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Joseph Keller stands outside the kitchen door of his abandoned house in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 30, 2012. The Kellers were ordered to vacate five years ago, but the bank never followed through with the foreclosure sale, leaving them on the hook for thousands in back taxes on the now-trashed home. (JAY LAPRETE/REUTERS)
Joseph Keller stands outside the kitchen door of his abandoned house in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 30, 2012. The Kellers were ordered to vacate five years ago, but the bank never followed through with the foreclosure sale, leaving them on the hook for thousands in back taxes on the now-trashed home. (JAY LAPRETE/REUTERS)

‘Zombie homes’ stalk former owners in latest U.S. foreclosure horror Add to ...

Joseph Keller doesn’t expect he’ll live to see the end of 2013. He blames the house at 190 Avondale Avenue.

Five years ago, Mr. Keller, 10 months behind on his mortgage payments, received notice of a foreclosure judgment from JPMorgan Chase & Co. In a few weeks, the bank said, his three-story house with grey vinyl siding in Columbus, Ohio, would be put up for auction at a sheriff’s sale.

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The 58-year-old former social worker and his wife, Jennifer, packed up their home of 13 years and moved in with their daughter. Joseph thought he would never have anything to do with the house again. And for about a year, he didn’t.

Then it started to stalk him.

First, in 2010, the county sued Mr. Keller because the house, already picked clean by scavengers, was in a shambles, its hanging gutters and collapsed garage in violation of local housing code. Then the tax collector started sending Mr. Keller notices about mounting back taxes, sewer fees and bills for weed and waste removal. And last year, Chase’s debt collector began pressing Mr. Keller to pay his mortgage, which had swollen, with penalties and fees, from $62,100.27 to $84,194.69.

The worst news came last January, when the Social Security Administration rejected Mr. Keller’s application for disability benefits; the “asset” on Avondale Avenue rendered him ineligible. Mr. Keller’s medical problems include advanced liver disease, hepatitis C and inactive tuberculosis. Without disability coverage, he can’t get the liver transplant he needs to stay alive.

“I can’t make it end,” says Mr. Keller. “This house, I can’t get out.”

Mr. Keller continues to bear responsibility for the house because on Dec. 23, 2008 – about two months after he received Chase’s notice of sale – the bank filed to dismiss the foreclosure judgment and the order of sale. Chase said it sent Mr. Keller a copy of its court filing on Dec. 9, 2008. Mr. Keller says he never received any notification. Either way, his name remained on the property title.

With impunity

The Kellers are caught up in a little-known horror of the U.S. housing bust: the zombie title. Six years in, thousands of homeowners are finding themselves legally liable for houses they didn’t know they still owned after banks decided it wasn’t worth their while to complete foreclosures on them. With impunity, banks have been walking away from foreclosures much the way some homeowners walked away from their mortgages when the housing market first crashed.

“The banks are just deciding not to foreclose, even though the homeowners never caught up with their payments,” says Daren Blomquist, vice-president at RealtyTrac, a real-estate information company in Irvine, California.

Since 2006, 10 million homes have fallen into foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, a number that in earlier, more stable times would have taken nearly two decades to reach. Of those foreclosures, more than 2 million have never come out. Some may be occupied by owners who have been living gratis. Others have been caught up in what is now known as the robo-signing scandal, when banks spun out reams of fraudulent documents to foreclose quickly on as many homeowners as they could.

And then there are cases like the Kellers, in which homeowners moved out after receiving notice of a foreclosure sale, thinking they were leaving the house in bank hands. No national databases track zombie titles. But dozens of housing court judges, code enforcement officials, lawyers and other professionals involved in foreclosures across the country tell Reuters that these titles number in the many thousands, and that the problem is worsening.

“There are thousands of foreclosures in limbo, just hanging out there, just sitting, with nothing being done,” says Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, whose pending court cases tied to derelict properties have doubled in the past two years, to 1,000. He says the surge is due largely to homes vacated by people who fled before an imminent foreclosure sale, only to learn later that they remain legally responsible for their house.

When people move out after receiving a notice of a planned foreclosure sale and the bank then cancels, municipalities are left to deal with the mess. Some spend public funds on securing, cleaning and stabilizing houses that generate no tax revenue. Others let the houses rot. In at least three states in recent months, houses abandoned by owners and banks alike have exploded because the gas was never shut off.

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