by Cathryn Creno – Sept. 8, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
With a $165,000 price tag, the two-story, four-bedroom house for sale in Avondale was a steal.
Three years ago, when the house was new, a family paid $416,000 for it.
But its soaring living-room ceiling, whirlpool bath, three-car garage and pool with a slide and waterfall weren’t enough to make it much more than a handyman’s special. Thieves made off with the home’s $30,000 custom-kitchen and other fixtures after it went into foreclosure.
Custom cabinets, appliances, granite countertops and other fixtures just disappeared one day.
“These are fixtures that are supposed to be part of the house. They basically took $30,000 out of the kitchen and left,” said John Lincoln, the real-estate agent who recently sold the house to buyers who don’t mind fixing it.
Julie Halferty, a special agent who oversees the Phoenix FBI Mortgage Fraud Task Force, said no one knows exactly how many foreclosed houses in the Valley have been stripped by former owners, neighbors or strangers.
Those who work in real estate believe the number is in the thousands.
“Without question, probably 85 to 90 percent of houses on the market under $200,000 have been stripped,” said Tempe real-estate agent Kim Baker.
“Appliances are the most commonly poached item, but plumbing fixtures and faucets, ceiling fans, light fixtures, water heaters and air-conditioning units are fair game” in the eyes of the strippers, she said.
Halferty said she and her fellow FBI agents “haven’t been able to quantify it, but we know it is rampant.”
She said that since metropolitan Phoenix foreclosures are up 600 percent since 2005 – half of the homes sold here this summer were bank-owned – she believes stripping is more common here than anywhere else in the nation.
“These crimes are happening with enough frequency that it has caught the attention of law enforcement, Realtors and lenders across our state,” said Tom Farley, executive director of the Arizona Association of Realtors.
“Many Realtors are taking photos of the interior of the home as soon as they take a lender-owned listing to document the condition of the property in case of vandalism,” Farley said.
Last week, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced five recent prosecutions of accused foreclosure strippers, including one involving a real-estate salesman.
Halferty said the task force hopes the information will educate owners of homes in foreclosure, neighbors and others that it is illegal to help themselves to fixtures and appliances in a vacant home.
“Take a look at Craigslist,” Lincoln said. “It’s full of things that have been stripped out of houses.”
Halferty said Craigslist.org tipped the fraud task force to the extent of the problem.
“It is so blatant,” Halferty said. “People would advertise that they were selling cabinets in a foreclosure sale.”
Halferty said legally there should be no such thing as a foreclosure sale. The law states that anything attached to a home – stoves, cabinets, lights and ceiling fans – belongs to the property and stays there when it is sold.
Lincoln, who is based in Ahwatukee Foothills but represents properties all over town, said the problem is most widespread in Valley neighborhoods that were built during the housing boom a few years ago.
“Mature neighborhoods aren’t seeing this as much as the newer neighborhoods in places like Avondale and Tolleson,” he said.
While some homes are stripped by cash-strapped former owners, others are targeted by strangers.
Lincoln said one of his clients purchased a bank-owned house in Tolleson. Before it closed, thieves posing as pest-control workers broke in and removed $4,000 in appliances. The matter was reported to police, Lincoln said, but there has not been an arrest.
“Neighbors said two guys drove up in a white truck and said they were there to spray for bugs,” Lincoln said. “What they really did was go in the backyard and bust a window to get into the house.”
He said the deal still went through, but the family paid $6,000 less.
Talk to anyone searching for a deal on a house these days and you will hear similar stories.
“People are having to look at 20 or more houses before they find one that is suitable,” said Jay Butler, director of realty studies in the Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness at Arizona State University at the Polytechnic campus.
“One of my students looked at 35. Doors are missing. Plumbing is gone. There is a huge secondary market for these things. People buy them and put them in their own homes.”
In extreme cases, thieves rip copper pipes and wiring out of the walls, Baker said.
Nancy Nighswonger of Ahwatukee Foothills just wants to help her mother find a deal on a house for retirement. That might have taken a few weeks a couple of years ago.
“You would not believe the condition some of these places are in.” Nighswonger said. “We’ve researched 100 houses and looked at 20 since June. All of them needed extensive repairs.”
Getting financing to fix up damaged properties is not easy, Baker said.
“The FHA will not loan on a property that isn’t fully intact,” Baker said