County is in the market for homes to renovate
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.
The foreclosed house with the red door frame and brick accents sits along a shaded street in Gainesville.
The building, now emptied, was once a home. Though vacant, some small family touches remain.
A University of Florida light switch cover sporting an older version of its iconic mascot remains in a barren bedroom, while another room is brightened by warm yellow wallpaper stretched across the ceiling.
"You almost feel like an anthropologist," said Tom Webster, housing programs manager for Alachua County. "You go in and see all these kind of unique additions and wonder who lived there once upon a time."
The house has its problems, of course. Tiling on the kitchen floor needs replacing. A ceiling fan hangs so low in the living room it could decapitate someone, Webster jokes.
The roof is the biggest issue. It is covered with fuzzy green moss, and its overhangs are marred by gaping holes — probably caused by the weight of water sitting on the flat expanse — in which rats or other creatures could find shelter and multiply.
The county has purchased the foreclosed house as part of a federal grant called the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. It will renovate the building, fixing problems and adding energy-efficient windows and other items if needed, before putting it up for sale.
Under the NSP program, the county buys foreclosed houses in poor condition within designated target areas, repairs them and puts them back on the market. It can't sell them for a profit.
This house was purchased as part of the county's second ongoing NSP grant, Webster said. The county bought 22 homes using the first $2.9 million grant, and it so far has purchased three homes using the second grant. But it's racing against a March deadline to spend half of the funding, which totals a little more than $1 million.
The county generally will buy houses as long as they are structurally sound. The degree of disrepair varies, with problems ranging from mold to leaky roofs.
"We like to say we buy the pits, not the cherries," he said.
Before buying a house, Jay Moseley of Meridian Community Services Group does a basic inspection of the home's interior and exterior to determine if it's viable and estimates the cost of repairs for the county.
But those estimates sometimes fall well below the actual cost — a problem the county's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee wants to address.
Kara Bolton, a committee member and president of Kara Bolton Homes, said she and others on the committee are concerned about unexpected increases in renovation costs to some homes that they believe could have been avoided with a more thorough pre-purchase inspection.
As an example, she cited one house with an electrical system that required a complete re-wiring, adding another $6,000 to its repair total.
"A very simple $300 inspection could have saved that expense," she said. "It's always a challenge when purchasing real estate. You don't really know what you're getting."
The housing committee plans to send a letter to the County Commission recommending it consider requiring more thorough, mandatory inspections by a licensed inspector before final purchase of a home for the NSP program, she said. More intensive inspections could identify problems that otherwise would become expensive surprises during repair work.
Bolton pointed out that money saved from not purchasing homes with higher repair costs could be used to buy and renovate a greater number of houses. The county expects to lose money on the homes it repairs and sells, but closer inspections would give it a better understanding of the total investment it can anticipate for a home.
"It's just trying to make an informed decision so that as they go to bid, they're working with as much information as possible and there's no big surprises later on," Bolton said.
But Webster said unexpected repair needs arising during renovation are, well, expected.
He cited one house with a repair estimate of about $41,100 that needed two major, unanticipated repairs. The first was for roof decking so thin it fell below minimum standards — a $2,900 problem he doubted a more thorough inspection would have noticed. The second was for the electrical system, which had cloth-covered wiring that had to be replaced — a surprise expense of $6,400.
Moseley, who does the inspections, said he looks at the bones of a house's exterior structure before the county places a bid and then examines the interior before final purchase to estimate the repair costs.
"If the bones are good, the rest of it we can work with," he said.
But the degree to which a house can be inspected pre-purchase is limited. He can't do an electrical inspection because the power isn't usually on. He can't check out the "guts" of the house without removing sections of the wall, which isn't allowed until the county buys the house. Septic tank inspections before purchase are also out of the question.
"There are things that you can never know until you start taking things apart," he said. "It's kind of a crapshoot."
Hiring another professional to do a full-fledged inspection could significantly delay the county from buying a house because it would have to wait days for the written review, Webster said. Staff often must move quickly on a potential purchase, given the prevalence of competitors and limited amount of eligible houses within its target zones.
Besides, a more thorough inspection wouldn't glean that much more information than his reviews do, Moseley said. He said he considers his initial work order to be a baseline repair estimate, but he said he can ascertain 90 percent of what needs to be done.
Moseley pointed out that the unexpected increases in renovation costs after purchase might not amount to enough to buy one additional house.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and change orders are just a necessary function of rehabbing a house," he said. "We all hate change orders."
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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