NAPLES, FLA. – Steven and Janet Sparker never planned to leave the house they purchased in 2006 in the Golden Gate Estates neighborhood of Naples.
But when Janet, 57, lost her six-figure job, and the home's value fell by more than half from the $585,000 they had paid for it, they decided to leave their home and let the bank foreclose on it.
Only the bank didn't — and still hasn't.
So the Sparkers' home became a so-called "zombie home" — an unlived-in, unloved home in a twilight limbo state that's become a pariah for the owner, the lender and the neighborhood.
Zombie homes are a burden to the owner who bears all the responsibility, yet reaps none of the benefits of homeownership.
"Many homeowners who stop making mortgage payments and abandon their homes are looking for a fresh start," said Daren Blomquist, chief economist of RealtyTrac, which tracks distressed houses. "They don't even realize that they are still responsible for taxes and bills."
The homes also are unwanted by banks that already have too many foreclosures on their books, and are in no hurry to assume the headaches of protecting and maintaining them.
Indeed, some banks let previous owners stay in their homes so the owners can keep them up after the banks have repossessed them, turning them into what the Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac calls "vampire houses."
About 62 percent of bank-owned homes in Collier County and 54 percent in Lee County, both on southwest Florida's Gulf Coast, fall into that category, compared with 47 percent nationwide.
Because Florida requires judicial review of foreclosures, banks are slow to repossess houses, Blomquist said, which is one reason the state leads the nation in the number of vacated zombie homes.
Of the 152,033 zombie homes nationwide, more than a third, or 54,410, are in Florida, Blomquist said.
Both nationwide and statewide, about 1 in 5 homes moving through the foreclosure pipeline are zombies, he added.
It takes the state an average of more than 2 ½ years to clear a foreclosure in Florida, the data firm says — although HR 87, nicknamed the "foreclosure fast track bill," passed by the Florida Legislature last spring, aims to speed up the process.
While not as big a problem as they were during the height of the foreclosure crisis, zombie homes are still a burden for the community at large, making them a problem for government and law enforcement.
Lee County commissioners in Fort Myers passed an ordinance Sept. 24 to make banks register vacant, distressed homes, so they will not neglect them and allow them to become eyesores.
The ordinance also requires banks to name a local property manager and to have the manager's contact information posted on a sign on the property; inspect the home every 60 days; keep the property free of graffiti, debris and other junk, ranging from abandoned cars to throwaway fliers; maintain landscaping and pools; and secure windows, doors and gates.
The new rule will become effective Jan. 1. Violators will be subject to fines determined by a judge or the county administrative code. If the bank does not comply, the county can take corrective action and record a lien against the property.
Homes that sit vacant for long periods are a magnet for vandals and thieves who steal everything from air-conditioning units to copper piping, said Sgt. Mark Williamson of the criminal investigations unit of the Collier County Sheriff's Office in Naples. Some also attract scammers, particularly in isolated, heavily landscaped areas with big lots.
"They'll break in, change the locks, and rent the home to an unsuspecting victim," he said.
That's exactly what happened to the Sparkers, who went back to their vacated Golden Gate Estates home in April 2012 to retrieve some curtains and discovered a woman and her three young sons had moved into it.
"We heard music playing — it was quite a shock," said Steven Sparker, 58, a prototype tool and die maker.
"I wish the bank would take it back," he said.