Bank-Owned Homes Surge, Communities Stung

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009 at 6:00 am

foreclosure-new-house

Banks that received government bailout money are taking heat for spending billions of dollars on bonuses, executive pay, and lavish outings. But there’s another outrage that Washington seems to be missing: The growing number of bank-owned properties in foreclosure scarring neighborhoods across the country.

The volume of bank-owned foreclosed homes — known as REOs, or real-estate owned properties — is growing at an alarming rate, compounding the foreclosure crisis by sticking hard-hit neighborhoods with vacant and often trashed homes that drive down property values even more. REOs are foreclosed homes that lenders take back after they don’t sell at foreclosure auctions or sheriff’s sales. They keep the homes in inventory until they can be sold again.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The foreclosure crisis, however, is changing the REO process, with some banks holding off on following though with foreclosures or letting empty houses sit in limbo – where they deteriorate further – instead of selling them. Some banks can’t keep up with the sheer volume of foreclosures. But others are waiting for a better deal from the government for their toxic mortgage assets, avoiding booking losses so they can qualify for more bailout funds, or neglecting homes with little value, some charge – leaving the properties vacant and vandalized. And neighborhoods pay the price for it.

Some 1.5 million foreclosed homes are expected to wind up as REOs this year, according to RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure database. Prior to the foreclosure crisis, bank REO volume totaled only about 160,000 in a normal year. In January, RealtyTrac already had 68,000 new REOs listed in its database, and the firm expects overall volume to double from last year, said RealtyTrac senior vice president Rick Sharga. REO inventory peaked last year at 900,000 properties in November. “The system is just overwhelmed,” Sharga said.

There’s more pain to come. RealtyTrac’s sampling of fourth-quarter data showed that as many as 70 percent of REOs it tracks haven’t yet been listed for sale — meaning a large number of bank-owned properties have yet to even hit the real estate market. Instead, they remain in limbo, with some banks hiring property managers to keep them up and others letting them fall into disrepair. All this comes at a time when new home sales are at record lows and the supply of unsold homes is at a record high.

“This is a big issue, and the number of REOs definitely is growing,” said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow for the National Housing Institute and at the Brookings Institution. “Its kind of like an iceberg. You only see part of it.”

What some neighborhoods see is blight, vandalism and neglect caused by vacant and foreclosed homes – owned not by speculators or slumlords, but by banks.

The problem is most deeply felt in neighborhoods in the older, urban areas in the Northeast, in the Rust Belt, and among newly constructed subdivisions in the far outer suburbs of California, Nevada, Arizona, and other bubble markets. Washington hasn’t seemed to notice – or care, Mallach said.

No one in Washington is moving to attach strings to future bailout money forcing banks to keep their foreclosed properties in decent condition, tear them down, or fix them up before dumping them on the market. For whatever reason, neglected REO inventories aren’t drawing the same attention given other bank misdeeds.

“Clearly, this was not a concern to the Bush Administration,” said Mallach. “The question is whether Treasury will do anything about it now. But some of the people Obama has put in the Treasury Department aren’t all that different. They have the same Wall Street backgrounds, the same high finance backgrounds. All this stuff looks like paper to them. It’s not about people’s lives and neighborhoods. It’s just paper.”

For people living in communities that don’t have a glut of bank-owned properties, it’s also a hidden problem, Mallach added. Fewer properties end up as REOs in stronger housing markets with more expensive homes, because people want to buy them. They don’t wind up back with banks. “I don’t think people appreciate the extent to which these other areas are being devastated by this stuff,” Mallach said.

In Cleveland, housing lawyers resorted to suing Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank, accusing them and other banks of creating a public nuisance by neglecting foreclosed homes they owned, then unloading thousands of them at fire-sale prices of $1,000 or less to speculators and flippers. The suit, which is still pending, charges that the banks, which together own some 2,100 foreclosed properties in Cleveland, are responsible for causing property values to sharply decline. Wells Fargo received $25 billion in TARP money.

Cleveland blogger Bill Callahan, who has closely followed the city’s foreclosure crisis, noted that Obama’s new housing plan doesn’t include restrictions on what banks can do with their huge inventories of foreclosed homes. Yet for some cities, REOs have become a bigger part of the problem than foreclosures themselves. New foreclosures are “the easier part” of the crisis – with the “scary, destructive part” what banks from Citigroup to HSBC do with houses after foreclosure. From Callahan:

A federal government that’s shoveling tens of billions of TARP dollars into these corporations’ balance sheets should be in a position to assert some influence over their REO and property management practices.

Citigroup didn’t respond to a request for comment. Wells Fargo has not commented on the Cleveland lawsuit, but a bank spokesperson said Wells Fargo hires a property management firm to handle its REOs, makes sure that vacant homes are secured, and tries to put foreclosed homes back on the market as soon as possible.

“Wells Fargo is very concerned with preserving the condition of homes and neighborhoods,” said spokesperson Debora Blume.

Tom Kelly, a spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase, said the bank continues “to work hard on loan modifications,” which reduce foreclosures and the number of REOs. The bank’s interest, he said, is in getting the (foreclosed) home sold as quickly as possible.” Chase uses local real estate agents to sell REOs, and lists the properties on its website.

Regardless of lender efforts, REO problems are widespread. In New Jersey, “banks are just sitting on some of these really distressed properties,” said Robert Zdenek , president of New Jersey Community Capital, a nonprofit community development corporation. In California, newly-built subdivisions in the Inland Empire and the cities of Stockton, Modesto and elsewhere often linger half empty, with unoccupied an trashed REOs. California lawmakers last year passed a measure allowing cities to charge owners of neglected foreclosed properties up to $1,000 a day, hoping to stem the damage.

One lesson of the foreclosure crisis has been that empty houses quickly become targets for thieves, who strip them of anything valuable, including copper piping, appliances, lighting fixtures and even kitchen cabinets. Squatters and drug dealers move in. Angry former owners sometimes leave water running to damage the home, and no one repairs it. Lawns don’t get mowed or cared for; trash builds up. The cost is borne by neighbors, who have to live with the blight and who see their own home values fall as a result.

Cities are often too strapped to take care of all their foreclosed homes. Local housing courts have a hard time holding banks responsible, because they are located out of state, and servicers and lenders often point fingers at each other. Neighbors are helpless because even if they can figure out which bank owns the property, they can’t get through to contact them. The result is homes that look like this.

Bank-owned properties are the very end of the foreclosure process, the outcome that results from a homeowner defaulting on a loan, and the bank reclaims the property. The next move for the bank usually is to sell the home at a sheriff’s sale or foreclosure auction. Homes that can’t be resold there because bids are too low or because no one wants the properties are taken back by banks, which resell them or enlist real estate agents to to do so as quickly as possible, at a discount. The process generally moves at a quick pace, because banks don’t want to be managing properties and want to recover their losses as soon as they can.

But record high foreclosures in the last two years have changed the rules of the REO game.

With so many forecloses on their hands, lenders can’t quickly dispose of foreclosed houses, leaving some to sit vacant, and vandalized, before they are put back on the market. Even before that point, the foreclosure process itself can be lengthy, particularly in states with slow judicial foreclosure systems, where there is a lag of some 6 to 18 months from when the foreclosure is filed until the property becomes an REO. When a property eventually gets sold – if it does sell – it commands a much lower price, which affects the rest of the housing market as well. “The volume of problem loans has fully choked the system,” Sharga said.

Then there’s money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. In a surprising twist, that TARP money is adding to bloated REO inventories, some say.

Some banks deliberately are holding off on foreclosing on homes and selling them as REOs, in part, because they want to avoid booking losses on their toxic mortgage-backed securities, said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s. Taking the losses would limit their access to additional government money, he said.

“They want to keep the paper active,” Wyss said. “They don’t want to take a loss on those securities because it affects how much they can borrow against them for TARP money.”

But something has to happen to foreclosed homes eventually. By the time some properties get to the REO stage, they are far worse off than when they first went into foreclosure. It’s “a big problem in places like Detroit, in the Inland Empire, anywhere where the housing market is just gone,” Wyss said.

Usually, banks recover 75 to 80 percent of the value of a mortgage by foreclosing and reselling the home. Because of the foreclosure crisis, that percentage is down to 40 percent, Wyss said. And in places like Detroit, it’s negative-10 percent, meaning it actually costs a bank to foreclose – giving it little incentive to do so. In Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland, banks have been accused of walking away from homes, filing foreclosure notices but never following though. Cleveland housing professor Kermit Lind calls the result “toxic titles,” because a house is left empty, no one claims responsibility, and the city has to pay to clean it up. Housing courts in Cleveland and Buffalo have been trying to crack down on the practice.

Regardless, some banks have decided that it’s better to let a property sit, even after the owners leave, and take their chances, Wyss said. Banks and real estate agents also are reluctant to quickly list foreclosed properties as REOs because of the low bids they sometimes get, he said. “They keep hoping the market will somehow stabilize or recover,” Wyss said.

Sean O’Toole, CEO of ForeclosureRadar.com, which collects data on the California market, agreed. He said banks are hedging their bets, holding on to the possibility that the government eventually will create “bad bank” to take toxic assets off their hands.

“Lenders are consciously deciding not to foreclose,” O’Toole said. “We absolutely see that. There’s all this angst in Washington that lenders are foreclosing way too quickly, but it’s just not true.”

Sharga, of RealtyTrac, said some lenders are holding off on foreclosures until the Obama administration launches its new housing plan on March 6. The plan offers financial incentives to lenders and servicers to modify mortgage loans. A foreclosure moratorium by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also is scheduled to end at the same time.

As a result, foreclosures are backed up. The delinquency rate for mortgage loans reached nearly seven percent by the end of the third quarter last year, while the percentage of loans in foreclosure totaled less than three percent, figures from the Mortgage Bankers Association show.

Some loans just can’t be modified, meaning the property will go into foreclosure anyway and could end up as an REO. And lenders will have to do something, eventually, about all the foreclosed homes they haven’t yet listed as REOs. RealtyTrac predicts the housing market won’t be able to absorb all the REOs ahead until late 2011, at the earliest.

Keith Leggett, senior economist for the American Bankers Association, said it’s true that banks are backed up with foreclosures. But he dismisses that idea that TARP funds have anything to do with it. Even without TARP money, banks want to avoid losses, he said. And when it comes to foreclosures, banks are simply overwhelmed. They never were set up to sell or dispose of so many foreclosed properties, he said.

“Clearly banks are not in the business of managing real estate,” Leggett said. “When they get an REO they’re going to try to put it on the market as soon as possible.”

REOs, in fact, are adding to the troubles of already ailing banks, with new FDIC figures showing REO losses totaling nearly $27 billion in the fourth quarter, compared to $12 billion during the same period last year. One thing Leggett did agree on: The problem is only going to get worse.

Still to hit the REO process are vast numbers of homes in unfinished subdivisions, where ground was broken near the end of the housing boom. Development stopped when the mortgage market crashed. The green PVC sewer pipes that remain, sticking out of the ground and often visible from the highway, have caused them to be called PVC farms. Banks aren’t likely to be able to resell easily the vacant land from all the PVC farms, Leggett said. Surrounding communities will have to live with the result.

RealtyTrac doesn’t identify which banks own the most REOs. But foreclosures continue in areas already devasted by REOs. In Cleveland, just after announcing last month they would agree to a voluntary foreclosure mortatorium, the following banks or their subsidiaries filed 55 new foreclosure cases, according to Callahan: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase.
Foreclosed homes left behind by banks might seem like an obvious opportunity for community development groups, which could take control of the properties and redevelop them. But even that isn’t happening on a large scale, even in troubled areas, said Kathe Newman, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has been working to create an REO database. Neighbors of an empty house may not be able to determine whether it’s an REO, who owns it, or how to track them down. “It’s really difficult to figure any of this out,” Newman said.

Zdenek, of New Jersey Community Capital, said even experienced neighborhood groups can’t quickly acquire REO properties and finance their development, given the demand. “I don’t think we can keep up with it,” he said. “There’s so much out there.”

New Jersey recently became the first state to require that banks or other entities that foreclose on a property take responsibility for it, both before and after it becomes an REO. The law goes into effect April 1.

Local ordinances also are popping up all around the country to hold lenders responsible for foreclosed homes, such as a recent effort in New Haven, Conn., Mallach said. Still, it isn’t enough, he said.
“I think the Fed has got to take a much stronger line with the banks in how they are dealing with properties and foreclosed houses,” he said. “They are a lot of things they could be doing to push banks into more responsible behavior.”

The Federal Reserve itself holds more than $100 billion in toxic-mortgage backed securities, acquired through the rescues of Bear, Stearns and insurance giant AIG, Chairman Ben Bernanke noted last month. The Fed announced in January that it was working to modify the loans it controls. But that raises the question of whether the Fed is piling up its own REOs, and what it will do with them, Sharga and others said.

The Federal Reserve in Washington referred a request for comment to the New York Federal Reserve, which did not immediately respond.

The issue goes beyond just TARP money. Bank REO behavior also spotlights what kind of regulations are needed for the financial system, and “what is appropriate behavior for banks and lenders when they deal with properties and foreclosed houses,” Mallach said.

For communities overwhelmed by bank-owned, broken-down foreclosed homes, it’s not a question up for debate. It’s their reality.

Comments

46 Comments

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zhang
Comment posted March 3, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

Shox Dendara


bacalove
Comment posted March 4, 2009 @ 5:22 am

Knowledge is power and that is why there was very little reporting done by the Republican-owned media, that it was George Bush who pushed for minority home buying…. not Clinton as they love to distort about, and gave Speculators the go ahead to get minorities to buy homes in the hundreds of thousands.

Bush – “Calling a home the “foundation for families and a source of stability for communities,” President Bush proposed three new initiatives designed to enhance existing federal home buyer assistance programs by helping African- and Hispanic-Americans buy homes. According to the White House, fewer than half of all African and Hispanic Americans currently own their homes, compared to nearly three-fourths of white Americans. “We must begin to close this homeownership gap by dismantling the barriers that prevent minorities from owning a piece of the American dream,” said the President in a nationwide radio address. To close the homeownership gap, President Bush proposed legislation funding the following new initiatives:

American Dream Down Payment Fund
This program would provide money to qualified low-income families to assist in making the down payment on a home. “The single greatest hurdle to first time homeownership is a high down payment requirement that can put a home out of reach,” said President Bush. White House analysts estimate that the American Dream Fund will assist some 40,000 low-income families annually in making down payments on homes.

Tax Credits to Create Affordable Housing
This proposed initiative would provide home-builders and developers with nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits for building affordable single-family housing in distressed areas. The tax credits would help make 200,000 new affordable homes available to low-income buyers over the next five years.

Home Buyer Education
To assist home buyers deal with the complexity and difficulty of the purchasing process, this program would provide funds to agencies working to better educated first-time home buyers. Consumers would be advised of their rights and responsibilities as home buyers, and trained to recognize and avoid abusive and unscrupulous lending practices. “Financial education and housing counseling can help protect home buyers against abuses, greatly improve the loan terms they are offered, and help families get through tough times with their homes intact,” said President Bush “Owning a home lies at the heart of the American dream,” Bush said. “My approach to broadening home ownership focuses on empowering people to help themselves and to help one another.” Source: Dateline: 06/18/02

http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/weekly/aa061…

And because there were no Regulations to protect said homebuyers who had a balloon interest at the end, well we see what has happened, and they still want to blame the homebuyers instead of the scam perpetrated by lenders who first lowered interest rates to put people into homes then raised their interest rates so they could no longer afford their homes. Someone should go to jail for this!


pj0706
Comment posted March 4, 2009 @ 5:54 am

I have been advocating, since the inception of the HOPE program, that the solution to this problem lies within giving the HOPE program both a carrot for lenders to agree to accept less than the value of their loan, and a stick, that would punish them for not. The simple answer (I know, there are no simple answers to this problem, but, go with me on this) is that housing prices need to come back down to reality. The sooner that happens, the faster the inventory gets bought by end users. The fastest way to do this (while spreading the pain amongst everyone) is to reduce the value of the mortgages. HOPE made this possible, by giving homeowners the opportunity to refinance at 90% of current fair market value. The only hitch was that the current mortgage holder had to voluntarily agree to accept this amount in full satisfaction of their loan. It did not take Nostradomus to figure out that no one was going to do that.

I have suggested that giving the mortgage holders a 150% tax deduction for their loss, plus giving them 50% of the money that any homeowner had to give back upon the sale of the house (HOPE requires the homeowner to pay back from 1/2 to all of the “profit” they make when they sell the house to the FHA) to the mortgage holder as well. Now, there is real financial incentive for the lenders to agree. The stick would be to pass legislation allowing bankruptcy courts to modify the terms of existing mortgages. I know, this will make it more expensive to get a loan in the future – tough! Maybe it should be more difficult to get a loan in the future. The current situation certainly speaks volumes about what happens when it is too easy.

My plan puts the onus of the current problems on everyone's shoulders. The lenders who invested in these loans (and anyone who says they did not know what they were getting when they made or bought these loans is either lying or stupid, and I have no pity for either) take the initial loss now, get a writeoff that makes up for some of the loss (and places it on the backs of taxpayers). They also may recoup some of their losses in the future when houses are sold. The homeowner (most of whom were well aware of the fact that tthey were getting loans that they could not afford – no one held a gun to their head saying taking this money or else) gives up 50% of any increase in value of the house in the future. We, the taxpayers get the possiblity of getting some of our tax money back when the houses are sold in the future.

Oh, and why just restrict this to primary residences? Now that the government truly owns FNMA and FHLMC, allow investors to do the same, but require them to pay back a minimum of 75%.


Joan Jett
Comment posted March 4, 2009 @ 8:00 am

If Cleveland can sue banks for holding onto REOs why can't people who bought homes recently band together with a class action to recover the money they will lose as the market continues down? Think about it, by holding 70% of the REOs off the market the banks are acting as RE investment firms and conspiring to keep prices too high. All at the tax payers expense.


Angry
Comment posted March 4, 2009 @ 9:54 am

Monopoly: a market in which there are many buyers but only one seller;

The Federal Reserve, a collection of banks who now own the majority of vacant houses in the United States, and won't sell them to keep prices inflated. Its a Monopoly, its illegal, and no one is paying any attention to it.

The Housing Market is officially cornered.


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Comment posted March 5, 2009 @ 9:57 am

Great Article Mary,
Bank-owned property is the scourge of the current real estate market. Every home infects the property value of an entire neighborhood. Thanks for bringing more to light about bank-owned properties.


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tbill
Comment posted June 6, 2009 @ 7:44 am

The government is still artifically inflating the market. The market needs to correct it's self. Also, HUD can't expect to sell a house at full market value when it has rotten window sills and facia boards, leaking roof and mold growing in the walls! I been looking for a home for eight months and it's still the same houses. Nothing different! They are holding numerous houses off the market. I am in the title business and have a real estate license, I know how to follow a foreclosed property down the pipeline and they just aren't coming through. I don't know about the rest of the country but in Atlanta, the government tore down the projects in the City of Atlanta and put those people in a nice new home south of the city. Guess what, almost all are being foreclosed! Then, they further cripple the economy by scaring the hispanics away. Wake up Georgia, the hispanics were our crutch! They were our cash buyers, they were our tenants, they were our car buyers, the businesses that catered to them were our tax revenue.. Enough already, quit trying to play God. Let those that are surviving this crisis flourish, it will eventually trickle down.


tbill
Comment posted June 6, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

The government is still artifically inflating the market. The market needs to correct it's self. Also, HUD can't expect to sell a house at full market value when it has rotten window sills and facia boards, leaking roof and mold growing in the walls! I been looking for a home for eight months and it's still the same houses. Nothing different! They are holding numerous houses off the market. I am in the title business and have a real estate license, I know how to follow a foreclosed property down the pipeline and they just aren't coming through. I don't know about the rest of the country but in Atlanta, the government tore down the projects in the City of Atlanta and put those people in a nice new home south of the city. Guess what, almost all are being foreclosed! Then, they further cripple the economy by scaring the hispanics away. Wake up Georgia, the hispanics were our crutch! They were our cash buyers, they were our tenants, they were our car buyers, the businesses that catered to them were our tax revenue.. Enough already, quit trying to play God. Let those that are surviving this crisis flourish, it will eventually trickle down.


lylacavanaugh
Comment posted September 15, 2009 @ 11:29 am

I've been trying to buy a condo in Canyon Country California for a year in one development. There are four units for sale taking backup offers. One has a renter paying the absentee owner rent for the past two yrs. The owner has not paid a mortgage payment in the past two yrs., no property taxes and no condo fees. The other one is inhabited by an owner who has not paid anything for three yrs. and the bank refuses to foreclose. Another is empty and the bank will not take a full cash offer. So all four are just sitting in limbo. The condo association had to raise the fees on the other condo owners to make up for what the four freeloaders are not paying. Why is this?


FedUpInNJ
Comment posted May 4, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

The picture thats painted is that there are many REO properties out there for sale and if you have cash you can buy them-that could not be further from what I've found in NJ. Recently we placed a bid on an REO property for full price and then a 2nd offer for 5,000 OVER and the REO agent simply would not sell to us! They hated our lawyer and that was that! These jerks are holding these properties-plain and simple. Since most of them are ultimately owned by Fannie Mae you would think they would want to sell the house but in reality they leave all the decisions to the “REO broker” and could care less about the property being sold or not. I've decided to keep renting for now and not contribute to the underhanded ways of REO brokers-let the houses sit-everyone suffers that way. I have over 50,000.00 to put down and I'm keeping it in my pocket until the goverment starts to makes these REO freaks do the right thing.


pamelafife
Comment posted May 13, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

there is vacant house next doors beehives can not get to my property, called county , who said us national owned property,as i need to clean my property, animal,s getting sick also us, after 5 calls finally talked us national bank sc,they said wells fargo owned property, as i can not go on property, bee.s have been there 3 years,wells fargo banks denies owning poperty, they are taking over not giving people modification, these homes need fixing up. they have dropped 40,000 but we need a place to live ,also we need to fix are property, it looks like ghost town,Why is the President not responding,we need help in mesa az, 85204 WELLS FARGO BANK IS UNFAIR Finally Maricopa county is helping me get he bees off the vacant house so i can aleast clean my property , anyone listing,Where can i get some help, have children ,need to live also are there any programs to help fix are property, we can not affoard it, since are property 40,000 down in vaule?


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[...] 11.Bank-Owned Homes Surge, Communities Stung « The Washington The volume of bank-owned foreclosed homes — known as REOs, or real-estate owned properties — is growing at an alarming rate, compounding the foreclosure crisis by sticking hard-hit neighborhoods with vacant and … A foreclosure moratorium by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also is scheduled to end at the same time. [...]


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I have suggested that giving the mortgage holders a 150% tax deduction for their loss, plus giving them 50% of the money that any homeowner had to give back upon the sale of the house (HOPE requires the homeowner to pay back from 1/2 to all of the “profit” they make when they sell the house to the FHA) to the mortgage holder as well. Now, there is real financial incentive for the lenders to agree. The stick would be to pass legislation allowing bankruptcy courts to modify the terms of existing mortgages. I know, this will make it more expensive to get a loan in the future – tough! Maybe it should be more difficult to get a loan in the future. The current situation certainly speaks volumes about what happens when it is too easy.


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President Bush proposed legislation funding the following new initiatives:
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Tax Credits to Create Affordable Housing
This proposed initiative would provide home-builders and developers with nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits for building affordable single-family housing in distressed areas. The tax credits would help make 200,000 new affordable homes available to low-income buyers over the next five years.


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They revealed that even interested buyers often retreat from making a purchase when they see that not much development is being done in the area where they wish to buy and vacant lots outnumber areas with houses.


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