Unsold houses become a burden to owners

Owning an unwanted house can be expensive.

In the 1 ½ years that Ed Tuttle, 31, has tried to sell his unoccupied brick one-story in Oklahoma City, he has hired people to mow the lawn, regrout tile, stage the home, repair a squirrel-eaten hole in the roof, trap squirrels in the attic and fix a blown-down fence.

"It's an absolute nightmare maintaining it," said Tuttle, who has moved to Rockville, Md., for a job. He spends an average of $500 a month for utilities and maintenance at the empty house, along with the $1,600 mortgage payment. "It's absolutely the most frustrating and demoralizing thing in the world."

Home owners who want to sell but can't in the poor economy are unhappy to be doing repairs and upgrades they hoped would be a new owner's responsibility. Those who have given up on selling or refuse to risk losing money on a sale are redecorating, landscaping and remodeling when they can afford it to try to enjoy the homes they are stuck in.

The number of people who moved in 2008 was the smallest since 1962, according to the Census Bureau. About 35.2 million people changed residences in 2008, down from 38.7 million in 2007.

The slowdown means a lot of people are living in houses they have outgrown, and some empty-nesters and others are stuck with too much space.

Michael Puhala, 38, said he and his wife bought the biggest house they could afford when they moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2005. Now they want a smaller one to free up cash for other expenses. They tried to sell their house for two years before taking it off the market recently after more than 100 showings, three real estate agents, one failed contract and one lowball offer, Puhala said. They had lowered the price from $1.06 million to $728,000.

People touring the home complained that the kitchen was outdated and that a neighboring house seemed to encroach on the lot's privacy, so the Puhalas upgraded to stainless-steel appliances and planted two giant ficus trees out back.

Puhala said he was not willing to spend thousands of dollars to add granite counters or other major updates to the kitchen.

"In a buyer's market, almost anything you've done to your house, it's not true that you are not going to lose money," he said.

Remodelers say home improvement projects often are less elaborate than in past years.

Joel Bell, executive vice president of Handyman Connection, a Cincinnati chain of craftsmen, said he has noticed more people staying in their current homes and deciding to spend money on remodeling projects.

People taking on bathroom or kitchen remodels have more often been completing the projects in phases, or choosing to replace counters and fixtures instead of overhauling the entire room, said Greg Miedema, president of Dakota Builders in Tucson, Ariz.

Some people waiting to sell their homes in hopes of a higher price are doing upgrades to try to compete better.

Jessica von Wallenstein, 25, wants to remodel the kitchen in her townhouse in Hopedale, Mass., because she has decided not to move until her home's value increases. A real estate agent suggested that she and her husband list the home for $235,000, $45,000 less than they paid for it.

"My heart just dropped," von Wallenstein said.

So they're delaying plans to move to a larger home, and Jessica's husband, Cory von Wallenstein, will continue driving 1 ½ hours to his job in New Hampshire.

When Kelly Land first started trying to sell her house in the western North Carolina mountains three years ago, she said she was in a panic to get out of the house and felt she couldn't spend more money on improvements. Her family wants to return to the town where they used to live, about 10 miles from their current house in Barnardsville, she said. But Land, 42, won't go along with her real estate agent's suggestion to lower the sale price by $120,000.

With the house on the market for a third summer and showings slowing to one every few months, Land figures her family will stay at least two more years. She decided to spend $17,000 this year to hire an interior designer, and buy custom curtains and new furniture. She would like to put a kitchenette and shower in the basement and add to the landscaping.

"We're never going to get this money out of this house at this point, but is anybody going to?" she said. "We feel like we're kind of investing in our own life anyway."

Unsold houses become a burden to owners 07/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 5:30am]

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