No Free Lunches, No Free Houses

May 14, 1993

Baltimore City's first experimental sale of vacant properties was so successful, it will continue Tuesday. Bidding was so heavy auctioneers simply could not dispose of all the 1,500 abandoned homes. "There was a bid for every single house that was put up," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke marveled.

Good enough. But a word of caution: Just as there is seldom such a thing as a free lunch, watch out for your wallet if anyone offers you a free house.

We hope all those successful bidders at the vacant-house auction fully realize what they are getting into. They may think they bought a cheap house but, at best, they bought the right to sue for foreclosure if the vacant property's current owner fails to pay the delinquencies within 60 days.

And even if a bidder finally acquires the property at a foreclosure sale, the vacant shell has to be fixed up. That may sound deceptively easy on paper. But Baltimore neighborhoods are full of houses where someone started rehabilitation, ran out of money and had all the copper pipes and window frames stolen from the site. The message is loud and clear: You'd better know what you are getting into if you think recycling vacant houses is easy.

It can be done. But like most everything else in life, it requires capital and expertise. Or access to capital and expertise -- and a willingness to listen to sound advice.

We are gratified, however, that the first abandoned-house auction stirred so much interest. We also would urge the city to make sure that those who actually acquire vacant houses through foreclosure procedures are directed to non-profit organizations and other resource banks that can help them avoid the myriad pitfalls of rehabilitation.

Above all, novice rehabbers need guidance about how to select contractors, get estimates and draw up contracts. None of that is easy and people can get burned and discouraged easily.

This is the kind of help Baltimore provided in the 1970s, when it sold shells of vacant houses for $1 each to rehabilitators. Now, two decades later, people usually mention the success of that urban homesteading program and how it transformed such desolate areas as Stirling Street, Otterbein and Barre Circle into desirable and stable neighborhoods. What is often forgotten is that despite all the counseling and subsidized loans, some homesteaders never made it.

Auctioning houses is the easy part. Making them livable again is the challenge.

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