Don't let foreclosed homes ruin your neighborhood (© Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Vacant or foreclosed homes can diminish an area's quality. As they deteriorate from neglect, these homes become eyesores that drag down the property value of other homes in the neighborhood.

Luckily, you don't have to sit back and watch a foreclosed home fall apart. You can take actions to protect your neighborhood and your property value. (Bing: How do foreclosures work?)

The danger of doing nothing
According to NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit providing financial support, technical assistance and training for community-based revitalization efforts, vacant homes take an economic, physical and social toll on a neighborhood. Empty houses tend to attract trespassers and squatters and can become havens for illegal and dangerous activities. It's possible to prevent these problems by taking steps to safeguard and invest in your neighborhood.

What happens to neighborhoods
The mortgage crisis provides some important clues as to how your neighborhood could be affected by empty homes. Many properties sat empty for more than a year because the foreclosure process was delayed. Banks were overwhelmed by the number of troubled homeowners. Some properties were bought by investors with the intention of flipping them for a profit, meaning these residences were vacant to begin with, and have remained vacant since.

No longer a piggy bank
The Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research and policy organization, predicted that the prices of 91.5 million homes near foreclosure properties would be affected by 2013, causing the tax base to become smaller. Low home values mean less equity. People depending on the value of their home to achieve investment goals, such as retirement or college, have seen those goals delayed.

Encouraging crime
Crime is a major concern with these vacant homes. Unkempt lawns and dilapidated roofs advertise to thieves that the home is empty. Many of these opportunists will steal the home’s copper pipes, copper wiring, appliances and fixtures. A vacant home becomes a magnet for vandalism, drug dealers, prostitution and violent crimes.  Poor communities are especially hard hit because homeowners there have fewer resources to make improvements compared to residents of more affluent areas.

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The vacant homes also lead to increased municipal costs because of the need for more services, such as police, fire and code enforcement. Funding these services can take away from property tax revenue.

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What you can do
Take measures to stabilize your neighborhood before your home loses value. Organize or host foreclosure-prevention workshops. Request a community-based organization to come to your neighborhood and hold a meeting. Contact local lenders, loan servicers and housing counselors to find out whether they are able to hold a workshop at your home or local community center. The workshops could give your quietly struggling neighbors the assistance they need.

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When you notice a property going astray — such as obvious damage or grass height not meeting the appropriate community standards — locate the owners of the property so they can immediately handle the situation and reduce the financial loss. Call the real-estate agent who is listing the property if the home is for sale. To find out who owns the home, you can contact the homeowners association, community managers, or your local housing and inspections department.

© Digital Vision/photolibrary

Bing: Search & decide

Some more tips
Organizing a neighborhood watch is a great way to prevent crime and vandalism. Try to learn who's moving in and who's leaving so you know which homes are at risk. Identify block captains to monitor these homes until the situation is resolved. It helps to create a checklist for issues such as:

• Signs of running water.

• Lights left on.

• Trash, debris and other items left outside.

• Broken doors or windows.

• Graffiti.

• Structural damage.

Some active measures NeighborWorks suggests include:

• Parking cars in the driveways of vacant homes to give the appearance that the home is occupied.

• Maintaining the lawn.

• Painting the boards covering the doors and windows so they look like doors and windows.

• Clearing trash and organizing neighborhood clean-up projects.

Other creative techniques for you to try include:

• Hanging curtains and blinds in the windows.

• Using deadbolts for the locks.

• Using baby monitors.

• Installing motion detectors, floodlights and cameras to catch burglars. 

Before you attempt any of these more creative options, make sure you talk to the owner or a representative of the bank holding the property title. Making alterations to a property, even positive ones, can be construed as trespassing.

Additional community efforts can involve grass-roots strategies such as pooling funds from community groups and local government to buy foreclosed properties, renovating the homes or tearing them down to create community spaces. Some mortgage companies may hire a property preservation company to check in on and handle the maintenance of a foreclosed home. The company may contact you to let you know that they are checking on the home and may ask you to contact them if a situation arises. The company sticker will usually be placed on the door of the home, indicating that it is frequently being looked after.

© Tetra Images/SuperstockSearch foreclosure listings

Take action early
When foreclosed homes are left unattended, it affects you and your community. They lower property value, invite crime and create health hazards.  It's important that the owners of the property are held accountable if the property is not looked after. Take action early to stop problems from occurring or keep them from getting any worse. Help a financially troubled neighbor by holding a foreclosure prevention workshop. Organize a neighborhood watch. Take active and creative measures to preserve the property's aesthetics and prevent crime. Report any suspicious activity or code issues to the proper authorities, such as local law enforcement or community government.

The following organizations can provide additional resources: the National Housing Institute, National Vacant Properties Campaign and Neighborhood Works America. Remember that taking active steps to protect the value of foreclosed properties is also protecting your own home's value.

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