In home foreclosure, if it's not nailed down ...

Twenty percent of owners strip houses before banks take them back.

By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published February 19, 2008

Mike Burgur returned from work last month to interrupt a break-in at his rented Clearwater Beach condominium.

The intruders were stripping fans off the ceiling and the knobs off the doors. They had carted out the refrigerator and yanked up a toilet. They'd even pulled the plates off electrical outlets and unscrewed the faucet handles.

As he stepped around the broken eggs and jelly jars on the kitchen floor, Burgur had no trouble recognizing the culprit: It was his own landlady.

"I'm going to strip this mother," the 70-ish property owner raved to Burgur, as she ripped apart the 950-square-foot unit on Island Way.

Welcome to a dark corner of the foreclosure business: People who lose their homes to foreclosure and in a pique of revenge strip the homes before the bank takes them back.

Local experts estimate such borderline looting occurs in roughly 20 percent of bank repossessions. But foreclosures are such an explosive growth industry in the Tampa Bay area - hundreds of properties enter the mortgage default pipeline each month - that home stripping affects scores of properties.

"She even took my shower rod and coffee pot," Burgur said of his landlady, who hadn't paid her mortgage in full for more than a year before the bank seized the $300,000 condo in January.

The law is a bit foggy on the difference between personal property that is portable and real property that is not. Is the stained glass window you installed in the bathroom your personal property or does it stay with the house? The same goes for built-in book shelves, curtain rods and your grandmother's antique chandelier.

"That's like saying that when a bank takes back your car, you'll go back and take the speakers out of it," said Miami-based banking expert Ken Thomas. "The house was never yours. You had a mortgage on it."

But there's no denying that many strip jobs are deliberately destructive. Witness this single-story beige stucco house in St. Petersburg's Northeast Park neighborhood. The old owner bought the house near the peak of the market in 2005 for $152,800 and couldn't make the payments.

Neighbors were shocked last month when, as the bank zeroed in on the house, the former owner leased a Bobcat excavator and uprooted the wooden privacy fence and five palm trees. Postholes still litter the yard.

That wasn't the end of it. The ex-owner dismantled and removed the garage door and the double French doors in the rear, leaving the home exposed to the elements. A piece of plywood now covers the gap in the back.

"They're mad at the property when they should be mad at themselves," said Jerry Sigler, an agent specializing in bank-repossessed homes with St. Petersburg's Realty Executives.

Sigler will have to pick through the rubble of the Clearwater Beach condo for Fifth Third Bank. The former owner actually broke in twice, the second time in an unsuccessful attempt to pry loose the kitchen's granite counters and the bathroom's travertine tile.

Banks sometimes file hazard insurance claims to cover the damage, particularly if a missing air conditioner or hot water heater has left the place uninhabitable. The more expensive the repair, the more likely the bank and insurer will hound the former owner, Sigler said. Usually the homes are sold "as is" and discounted accordingly.

In his 17 years selling repossessed homes for banks, Sigler has seen horrors far worse than missing medicine cabinets. Think human excrement spread over walls. Or half-starved Doberman pinschers left as a welcoming committee for the bank's representative.

"They hadn't eaten for a week and thought I was dinner," Sigler said.

Neighbors often end up suffering the most. Renters like Burgur are out of a home. Nearby homeowners worry about squatters enticed by the missing doors.

"You're hurting the values of the neighbors next door. You're hurting the whole community," Thomas said.

Burgur said his landlady stashed the pilfered fixtures in a storage unit across town. The bank has yet to press its claim. Deprived of lights and appliances, his head knocking against dangling wires, Burgur cleared out of the condo.

His former landlady has missed payments on other properties so he expects the stripping and ripping to continue across Clearwater Beach.

"I moved to a three-bedroom condo in Tampa," he said. "Hopefully the new landlord is better at making his mortgage payments."

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313.Read his (Un)Real Estate blog at blogs.tampabay.com/realestate.