The housing crisis: Are the number of empty homes in Freeborn County growing?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2008

By Sarah Stultz, staff writer

With all the talk about a housing crisis in the national media, one has to wonder whether the troubles are occurring here locally in Freeborn County as well.

Some say the housing market is worse off than many think, some say the market is in a little bit of a slump locally &8212; but not as bad as in some larger cities &8212; while others yet say the housing market has remained steady.

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When you ask different people, you&8217;ll get different answers.

What&8217;s the truth?

According to the Civil Process Office within the Freeborn County Sheriff&8217;s Office, mortgage foreclosure sales in Freeborn County jumped from 72 in 2006 to 103 in 2007.

So far this year in 2008, there have been 37 foreclosure sales.

Southern Minnesota has the highest percentage of decline in housing values in the state &8212; at a rate of 14.7 percent declining &8212; and well over half of the homes up on the market for less than $100,000 are sitting vacant, said Jon Ford with the Albert Lea Housing Redevelopment Authority.

&8220;People are having their homes foreclosed on, and the people who are wanting to buy homes aren&8217;t being approved,&8221; he said.

&8220;Whether anybody realizes it or not, it could have a really really devastating effect on the economy. It already is really.&8221;

Freeborn County Assessor Ryan Rasmussen said he thinks the housing market in the area is basically flat.

&8220;But I don&8217;t think we&8217;ve seen the decreases that we&8217;ve seen across the nation,&8221; Rasmussen said.

The assessor said he knows foreclosures are up

and that sales have slowed down but he doesn&8217;t think it&8217;s &8220;doom and gloom&8221; like the national news has portrayed.

&8220;You have to be careful of what you see on TV,&8221; he said. &8220;Just because it&8217;s happening somewhere else, doesn&8217;t mean it&8217;s happening here.&8221;

Bill Leland, broker for Kenneth R. Leland Realty, Inc., said if things continue at the pace they are going right now, he will have sold 20 foreclosures by the end of the year.

&8220;Have we seen an increase?&8221; he said. &8220;Without a doubt.&8221;

What has caused any problems?

While people may be pointing their fingers at the banks as the root cause of some of the foreclosures, there&8217;s actually a multitude of causes, including lax underwriting standards, increases to the cost of living and increases in property taxes, to name a few, Ford said.

&8220;There are a number of things that have added to this,&8221; he said. &8220;In some cases, families were put into mortgages that they weren&8217;t ready to be in.&8221;

For example, he said, in the past some lenders &8212; usually an online one &8212; would go in and give a family with marginal credit an adjustable rate mortgage loan. For the first few months afterward, the family would be able to pay their initial payments, but then after two or three years the interest rates on those payments would increase and the family would no longer be able to afford the payments.

This would begin them on their downward spiral to foreclosure.

Leland said he thinks a lot of the problems in this area came because &8220;people just got over extended.&8221; They might have lost a job or had a baby when they were already strapped for money or they might have bought a car when they shouldn&8217;t have.

&8220;Some of these people should not have bought a home,&8221; he said.

And when they get so far behind in their payments, there&8217;s almost no recovery for them, Ford said.

&8220;The problem is a lot of families fall behind,&8221; he said. &8220;It becomes an issue of embarassment, so they put off doing anything until it becomes too late. At a certain point there&8217;s no fix to it.&8221;

And after a foreclosure goes on their credit record, it will be 10, 15, even 20

years before they&8217;ll be able to buy a home again, Ford said.

But is there hope?

No matter what others may say, Hugh O&8217;Byrne, broker with Century 21 O&8217;Byrne Realty Inc., said he doesn&8217;t think Albert Lea is in such a crisis as some of the larger cities in the country.

Albert Lea never saw a big spike in housing prices like in other cities.

&8220;We didn&8217;t have that big bubble so we didn&8217;t have a big bubble to burst,&8221; said O&8217;Byrne, who has been in the business for 35 years.

He said Albert Lea&8217;s housing market has stayed steady because the city doesn&8217;t depend on new construction and it doesn&8217;t depend on one major employer for jobs.

&8220;We&8217;re selling as many houses as we&8217;ve always had,&8221; he said. &8220;The biggest problem we have is buyers watching the doom and gloom on TV and in the newspapers, and are holding back.

&8220;I just think that as far as sellers are concerned, it&8217;s a good time to sell,&8221; he said. &8220;There&8217;s a backlog of buyers. And the buyers should know they better be looking. There&8217;s so many choices it&8217;s a good time to buy.&8221;

With low interest rates and some bargains on the market, you&8217;ll be able to buy more house for the money, he said.

Emelie Paulson, long-time Realtor who recently switched to Re/max, agreed with O&8217;Byrne.

She said because Albert Lea did not have the fantastic highs that others areas experienced with runaway pricing, Albert Lea is really not experiencing lows; it has stayed fairly average.

Though she recognized the increases in foreclosures recently, she said she thinks that at some point they will level out.

&8220;I feel that we&8217;re in a fairly good spot right now,&8221; Paulson said.

O&8217;Byrne said during the last four weeks with his multiple listings, his company had nine contracts pending the first week, then eight the second week, 10 the third week and 11 in the fourth.

&8220;All of those sales in the month accounts to 30 or 40 sales,&8221; he said. &8220;That&8217;s about a normal thing for Albert Lea.&8221;