Reduced Price: 3br/1ba charmer in sunny Bay Point. Amenities include: holes smashed in walls, pre-owned condoms, marijuana roach-flecked carpet, empty liquor bottle accents. Brand new plywood security system on all doors and windows. $184K. Retro cool!
Or in Antioch: 3br/2ba, Old World charm. Dirty jeans, pile of broken cigars, sex toys! Tasteful decor includes a girlie pinup on the living room wall. Selling homes in East Contra Costa these days seems tough enough without walking into a squatter's den or break-in party pad. But that's what brokers say they find more often lately with the huge glut in bank-owned and vacant homes — raising safety fears among some agents and possibly crimping home values even further.
Agents at one East County real estate office now tote pepper spray on walk-throughs and showings, in case they come across a belligerent dweller. More than a dozen agents have signed up for self-defense training, said Kirsten Amodeo, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker who is organizing the classes. During the Labor Day weekend alone, Amodeo said, she entered four houses to find destruction or signs of squatting.
"It's absolutely absurd. Theft and vandalism and squatters. It's all over the place. The holiday weekend was the worst," she said, armed with a canister of pepper spray on a visit to one house. "I'm not trying to be a vigilante. I'm pretty tired of going into these houses and wondering. We don't know what's on the other side of the door."
Realtors say the problem festers in Bay Point, Pittsburg and Antioch, communities hard-hit by a foreclosure epidemic that shows no sign of abating. The results in Antioch are stark: Of the 944 homes actively on the market last week, more than 850 were either bank-owned or short-sale homes.
Empty homes abound — and they are easy targets for intruders.
"It's definitely on the increase," said Prudential Realtor Chris Collier of the break-ins. "We haven't been able to sell off enough inventory. There's so much opportunity for someone to jump from house to house to house."
Collier said he recently entered a home to the sound of a backdoor slam. Now he rings the doorbell, calls out and shouts "Realtor!" as he opens the front door, "just to give anyone who might be inside the chance to run away," he said. "It's kind of like a rattlesnake. It would rather not bite you. If you leave it alone it will just go away."
So far, local agents say they don't know of anyone coming upon a violent squatter, but some carry anxiety and more up the walkway.
Amodeo said she walks taller "just to have an air about myself, just trying to be safe." Felicia Horkins, also of Coldwell Banker, said she's signed up for self-defense class and is glad for the pepper spray. She's got 911 on speed dial and often brings her husband on inspections.
"If it was legal to carry a concealed weapon, I would do it in a heartbeat," she said. "Honestly, I've become very afraid. There's going to be a time.
"It's just the odds."
Realtors speculate that the souring economy is making the problem grow, as homeless or evicted people search for a shower, cool air, or a stove to cook on. Some leave by day, when agents may show up.
Occasionally, it's neighborhood partyers who sneak into a vacant home for reckless fun.
Boarding up a Bay Point house where vandals kicked through the walls in several rooms and yanked out cabinets, rehab contractor Randy Rodriguez said he found the remains of a sordid party.
"You see a lot of gross stuff," he said. "We see more squatters. They're so aware these houses are abandoned." Realtors often call police when they suspect a squatter — and that's what authorities recommend neighbors do as well.
"We make contact with them and let them know, this is not your house," said Pittsburg police Lt. Brian Addington, who acknowledged an increase. "More often than not, the banks are not interested in pursuing a trespassing charge. A lot of times, it's people down on their luck, they are homeless, a drug addict. They're looking for a place to stay for the night."
A Pittsburg city ordinance requires property owners to board up vacant houses. Addington said banks often cooperate.
If not, the city can do it and place a lien on the property. Since the foreclosure crisis hit early last year, some East County cities have stepped up enforcement against blight, giving owners less time to do it themselves.
Banks often move fast to prevent more damage or possible legal trouble, said Dustin Hobbs, spokesman for the California Mortgage Bankers Association. "It's a tricky issue. Once they have personal property in there, you run into legal issues," he said. "It really behooves lenders and (loan) servicers to do what they can to board up the house and make it not as accessible as soon as possible."
But Antioch police Sgt. Mitch Schwitters said he sees few true, long-term squatters.
"It's more of a trespassing thing, or vandalism. I wouldn't say it's an epidemic," he said.
The downside to boarding up houses: Not so much curb appeal.
Collier said he recently showed a young couple the Antioch home where they walked into rooms littered with cigars, dirty jeans, shaving gear and other signs of nomad life— $159,000 inclusive.
"It was, 'OK, we've seen enough,'" said Collier. "We didn't stay very long."
Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.