Tag Archives: crime

Securing the House

Like we have not secured the house before… (see also 04/08, 04/10 and 04/14/2009 posts). But this time it’s a little different, as the house is now ours for real. We removed the Realtor’s lock box and replaced the dead bolt lock on the front screen door and front door. The screen door is a nice, very sturdy, decorative wrought iron piece, which we like a lot.  I ordered a dumpster and we are now ready to start the big clean-up in the basement.

After a couple of days, I find the screen door and front door unlocked upon my arrival! I questioned my sanity for a minute: Did I really forget to look both doors last time? I could not figure out how someone could have gotten in, until I noticed that the narrow bay window facing the front porch was forced open, but then carefully closed again.

Nothing else in the house was missing, damaged or altered. My guess is that whoever went in must have been looking for tools, which I always take back with me at the end of the day. There is really nothing in the house right now that is worth taking away. Even the remaining copper piping in the walls is not worth much since the prices for scrap metals collapsed late last year.

I barricaded and boarded up the narrow bay window, which, in hindsight, was clearly the easiest entry point into the house. I wonder what other easy entry points there are? Because there is nothing in the house to steal, another forced entry could be a plus – it will point us to the next best easy entry point and allow us to improve security.

Of course we’ll need to figure out something different once we have building materials stored inside. We’ve started a little security to-do list:

  • Install solid back doors on every floor with proper dead bolt locks
  • Get temporary electricity set up
  • Install sensor-triggered security lighting on all four corners of the house.

Will that be deterrent enough? We don’t know but we surely will find out.

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Buying a foreclosure – Part 1

Now that we put another offer down on the foreclosed two-flat we like so much, we have an interest in having the property secured (see also 04/06/2009 post). Vacant, unsecured buildings (often foreclosures) are a big problem for the City of Chicago. They invite illegal activities such as prostitution, drug dealing and drug manufacturing, and often become a safety and fire risk. The city takes this very serious and has an abandoned building program where such nuisance properties can be reported.

back-porch-no-window

The back porch windows at our two-flat are knocked out and relatively easy to climb through. Michael Salvatori, our Realtor, contacted the seller’s agent and was told they can do nothing to secure the property. We learned that the seller’s agent had literally hundreds of foreclosures to deal with and was completely overwhelmed. Never mind that the seller does not want to spend any money on the property…

We decided that we’d have to take it upon ourselves to secure the property. That said, we have to wait until we have an executed and ratified agreement:

  1. We did not want to run the risk of trespassing.
  2. We did not want to invest in securing the building without some certainty that we actually get it.

What happened next is what we call the dance:

  1. Michael received a phone call informing him that our offer was accepted.
  2. Excellent – until the next phone call came, asking for our final and best offer. This had déjà vu written all over it (see also 04/06/2009 post).
  3. We were confident that this was just standard protocol by the seller and raised the offer by a few hundred dollars to show our good intent,
  4. Upon which Michael received another verbal confirmation that our offer was accepted.
  5. All we need now is the paperwork, the executed contract.

We waited and got more and more nervous because we were about to leave for a two-week vacation. We were  still waiting as we packed and went to the airport. We waited while we were gone, and we returned and waited some more. Finally, one day prior to the proposed closing date, Michael was able to reach the seller’s agent, only to learn that our deal got canceled! Why? Your guess is as good as ours.

We asked, “Can we submit the offer again?” The answer was yes and Michael wasted no time doing so on our behalf. And we started the dance again:

  1. Michael received a verbal confirmation of acceptance
  2. We received another request for our final and best offer
  3. We raised the price by a few hundred dollars
  4. Michael received another verbal confirmation of acceptance
  5. And we started waiting again for the paperwork

Except, this time Michael received a phone call from the seller’s agent (I had given up to believe that this could actually happen), informing him that our deal was once more canceled! Still no real good reason as to why.

Does the bank, who has ownership of this property, really want to sell it? We constantly hear in the news how bad these foreclosures hurt the banks, and how desperately they would like to unload them. But we also hear that they have difficulties to keep up with all the paperwork. May be that is where we keep getting stuck with our purchasing attempts – in that huge pile of paperwork.

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Price drop with catch

Remember that two-flat where we had the trouble determining the actual lot size (see 04/04/2009 post)?   While we were still pursuing it we’d received a call from the owner’s representative asking for our “final and best offer.” We were told at the time that they were giving us one more opportunity to adjust our bid because the seller had four other offers on the property. Once we withdrew our offer, we noticed that the property was promptly put back on the market. So much for the four other offers…

We kept monitoring the two-flat because we could not really find any comparables – and because we could not really put it out of our heads or hearts. Furthermore, we had been house hunting for close to a year and got increasingly anxious to buy.

Fast forward three months: Our two flat is listed with a huge price drop, of a whopping $35,000 – from the original $105,000 asking price down to $75,000. We were worried that this would be again one of those too good to be true situations. And I am sad to report that it was!

We went back to the property to take another look. My heart dropped to the floor when I walked up the front steps and saw through the window plaster and lath lying on the floor. Remember, this place needed a serious clean up, but was otherwise completely intact, including the heating system.

The old hutch in the living room was ripped out of the wall, probably to retrieve the lead from the stained glass doors. Some of the copper piping in that bathrooms and kitchens was removed; some of the walls were ripped open. The two furnaces in the basement were still there, but most of the copper piping was gone. We don’t own the place, nor do we have an offer on it. And still, it felt very personal.

vandalism1

But here is the good news: We have seen much worse. The more we started looking the more surprised we were to see material left behind, and walls only partially open. This was not a finished job. We learned from the neighbors that the vandals – excuse me – thieves, were interrupted by a resident down the street who came home from night shift. She saw someone standing guard, and the guard saw her. The thieves took no chances and were gone when the police arrived a few minutes later.

Here is more good news: This is a case were the neighbors actually look out for a vacant foreclosure on their block and call the police if something looks or sounds suspicious. This is a very good thing, another sign that this is a neighborhood where we’d like to live.

And here is the best news ever: That same week, the copper market collapsed. Whoever got that material out of the two-flat could now only get pennies for what he/she could have previously sold for dollars.

After we recovered emotionally from this shock, we decided that we should put another offer down, despite the damage and despite the smaller lot size. This two-flat in this neighborhood for the price of $75,000 is not something we want to ignore. Which presented us with a new challenge: How can we make sure no one is coming back to finish the job?

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The tale of vacant foreclosures…

Do we really want to touch a foreclosure? We have some reservations, not the least of which is imagining the hardship of the owners losing their home – their primary residence. Well, we found that the story is often not quite as clear cut: Almost all foreclosures we looked at were investment properties, bought during the housing bubble with the intent to flip.

We found them in various shapes and stages of remodeling. Some were almost completely gutted or had some remodeling work in the process, while others where almost completely renovated. We like the properties where almost all the interior demolition work had been complete, saving us that step in the rehab process.

We never know who we will meet when we get into those buildings with our Realtor. Some folks sought shelter in vacant foreclosures. There was frequent evidence of prostitution activity, drug activity, even drug production or stretching.

Very often we run into what we call the war zone: vacant, foreclosed properties that are not secured or are insufficiently secured. Scavengers have left their mark in every single building, with walls brutally ripped open to retrieve any copper piping or wiring. The mechanical equipment and appliances are often all stolen, cabinets and radiators removed… in short, the buildings are usually stripped of anything that has some resale value. In really bad cases we’ve found fire damage, whether it was arson or a squatter trying to stay warm.

One property left a distinct mark on us. The house was absolutely full of stuff – clothing, personal items and belongings, ripped off the shelves and out of the cabinets, piled on the floor 6 inches to 3 feet deep, on the first floor, second floor, and even worse in the basement. We had to climb over piles to get through the building. I remember photographs of a happy family on a summer day spread across the piles on the floor. It felt like whoever lived in that building had five to 15 minutes to gather their stuff and get out… It was eerie beyond words.

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Drilling down

Beat meetings have been a wonderful resource to us in our neighborhood research (see also 03/21/2009 post). But there is more homework to do…

We continue to monitor crime statistics and reports around the properties that we have singled out. I basically have shortcuts in my browser so that I am only one click away from this information (i.e. CLEARMAP and Every Block Chicago).

Online or paper statistics are sometimes hard to interpret without having the feet on the ground backup research. This insight led us to drive by the various properties at a relatively frequent schedule, at various times of the day and night. Thanks to our friend Ann who joint us a couple of times, we quickly learned what to look out for.

Trash

The level of trash in the street, the alley, the yards or vacant lots is a very good indicator of community care, involvement and pride. Some property owners got so fed up with picking up the trash that gets dumped into their parkway or yard, that they tie a trash bag to their fence in hope of passers by dropping their litter into the bag, rather than on the ground. And it seems to work!

Drugs

There are certain categories of trash (yes, this becomes a real science!). The bottles of booze on the ground or empty beer can collections were at an impressive scale in some locations. I quickly learned to spot drug paraphernalia, such as tiny Ziploc bags. Not what you want to see, at least not in great quantities. We also learned to check the power lines. A pair of shoes over the lines is an advertising sign for new or established drug sale operations.

Saturday night (live)

What we observe during our daytime drive-bys may have nothing to do with what is going on at night – in particular a weekend night, and specifically a warm midsummer weekend night! We’ve been advised over and over again to check in sometimes after midnight on a hot Saturday night – Sunday morning. That is exactly what we did to gauge our comfort level with the activities (or lack thereof) and the noise level.

The interesting thing is, we’ve found that the activities at night generally aren’t that much different than during the day.  The street corners that had groups of people hanging out during the day had large groups of people at night.  The streets that were quiet in the daytime were largely quiet at night.  The difference was the brazenness of the drug activity – rather than standing huddled on a corner, the person is now yelling in your car window about that offer you can’t refuse.  The thought crossed our minds that we might get picked up by the police for attempting to buy drugs.  It would be interesting to explain our way out of that one.

Services and Amenities

quarter-and-half-mile

What services and amenities are available at what distance? To find out, we prepared maps with a quarter- and half-mile radius circle and plotted the various facilities within those circles. Another easy resource is Walk Score web site that helped us to determine and rate the walkability of any given location.

To back up our research findings, we walked the ‘hoods and looked at the bike routes. We visited the nearby stores, restaurants, coffee shops, other facilities, amenities and transit stops. The more we drilled down, the clearer the picture of the neighborhood. And we have been drilling now for over one year…

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