and sits, and it continues to grow mold.
"I had an offer on a house with Bank of America where they have agreed to do a short sale, and it's been over two months, and they haven't even responded to the offer," she says. "They don't have enough staff to move it along — too backed up. They don't have enough qualified people who know what they're doing, and you know, it's in a pile somewhere."
Charges of faulty paperwork have slowed the pace of foreclosures in recent months and that may be exacerbating the mold problem — as those houses sit and bake through the long, hot summer.