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As of this summer, there are more than 125,000 homes nationwide that sit abandoned by their owners, homes left empty before the end of the lengthy foreclosure process. This points to big problems that remain in the housing market despite its recovery since the Great Recession. NPR's Joel Rose reports from New Jersey, which has the highest abandoned foreclosure rate of any state.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Michael McCabe knows what it's like to be surrounded by zombies - zombie houses, that is.
MICHAEL MCCABE: This one up the road here, nobody has been in this house probably for about seven or eight years.
ROSE: McCabe drives me around his neighborhood in Woodbury Heights, N.J. He points out which houses are in foreclosure and which ones are so-called zombies - homes that have been abandoned by their former owners, but are still stuck somewhere in the foreclosure process. That includes the house next door to his own in this middle-class suburb of Philadelphia and now the one behind it, too.
MICHAEL MCCABE: We don't know what's going to happen. We're kind of prepping because a gentleman who was there who rented came and told us I'm just letting you know, I'm moving. That means the grass isn't going to get cut by me, and the house is in foreclosure.
ROSE: It would join roughly 17,000 zombie foreclosures in the state. That's according to a report released in June by the company RealtyTrac. The same report says the number of zombie homes nationwide is actually declining as the housing market improves, but not in New Jersey. And New York is nearly as bad.
DAREN BLOMQUIST: Those are the states with the two absolute longest foreclosure processes in the country.
ROSE: Daren Blomquist at RealtyTrac says the average foreclosure in New York and New Jersey takes about three years to complete, partly, says Blomquist, because those states have been aggressive about trying to prevent improper foreclosures.
BLOMQUIST: The unintended consequence is that we see an even longer protracted foreclosure process in those states.
ROSE: That process can take so long that many homeowners just walk away. Chad Bruner is the administrator of Gloucester County, N.J. He says local officials have a tough time getting even the most basic information from banks about these abandoned houses.
CHAD BRUNER: They call, and then, no, we don't own that property. And then they call someone else, and they get referred to someone else.
ROSE: So this summer, Bruner commissioned an outside company to track all the abandoned foreclosures in the county. That's supposed to help local towns make sure these houses don't become an eyesore and a hassle for the neighbors. In Woodbury Heights, Michael and Maureen McCabe are skeptical. And you might be too if your neighbor's house had been sitting empty for seven years.
MAUREEN MCCABE: It freaks me out. I don't know if there are animals running around in there - mice and rodents. I don't know.
ROSE: McCabe walks through the yard of the house next door, a two-story Cape Cod that's gradually falling apart. McCabe says it's hard to look at a zombie house like this every day and think about what it means for the neighborhood.
MAUREEN MCCABE: I love my home. I love this town. I wouldn't want to sell. And if I had to sell, I know I wouldn't get the value of what it's really worth.
ROSE: McCabe says her neighbor's house used to be beautiful. Now it's hard to imagine anyone buying it at any price. Joel Rose, NPR News, Woodbury Heights, N.J.
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