Needing a change and to salvage his marriage, Ernest Harris left Maryland in 2005, before the bubble burst, and bought a home here. • Today the peach and cream hued ranch meant to mark a new life is an overgrown eyesore to neighbors, a catalyst for Harris' bankruptcy, a liability for Largo and, apparently, the property of a bailed-out financial giant. • The marriage didn't make it either. • Welcome to 2279 Willowbrook Drive, a stage for and bit player in a drama made typical by the recession.
In '05, the market was smoking.
Harris' Columbia, Md., home was listed on a Friday night and sold the following Monday, drawing three offers above the asking price.
His 14-year marriage to Katherine was under strain and the couple had long wished to move. They chose Florida, land of sunny tomorrows, and moved down with their daughters, now 12 and 16.
Harris fell for the concrete block and stucco house with a yard and pool. He offered the asking price, $479,000, and later rolled some outstanding debt into a $534,000 mortgage.
Katherine got a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs; he started at Raymond James as a product manager, making upward of $75,000 a year.
It was a time of easy money, and Ernest and Katherine behaved like millions of other Americans.
"We ended up engaging in a fairly typical self-destructive process of spending money we didn't have and ignoring problems," Harris said.
He knew the teaser interest rate on his mortgage would balloon, but as he'd done with past mortgages, he planned to refinance.
That option died when the boom went bust. His monthly payment surged to $5,400 from $2,400 over six months.
"It's a big game of musical chairs," Harris, 40, said of the housing market, "and the music stopped and I didn't have a chair to sit in."
In November 2007, Harris began a yearlong letter-writing campaign to the company that serviced his loan, which today is Saxon Mortgage Services, a unit of New York-based Morgan Stanley.
Harris said he pleaded to have the terms of his loan changed so that his lender could get some money and he could keep his home. He got nowhere.
In December 2008, the home went back to the lender. The couple separated and soon the house was vacant. Harris sought personal bankruptcy. In May, records show a trust company and Saxon Mortgage took title to the home.
For several months after leaving Willowbrook Drive, Harris did some lawn care and pool maintenance at the house, which cost him roughly $3,000. He stopped, despite pangs of guilt, as it became clear the home was lost.
"I do feel bad," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not my property anymore."
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Bruce M. and Anne Szabo live next door to 2279 Willowbrook Drive. Anne, 64, is a dietitian; Bruce, 67, is a CPA with his own business.
They moved to the neighborhood of professionals and retirees in 1990. Known as Brookside, it's a clean, prosperous, manicured assortment of 132 homes.
The former Harris place sticks out like an oil rig worker at a society ball.
The paint is fading, weeds sprout from driveway cracks, the lawn is thickly overgrown and the pool is green muck where tadpoles swim.
The home's condition offends the Szabos.
"We came from the Rust Belt," Bruce said. "If you didn't have the money, you didn't buy."
The Szabos hope to sell and retire in the next few years, but they know the first thing a prospective buyer would see is the mess next door.
They've pressed Largo officials for help without getting satisfaction, but have not contacted the financial firm that owns the property, figuring they would simply be ignored.
"As far as I'm concerned this is just a game," Anne said. "And the residents of Willowbrook Drive are just pawns in that game."
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The public record leaves unclear just who the ultimate beneficiary is of the loan Harris took out. When Saxon Mortgage was contacted, a reporter's call was transferred to Morgan Stanley's New York office.
Asked what plans, if any, are in store for 2279 Willowbrook, a staffer in the company's communications office told a reporter to expect a call back.
No call was received.
Last fall, Morgan Stanley got $10 billion in taxpayer bailout money. A month ago, the company announced the money had been repaid.
Pete Jensen, Largo's code enforcement supervisor, said with some exceptions, lenders are willing to let their now-vacant properties deteriorate until they find a buyer.
Jensen told the story of contacting one bank, he could not recall which, and warning the man he was speaking to that fines and liens on a property were imminent.
Go ahead, we don't care, Jensen said he was told.
Then, when the bank was ready to sell the property, it asked Jensen to waive $10,000 in liens to allow the deal to go forward. Jensen said no, and the bank paid.
How to handle deteriorating bank-owned properties is a thorny problem, and there is no set policy. Upset neighbors will ask to get lawns cut, Jensen said, but if the city does so, the property is no longer in violation of code and fines against the bank can't be pursued.
"We are just as baffled as the rest of the country," Jensen said. "Nobody wants to take any responsibility for these properties."
And there's a lot of them these days, each, like 2279 Willowbrook, with its own story. According to the firm RealtyTrac Inc., as of Friday there were 179 bank owned homes in Largo.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.