Residents of Homeland and Guilford may not realize they have a precious commodity hanging on the sides of their homes.
But somebody else thinks so.
Copper downspouts have been disappearing from the stately homes of the two North Baltimore neighborhoods in such large numbers that residents and the police say it has become an epidemic.
"I've heard of downspouts being stolen in the past, but never in epidemic proportions," said George A. Nilson, president of the Guilford Association.
The thefts -- which began in early August and number more than 40 to date -- have the police baffled.
"You'd think these things were worth thousands of dollars the way they're being taken," said Lt. Robert Rabold of the Northern District. "But my understanding is that their value is insignificant."
In fact, copper is not worth all that much if sold as scrap metal. Scrap metal dealers will pay between 40 cents and 50 cents per pound. A section of downspout is customarily 10 to 12 feet in length and would weigh about 15 pounds, bringing its value to a mere $7.50, said Daniel Friedlander, owner of Potter's Salvage Co. in Baltimore.
"It's not anywhere what it's worth to replace it," Mr. Friedlander said.
And the replacement cost is considerable. New machine-made copper downspouts cost between $4 and $8 per foot at wholesale. Circular, smooth-sided downspouts, which are fabricated by hand, are even more expensive, said Clyde Thomson, owner of Thomson Remodeling Co.
Add to that the cost of installation, which can run between $10 and $15 per linear foot. The same 10-foot section that brought $7.50 from a scrap metal dealer will cost $125 to replace, Mr. Thomson said.
"It's pretty silly," he said. "They'd be better off to come to the door and ask for four bucks. 'Give me four bucks and I'll leave your downspouts alone.' "
The police believe the downspouts are being taken during the morning hours by somebody who is doing work in the area -- like lawn maintenance, remodeling or painting -- and would therefore be inconspicuous.
The downspouts can be easily and quickly removed. "Just a good tug usually does the job," Lieutenant Rabold said. At first, ,, the police thought the downspouts were hauled away in a truck, so they looked for trucks with pipes sticking out of them.
But then a witness to a spout theft -- who was close enough to observe the deed, but not to get a license tag number -- told them that the thief walked on the downspout to flatten it, folded it three times and stuffed it into the trunk of a car.
When the Northern District assigned four marked cars and two unmarked cars to Homeland for two weeks in September, the thefts stopped. But the district could not afford to keep that many officers in the area for very long. The special detail ended, and the thefts resumed.
"Nobody's brought any in here, but we've kept our eyes open," said Mr. Friedlander of Potter's Salvage. He is required by law to keep a log of private individuals who come to sell scrap metal, which he sends to the Police Department daily. And if anyone did come in offering to sell scrap copper, he said, he would call the police.
The thefts have not been limited to private homes, but have occurred at several churches as well.
"Yeah, we got hit," said the Rev. Lance A. B. Gifford, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington. Six copper downspouts were taken off the church Sept. 10, and the insurance company has told him it will cost between $1,100 and $1,500 to replace them.
Although some homeowners choose to replace the copper downspouts with cheaper galvanized aluminum, Mr. Gifford said has no choice in the matter. "We're a historic district and any building materials that go on the building have to be the original ones," he said. "Otherwise, the city will come down on us."
But he has planned one change.
"We're getting floodlights so people can watch them pulling off the downspouts next time," he said.