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The Upstate Economy

Report finds Watertown vacant homes are empty long before foreclosure

Julia Botero
There are 150 abandoned homes in Watertown.


There are more than 150 abandoned homes in Watertown.  A report put out by the city assessor finds homes in the city can be empty for months, even years, before the bank takes them over.

Vacant homes have become such a problem in Watertown, the city council has had trouble wrapping their head around what to do.

Brian Phelps, the city assessor, visited hundreds of empty homes and poured over stacks of paperwork to figure out why these homes were abandoned.

 “As many vacant homes as there are, are as many individual stories.”

Phelps said he did find a common scenario, though. In many cases, a person had bought a home in Watertown, but two or three years later they had to move away. Often they're military who had to relocate to another Army base.

 “When it gets time for them to leave the time on market to sell their house is not financially viable for them to make that many payments while the property is for sale," said Phelps, in an interview with WRVO News.

Or the house just doesn’t sell. Some homeowners try to rent their property, but that can be hard to do if they don’t live nearby. After some time, that homeowner stops making payments. Penny savers start piling up on the porch, the roof might start to sag and over time neighbors consider it a nuisance.

Phelps said in the last two years, home values in Watertown have been steadily going down. 

"And this is a definitely a factor when you look at the market as a whole. That there are these problem properties out there that people can't afford to stay in," said Phelps.

To answer the question of why this is happening you have to look back a few years. In 2008, when the housing market collapsed across the country, home values in Watertown stayed steady. As an influx of soldiers arrived at Fort Drum, Jefferson County and Watertown leaders asked developers to build lots of new homes. Today, selling a home is harder because there's a lot more choice. 

“The reason why you can’t put a house on the market and sell it in three months is because there is an overabundance of supply and a lack of demand.”

Phelps said a new state law is forcing banks to deal with abandoned or so-called zombie homes before they start becoming a problem. In the meantime, it’s up to the city council to decide if there's anything else they can do to stop this problem from getting worse.