What can we do about vacant homes in our neighborhoods?

Q: We have at least three vacant houses that we know of on our street. I just read a story saying one out of every seven houses in Nevada is vacant. I guess we’re lucky that the vacant homes by us seem to be fairly well-maintained, at least so far. I know others aren’t so lucky. What, if anything, do you think we do about this?

— Jayne C., Las Vegas

A: I’ve seen the stories and statistics you mentioned. Like most Las Vegans and local real estate professionals, they concern me. Of course, this situation is sparked by ongoing struggles in our local economy and housing market, which continues to have one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.

There seemed to be some good news on this front recently when a firm called ForeclosureRadar reported that foreclosure filings locally and throughout the West fell significantly in February compared to the previous month and the previous year.

I’d caution against calling this a turning point or a trend, since many experts are saying this may not last. The recent slowdown in foreclosures could be caused, at least in part, by lenders working through concerns about their foreclosure processes and how they handle the necessary documents.

Few people realize that 2010 was the third best year on record for the number of existing homes sold in Southern Nevada. According to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, we sold 43,877 existing homes.

The second best sales year was 2009, when we sold 46,879 homes. That trailed only the all-time boom year of 2004, when we sold 71,963 local homes.

So, we’re doing a pretty good job of selling the homes that come onto the market, vacant or not.

Now if we can just generate more jobs and see our population get back to something approaching historically normally growth rates, we could put even more people in these vacant homes.

That assumes that banks, which own and control most of the vacant homes you see in our neighborhoods today, will do their part and put these homes on the market in a reasonable time frame and in reasonably good condition. As you may know, many bank-owned homes now sit vacant for months before the lenders who own them decide to do anything with them. As you suggest, far too many of these homes are not properly maintained.

For now, short sales are one of the best alternatives we have to foreclosures. That’s when a bank agrees to sell a home for less than what the borrower owes on the mortgage. Realtors are doing all we can locally and nationally to work with lawmakers, lenders, government officials and others to encourage and streamline the short sale process.

According to GLVAR, short sales only accounted for 26.6 percent of all local home sales in February. Bank-owned homes accounted for nearly 52 percent. We’d like to see those percentages reversed. In any case, here are some basic suggestions on what you can do if you have a problem related to vacant homes in your neighborhood:

• If you live in a homeowners association, call your HOA if you see problems with a property. If you think there’s a health hazard, such as a “green” swimming pool attracting pests, call the Southern Nevada Health District.

• If you suspect a vacant home is attracting squatters or criminal activity, call the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

• If a vacant home is listed for sale, call the real estate agent or firm listed on the sign and report any vandalism, damage or other problems.

Paul Bell is the president of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors and has worked in the real estate industry for 30 years. GLVAR has nearly 11,500 members. To ask him a question, email him at ask@glvar.org.

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