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Under surveillance

Police are keeping an eye on vacant village properties

February 10, 2010 - Look at that empty house next door with the "for sale" sign in the lawn, or the house down the street in foreclosure. What happens if it catches on fire? Or if its pipes break and the whole place floods?

Property values might go down even more, or worse, you and your house might be in danger.

Lake Orion Reserve Officer John Schmidt is keeping an eye on foreclosed and vacant houses. This vacant home on N. Washington Street had upstairs pipes break, flooding the entire house. Photos by Megan Collier (click for larger version)
That's just what the Lake Orion Police Department is trying to avoid, says Chief Jerry Narsh.

"If the water breaks and damages the house – and this has happened – it has just reduced the value of the property and that house thereby further reducing the property values on that street," he said. "In addition, if a home becomes a hazard, it could become a hazard to neighboring homes; be it fire, be it a gas explosion, be it a water leak causing flooding, or other things."

Six- year Reserve Officer John Schmidt volunteers his time to inspect vacant properties, including homes and business, in the village.

Schmidt is a township resident and recently retired from "counting beans" as a financial analyst for General Motors.

"You don't want the values of homes to go down," he said. "You want to keep the community up where it should be – it's important to me, even in my own neighborhood.

Schmidt's first line of business is to determine whether a property is simply vacant, as owners may be on vacation or the house is up for sale, or if it's in foreclose. He then checks to see if utilities are still turned on, and makes sure there are no broken or open windows or doors and that the outside is secure.

Schmidt’s inspection includes checking utilities to make sure they’re off. (click for larger version)
"If [utilities] are off or on, depending on the combination, it could be a nightmare," said Narsh.

In some instances, the nightmare's already come true and damage done to homes, like on N. Washington Street, whose water pipes broke.

"By the time the DPW got [to the vacant house] to shut off the water, the basement was full of water and the hardwood floors were destroyed; there was arcing and twisting and bending from the water. All the drywall was ruined as well," Narsh said. "It's already a distressed property and now it's severely damaged."

According to the chief, critters have gotten into other vacant buildings. Officers have even found evidence of people squatting inside empty homes.

"In one case, someone was using Sterno fuel cans, which is a canned fire, basically," said Narsh. "It could burn down a house."

With foreclosures, the police chief notes that banks don't always take care of a house the way residents would.

"We've had some banks, that, once they take over a house, they don't provide the neighborly care that we demand and require in our ordinances," he noted. "When they don't, our code enforcement officer has been issuing violations to the management , the same as they if they live there. We're not going to treat our citizens in the village at a different level than the banks that take over these properties."

LOPD is asking for village and township business who offer handyman services so that, if banks do not maintain vacant properties, local business can "provide all the services that would be needed by a bank from long distances."

"You might know that that house is empty, but you should not know it's empty by its outside appearance," said Narsh, adding, "It's an opportunity for local businesses to have some work."

Reporter, Lake Orion Review
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