More than 2 million gallons of water pumped through eight foreclosed houses in Champlin this winter before city officials realized the water pipes had burst. An empty townhouse in Prior Lake leaked water into the neighboring unit before the city shut off the water. And a row of empty townhouses in Andover finally attracted attention after a "waterfall of ice" crystallized around one of the front doors.

Across the metro, thousands of homes are in foreclosure and many of those have been abandoned this winter. While most homeowners shut off the heat before leaving, some forgot to turn off the water. When temperatures dropped, water built up and burst out through toilets, sinks or pipes in the walls.

With foreclosures in suburban communities expected to increase this year, cities are taking on a new responsibility: monitoring vulnerable, vacant homes.

The spring thaw has local inspectors worried about what they might find when the ice melts and homes are opened up.

"Cities are trying to track [empty homes], but it's a monumental effort," said Will Neumeister, Andover's community development director.

Brooklyn Park, Oakdale, Champlin and other cities have outlined what each city department will do to tackle foreclosures. County governments distribute lists of foreclosed homes, but it is often difficult to get a hold of the financial institution that holds the mortgage. In many cases, even if they know a pipe has burst, city inspectors can't go into private property without permission from the owner.

"The city certainly has no responsibility for what's happened," said Jason Aarsvold, Brooklyn Park's economic and redevelopment director. "Unfortunately, we're the ones stuck dealing with it."

Damage hits neighborhoods

The problem is affecting communities and homes regardless of the age or value of properties. Woodbury and Cottage Grove officials are shifting their focus from inspecting newly built homes to monitoring empty homes. In Eden Prairie, the fire department is trying to keep track of empty townhouses with fire sprinkler systems, but they have still had water damage in 10 to 15 homes this winter.

Neighbors of foreclosed homes are also seeing the effects of abandonment. Dave Anderson, of Andover, lives next door to a house that has been empty since it was built last summer.

"My wife noticed reverse icicles coming up from the basement on the side of the house this winter," he said.

Sure enough, inspectors found pipes in the house had burst and they disconnected the water. But the city hasn't been able to track down who holds the mortgage on the house, so it's still sitting empty, with condensation gathering on the windows and snow piling up on the driveway.

The future of these homes seems grim. Often the financial institutions that hold the mortgage would rather sell the homes at an auction than repair the damage. An almost $700,000 Andover house that sat empty for months with a flooded basement, growing mold, recently sold at an auction for $280,000.

On a quiet cul-de-sac in Champlin, inspectors were finally able to get into an empty house last week that was soaked with more than 200,000 gallons of water from a burst pipe. Ceilings had collapsed in the basement, the wood floors had warped and mold was growing along the baseboards.

Since mid-January, Champlin officials have inspected 117 homes, and the list grows every month when they find out about more foreclosures from Hennepin County. The city's plan to deal with foreclosures was based partly on its emergency disaster plan because the homes they found had such bad water damage.

"Given the homes we had already lost, we felt it was critical to deploy all resources to inspecting foreclosed homes," said John Cox, Champlin's deputy city administrator.

Tracking the problem

After seeing how foreclosures affected neighborhoods and property values in Minneapolis and St. Paul, suburban cities are seeking foreclosure counseling for residents or funds to buy and rehabilitate vacant houses, said Tim Marx, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency commissioner.

"The first wave of the [foreclosure] problem affected our most distressed neighborhoods," Marx said. "... It is beginning now to affect, more dramatically, some of the suburban communities."

Local governments are also stepping up enforcement of nuisance laws, such as making sure snow is shoveled and lawns are mowed. In some cases, cities pay for those smaller services, but they won't take on water damage repairs because there is no guarantee that homeowners will repay the cost.

"The mortgage industry made all the money and now the cities are having to spend all their money and time cleaning up the problem," said Bob Streetar, Oakdale's community development director. "It's almost like a new line of business we have to take on."

Several north metro legislators introduced a bill in the Legislature this year that would require utility companies to notify local governments when gas or electric service is disconnected. If the bill passes, city officials would have an easier time finding homes that are in danger of water damage.

Without more information about foreclosed homes, there is only so much cities can do. A few of the eight foreclosed houses in Champlin that had millions of gallons of water running through them might need to be demolished. Prior Lake officials don't have permission to enter the townhouse that leaked water into the neighbor's unit, so they shut off the water but aren't sure how much damage was done.

Dave Berkowitz, Andover's director of public works, said inspectors knew about the townhouse with the ice waterfall coming out of the windows, but they couldn't find the owner in time to get permission to turn off the water.

"The city doesn't have the dollars to fix these things," he said. "The best we can do is get a hold of the mortgage company and hope they respond."

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628