Who's Minding All the Empty Houses?

Real Estate Agent with Coldwell Banker Gundaker

Who's minding all the empty houses?


All over the US there are empty houses at the moment.  Some are foreclosure and pre-foreclosure homes, some are empty because the homeowners relocated for a new job and haven't been able to sell.  Who's taking care of them?  Some things you can just turn off and leave, but other things need to be maintained and checked periodically.  I went to preview one home the other day where the grass and weeds were taller than I am (I'm 5'1" tall).  I've gone into homes where the basements were so full of spider webs that I walked out feeling like I needed to go spray myself with insecticide and hope my hair wasn't full of spiders.  I've seen some where the bathroom pipes had burst and 2 rooms were flooded.  One had broken glass throughout the home.  Another had a tree branch sticking through the garage wall and the garage roof was covered with huge tree limbs from a storm.  I've gone into homes that have doors left unlocked by a previous showing agent and have sat that way no one knows how long.  The list goes on and on.  All lovely homes, all on the market, but being neglected.  The listing agents hadn't been by to check them out in a very long time and the home owners weren't in the local area.


Grass needs to be mowed, weeds & vines pulled in flower beds, light bulbs need to be replaced, batteries in thermostats and smoke detectors need to be changed, furnace filters need to be changed.  When the temperature changes, someone has to reset the thermostat and change it from heat to cool or cool to heat or you can destroy the system.  If water isn't run through the drains periodically, sewer gasses can build up and back into the house.  The water in the toilet bowls will evaporate leaving nasty rings unless someone periodically flushes the toilet. Gaskets will dry out on the dishwasher if it's not run once in awhile.  The spiders and other insects will take over quickly if no one is there to spray and maintain control. Checking for backed up floor drains, water seeping into basements, ceiling leaks, storm damage - who's doing it?  In winter, who is checking for burst pipes?  Did a mouse get in?  Or a bigger creature? Has anyone broken into the home or left it unsecured?  The list goes on and on.


If the homeowner is lucky, a good neighbor, friend or relative is stopping in and checking on the home, but if the home is empty for long, that gets old and the neighbor, friend or relative gets busy with their own life and slowly doesn't come around as often.  After a storm, the empty house doesn't have the priority of their own home.  There's no checklist for them to work off of, so it's kind of hit and miss what they think to do or not do.  They don't carry things in their car with them when they come over, so they try to remember the next time they come over what it was that they meant to bring, but often it gets forgotten.  The person who ends up taking care of it, is often the Realtor.  They don't get paid for checking on the home, property management is not in most of their job descriptions, it's the home owner's responsibility to have someone take care of the home.  But in most areas, there is no "company" to hire to stop in and check on a home, and where there are, they are expensive enough that they are only used for very expensive homes or for rentals.  The Realtors have enough to do without adding that to their job description, but they know that if they want to get the home sold, they need to make sure that the vacant homes get checked periodically and if something is wrong they let the owner know and arrange to have someone come fix it, because if not taken care of the small problem may become a big problem before it's dealt with and at that point it will cost the home owner most money and could end up costing a sale.  Sometimes the Realtors will discuss with the owners in advance having a handyman on call for minor repairs that come up, or having $XX on hand to buy furnace filters, lightbulbs, etc with, but often the Realtors just take care of it.  Some bill their clients at the end, some just eat the cost, some call their clients and get permission first and have their clients reimburse them right away, but it's still their time, their energy and their effort that keeps it going even if the light bulb got paid for.


But as Realtors we have a responsibility also, to let the listing agent know if there is something wrong when we visit a property.  I checked on one of mine recently and the doorknob to the basement was off.  Since there had only been a couple showings since I had last been to the house, it was fairly easy to find out who was responsible, but it was irritating to have the other agent tell me the door knob had been "loose" when I know if wasn't. Someone had tried to force the door open using the doorknob without unlocking the upper lock on the door first - it's the only way it could have happened.  How much simpler it would have been to have called me right away and told me, and let me know so I could have had the neighbor come over and fix it that day rather than my finding it a few days later and then having to call the owner and ask if he knew anything about and track down the neighbor and ask him then track down the Realtors who had shown to talk to them.  All it took to fix it was a screwdriver.


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JT Kaelin, SRES

Very good article. I HUNT AND PECK when I type, so this will be brief. With over 20 years as a Realtor, I have developed a drawer full of addenda that I use on a listing. The "HANDYMAN ADDENDUM" is one that I most use and is most talked about with the sellers that I list homes for. I do offer a free lawn cutting in the summer time or a free walkway snow shoveling in the winter time. I have a list of handyman services that I call to do the work. Many listing come from what you offer, that other Realtors don't. Now go List and Sell a house.



Jun 30, 2009 02:19 AM #7
Ginger Moore
Wilkinson & Associates Realty - Gastonia, NC

nice post. yes I have been in homes like the ones you have mentioned. It is a great tragedy. I don't know the answer. I will monitor this blog. thx again!

Jun 30, 2009 02:34 AM #8
Rosemary Brooks
BMC Real Estate - 209-910-3706 - Stockton, CA
The Mother & Daughter Realty Team

Great question.  On the other hand, I have a short sale where the owner has moved out.  The owner does not want to pay for the lawn to be kept up -- he wants me to do it for free!  I don't mind doing one lawn, but what if I had 5 lawns or more to keep up for the owners.  Can be costly -- especially when you are not sure you will get it sold.

Jun 30, 2009 03:28 AM #9
Dan Magstadt
Paramount Residential Mortgage Group, Inc - Lake City, FL

You got it Dale - There are LOTS of empty houses & after a while they start to deteriorate.

Best, Dan

Jun 30, 2009 03:29 AM #10
Gene Riemenschneider
Home Point Real Estate - Brentwood, CA
Turning Houses into Homes

I would love to let a listing agent know what is wrong with a property.  If they cared to return a call.  Many just don't care and are not in the area to deal with it.  Finally I get tired of showing up at a home and finding the lock box is coded and the code is not in the MLS.  Our MLS requires homes have a SupraKey Box, but sometimes that gets overlooked. 

I have been tempted to open doors with my foot.  (I have not!)  The Banks and REO Agents are the ones who need to get the work done and get it done right.

Jun 30, 2009 04:04 AM #11
Tara Spencer
Parks Jones Realty - Lawton, OK

meRosemary - did you agree to mow the lawn for free?  I definitely would NOT have! I agree with JT Kaelin - a 'Handyman Addendum' or some other sort of written agreement is a great idea for preventative maintenance as well as anything else that may come up! I've shown listings that have had dead rats on the floor, flood damage, etc. It gets old. I feel like I should carry bug spray in my purse! I always call the listing agent and tell them, although sometimes they don't seem to care. As far as my vacant listings go, I introduce myself to all the neighbors and give them my card, and ask them to call me if they see ANYTHING that needs attention - lawn, mail, tree branches, etc. I also check on my vacant listings weekly and the day after any storms. It's a Realtor's responsibility to at least check on the listings. Great post Dale!

Jun 30, 2009 04:14 AM #12
Lyn Sims
RE/MAX Suburban - Schaumburg, IL
Schaumburg Real Estate

You always wonder what goes thru peoples minds when this stuff happens?  I know if I do anything or my clients I am with, we call the agent right away.  If your client breaks something in the house, I think it's your duty to say something to the owner.  That's just my opinion, obviously other agents don't feel that way.  I was just showing a condo the other day(REO) and a maintenance man approached me & told me he was going to replace the railing where the lockbox was attached & the lockbox was going with!  Like I was going to do something about it.  I did call the LO and they took care of it.  Took 2 seconds.

Jun 30, 2009 04:34 AM #13
Palm Coast Homes
100 Plus Realty LLC - Palm Coast, FL
Palm Coast/Flagler County Real Estate, The Ross/Co

This is a huge problem and has such a devastating effect on surrounding homes and neighborhoods.  When pride of ownership starts to deteriorates on a street...it spreads like a virus.  We can not control how others conduct their business or take care of their homes other than filing complaints with local zoning boards and building departments when we niotice infractions that are actionable.

Jun 30, 2009 04:45 AM #14
Bill Gillhespy
16 Sunview Blvd - Fort Myers Beach, FL
Fort Myers Beach Realtor, Fort Myers Beach Agent - Homes & Condos

Hi Dale,  In some areas there are local building codes which require the lender to maintain the property.  In other areas the city maintains and bills the property owner.

Jun 30, 2009 05:37 AM #15
Barbara Singleterry
S Squared Group - Keller Williams Realty - Roseville, CA
Honesty - Integrity- Loyalty

You know, this sounds like a definite need in some areas with large numbers of vacant homes.  I wonder why someone has not started a business providing a service just to check on vacant properties that can be billed through the listing agents back to banks who own the properties and also provided to those homeowners who have relocated.  

I know I paid for lawn mowing on a short sale listing a couple of times using my own gardner.  However, the listing was with a close friend and the house was only a few doors down from mine.  Had to keep the neighborhood looking good.

Jun 30, 2009 06:55 AM #16
Robert Schneider
Blue Ribbon, Realtors - Frontenac, MO

Hi Dale!

Good to see your post! 

Yes, maintaining a home while listed is a problem and has always been a problem. The banks are worse at it than what I call the average retail seller, but the  retail seller and his agent are not always prizes.  Some years ago, I had my eye on a house in the Walton Road area of Overland MO.  I previewed it once for a client.  Nice house, in good shape. Then came back in early January after a cold snap to check it for someone else.  The January visit was unpleasant.  Somebody had left the heat off, pipes had burst, the kitchen and the basement were full of water, so the basement rug squished everytime you walked on it.  The mildew issue banged you in the face the second you entered the front door.  I called the listing office and the response was, "Oh my!"  Two weeks later, out of curiosity, I checked again.  The house was in the same condition!  Two weeks later, the MLS showed the house taken off the market.   It was just plain unsellable due to inattention.

I'll say this.  For my own listings, I always check the condition of the home once or twice a week. I owe that to the client.  I will also help maintain what I consider little things--light bulbs, batteries, etc.  I eat those costs.   More major items--such as broken windows, basement leakage--I pass on to the seller.  However, the number of times those things have been repaired while the home is not yet under contract has been limited.  Very frustrating.   

Jun 30, 2009 08:38 AM #17
Sundy Provencio

Here is your answer dear friends...  My name is Sundy Provencio and I am the President of Exquisite Home Tending Inc.  Please visit our website @ exquisitehometending.com 

Jun 30, 2009 08:42 AM #18
Grace Ching
White House Properties - Encino, CA

A very thorough post, Dale.  Thanks for sharing your observations.  Same things go on here in the

Los Angeles area and probably in greater numbers than you see, being as highly populated as it

is here.  We have about 140,000 Realtors in California.  300,000+ other RE licensees in the

state are not Realtors and sometimes operate with decidedly different standards of professionalism

than those promulgated by NAR, perhaps from not knowing any better?

Grace Ching,GRI   White House Properties, Encino, CA      

Jun 30, 2009 10:17 AM #19
Mike Henderson
Your complete source for buying HUD homes - Littleton, CO
HUD Home Hub - 303-949-5848

Makes you think that the banks should maybe be a little nicer with the loan modifications.

Jun 30, 2009 04:03 PM #20
Al Dobbs
ADD Real Estate - North Chicago, IL

Someone forgot to tell the bank that winters in Chicago can be brutal. Went into a house one cold morning. To find the prettiest glacier I have ever seen. A huge cascading iceberg had made a large hole from the upstairs to the basement. Pipes busted.  Closed the door-- called the listing agent--have not heard a noise like that from a human being.  

Jun 30, 2009 07:12 PM #21
sean remos

has anyone ever heard of "trash outs"? It's a company that cleans out the houses that the bank foreclosed on. Also there is a property management company that has started to do this type of service in my are in hawaii. Is this an emerging industry. I'm sure there will be  a need for these services as this post plainly shows




mortgage broker/loan mod agent

Jul 01, 2009 09:50 AM #22
Tara Spencer
Parks Jones Realty - Lawton, OK

meHi Sean - yes we have trash outs for our bank foreclosures as well. I need a company that will maintain vacant listings for regular owners as well.

Everyone's feedback has been great so far! Great post!

Jul 02, 2009 01:39 AM #23
Dale Weir
Coldwell Banker Gundaker - Chesterfield, MO

My husband claims that I spend more time taking care of some of my vacant homes where the family is out of the area than I do taking care of my own home (I had my 83 year old mother in law go over to one with me to help spruce it up after it had been on the market for quite awhile and needed a good dusting and vacumning) - I pull weeds and water the yard and typically do a little bit of clean the windows while I sit at open houses and wait for people to come - and spray for bugs and check that everything is OK.  One of the simple but really important things I've found is to simply flush the toilets so the water doesn't evaporate and leave nasty rings and run water down the sinks to prevent sewer gas coming back up each time I'm at one.  I draw the line at mowing the yard though!!  But I will pick up the fallen tree limbs and brush in the yard and get rid of it so the house shows well.  I have had some where they gave me $100 up front that I used on little stuff (from lightbulbs to paying the guy who mowed the yard on) and when it ran out they sent me more (I kept receipts for them).  I've had some where they paid me at closing (then you really have to hope it closes and keep good receipts seperate from your other receipts), some where they leave stuff behind to use, some where there is a good neighbor who takes care of things that I can ask to take care of it.  I've had others where I've just eaten the cost - I keep toilet paper, lightbulbs and basic tools in the back of my car and leave some cleaning materials at the vacant house where the home owners aren't around.

Jul 02, 2009 02:25 AM #24
Kathy Opatka
Serving Ocean City, MD, & The Delaware Beaches


I've found from past experience, that it's important to get reimbursed immediately for any services/items that I pay.  Too many times, those reimbursements were "forgotten".

Kathy Opatka

Jul 02, 2009 05:04 AM #25
Beth Hirsch

Hi Dale,

I work for a company that does just that.  We provide free hometenders or professional occupants and free staging for vacant homes.  We prescreen, hire  and supervise someone that will live in and secure a vacant property for all the things mentioned in the previous posts, we take over the utilities, lawn care, pool care and keep the house in spotless hotel condition.  We also have a team of professional stagers that come in put the house together like a model home.  The occupants must have fine furniture to qualify and have been trained to cooperate with all real estate showings and open houses.  This is all absolutely free to the homeowner and Realtor.  The Hometender pays a modest monthly fee to our company instead of rent.  We have offices all over California, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, Idaho, they just opened some offices back East, not sure where though.    www.designerHometending.com.  if you can't find a designerhometending where you are, check around, there are a number of very professional and experienced smaller companies out there who provide this kind of service. 

Beth Hirsch

Jul 09, 2009 11:08 AM #26
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