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Trolling for treasures in foreclosure wreckage

Bus tours tap into area's growing market of bank-seized homes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

Srikanth Madarapu had his sights set on a Northborough home: a 3,000-square-foot contemporary Colonial priced at $439,900, yet assessed at $570,500. The house offered good curb appeal and seemed to be a phenomenal deal.

Until he walked inside. The foreclosed home was missing its kitchen. There were some appliances, but where you would expect to see cabinets and countertops, there was just empty space - ghosts of the growing national foreclosure crisis.

Madarapu was one of about two dozen potential buyers who paid Marlborough-based DCU Realty - $20 for members of its affiliated Digital Federal Credit Union, $25 for nonmembers - for a bus tour of foreclosed homes on a recent Saturday morning.

With stops in Northborough, Shrewsbury, and Westborough, the sold-out tour offered both modest and impressive homes in varying stages of disarray: torn up floors, overgrown yards, and water damage. Several were obviously in the midst of renovations when the cash ran out.

"I was expecting to see more new houses," said Madarapu, a Shrewsbury software engineer who was on his second bus tour in the hopes of finding a bigger house.

With the inventory of foreclosed homes expected to grow, he just might get his wish. Among 37 area communities, almost all saw the number of foreclosures increase from 2006 to last year, often dramatically, according to figures collected by the Globe. The numbers are expected to be more depressing this year, according to a statement last week by the Framingham-based ForeclosuresMass Corp.

The real-estate tracking company is seeing its predictions play out in its own backyard. Framingham had the biggest increase in the number of foreclosures, from 20 in 2006 to 67 last year, among area communities. This year promises to be even worse; in the last 60 days, the town has seen 64 foreclosures, making it the eighth hardest-hit community in the state over the last couple of months, the company reported on its website, foreclosuresmass.com.

Framingham's struggles are not news to Chris Ross, executive director of Housing For All and a former Framingham selectman. Housing For All, a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of affordable housing, held a forum in November exploring whether there was a housing crisis in the area. Now, the answer is abundantly clear, said Ross. On April 16, the group will cosponsor another forum, "Foreclosures in Metro West: Exploring Federal, State, and Local Efforts to Address the Crisis."

"Part of our mission is to wake Framingham up to how serious the issue is," said Ross. "There are things that town government needs to look at."

Framingham has started looking into what it might be able to do to help homeowners by reviewing what other hard-hit communities are doing, according to Eugene Kennedy, the town's assistant planning director.

Boston, for example, has a foreclosure intervention team, and is arranging for low-income residents facing foreclosure to meet with lawyers for free advice.

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a Framingham-based social service agency also known as SMOC, can offer small loans to homeowners in a temporary pinch. If a homeowner already owes several thousand dollars, the agency usually refers them to legal services, according to Ozzy Diagne, director of its Housing Services Center. The agency also can help sell a property quickly before foreclosure or negotiate a deal with the lender to prevent its seizure, he said, but most residents aren't aware of their options.

"Faced with foreclosure, they usually just pack and leave," Diagne said.

SMOC expects to hear this week on its bid for a state grant of about $160,000 that would allow it to expand its service area.

Among other area communities, Marlborough posted the second biggest foreclosure numbers, up from 30 homes in 2006 to 55 last year. Even some of the area's wealthiest towns saw increases, although in the single digits: Weston went from one foreclosure to four, and Wellesley saw an increase from zero to five. Three towns saw no change: Lincoln had zero both years, Northborough had eight, and Wayland had seven. One town, Wrentham, actually saw fewer foreclosures, going from three in 2006 to a pair last year.

Ashland and Bellingham saw the biggest relative increases across the region, with both registering more than eight times as many foreclosures last year as in 2006. Ashland jumped from two foreclosures to 17, while Bellingham went from three to 26.

Ashland's foreclosure numbers follow a boom in home sales over the last five to eight years, said Matt Cuddy, with Century 21 Cuddy, which has offices in Ashland and Framingham. People were drawn to Ashland because of revamped schools and a new commuter rail station, he said, adding that many of the sales involved adjustable-rate mortgages that are now resetting at higher rates and forcing people out of their homes.

So far this year, however, sales are going better in the town; prices aren't going up but they aren't going down much either, Cuddy said, and properties seem to be moving a little more quickly.

Cuddy, who has been in real estate since 1977, said he sees signs of recovery in the housing market.

"The Metro West area has always seemed to recapture itself pretty quickly where other parts of the nation don't. I attribute that to the quality of education we have in this area, medical care, transportation, and the job sector."

That may be of little consolation to those who have lost homes. The vacant houses on the foreclosure bus tour offer plenty of evidence of how personal that loss can be: a welcome mat left behind, a basketball hoop lying on its side in a driveway, or a bedroom decorated with Patriots football wallpaper and matching blue carpet.

Westborough lawyer Kenneth A. Northrup served as a guide on the DCU bus tour, speaking about the pros and cons of foreclosure buying - the price versus the pitfalls, auctions and offers, counteroffers and inspections. But he also sees a difficult story told by the houses. "You get a peek into someone else's life," he said. "It's kind of sad sometimes."

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@ globe.com.

DUBIOUS DISTINCTION In a survey of 37 area communities, 14 were reported as having at least nine residential properties seized by lenders last year.

SOURCE: The Warren Group Compiled by Matt Carroll

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