A “zombie title” is a term used in real estate to describe a situation where a property in foreclosure is vacated by the homeowner before the foreclosure proceeding is complete, leaving the title in a state of limbo. In these cases, the homeowner mistakenly believes that the foreclosure process will inevitably lead the bank to repossess the home, and so they abandon the property.
However, if the bank decides not to complete the foreclosure process, the title remains with the original owner, creating a “zombie title.”
The term “zombie title” emerged as a way to describe the phenomenon of properties left in a state of limbo during the foreclosure process. The origin of the term can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when foreclosure rates soared, and many homeowners found themselves unable to keep up with their mortgage payments.
In traditional foreclosure scenarios, when a homeowner defaults on their mortgage, the bank initiates foreclosure proceedings, takes possession of the property, and eventually sells it to recover the outstanding debt. However, in some cases, homeowners abandoned their properties, assuming that the foreclosure process would inevitably result in the bank taking ownership.
Unfortunately, due to various factors, such as the sheer volume of foreclosures, overwhelmed banks, legal complexities, or the lack of market value in the properties, some banks decided not to complete the foreclosure process. As a result, the abandoned properties remained in the names of the original owners even though they had vacated and believed the bank had taken possession.
The term “zombie title” metaphorically refers to the idea that the title of the property is in a state of limbo, neither fully owned by the homeowner nor the bank. The property is stuck in a legal and financial purgatory, hence the association with the term “zombie” – something that is neither alive nor dead.
The concept gained attention as media outlets and real estate professionals began discussing and highlighting the issue. Over time, “zombie title” became a recognized term within the real estate industry to describe these specific circumstances where a property is abandoned by the homeowner but remains in their name due to an incomplete foreclosure process.
Why Do Zombie Titles Occur?
Zombie titles typically occur when lenders initiate foreclosure proceedings on a home but then decide not to complete the process. This can happen for several reasons:
- The cost of foreclosure might outweigh the value of the property, particularly in cases where the property has been neglected or is located in an area with declining property values.
- The bank may be trying to avoid the responsibility of maintaining the property, including the associated costs of upkeep, property taxes, and potential liability for injuries that occur on the property.
Unfortunately, many homeowners, under the assumption that the foreclosure process is inevitable, vacate their homes prematurely. This can result in the property becoming an “abandoned property” that remains legally tied to the homeowner.
Scenario 1: Cost of Foreclosure Outweighing Property Value
Let’s take the example of the Smiths, who purchased a home in a small mining town.
Unfortunately, the local mine, which was the primary employer in the town, shut down due to environmental concerns. As a result, many residents were forced to leave the town in search of new jobs, causing property values to plummet drastically. When the Smiths failed to keep up with their mortgage payments due to job loss, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings.
However, the cost of the legal process, combined with the greatly reduced value of the property and the lack of potential buyers, led the bank to halt the foreclosure process. This left the Smiths in the unfortunate situation of being tethered to a property they believed they had left behind.
Scenario 2: Bank Avoiding Maintenance Responsibilities
The Johnson family lived in an older home in a hurricane-prone region. When they fell behind on their mortgage payments, the bank started foreclosure proceedings. Before the process was completed, a major hurricane hit the region, causing significant damage to the property. The bank, upon assessing the situation, realized the cost of repairing the property, maintaining it, paying the property taxes, and the potential liability for any injuries caused by the hurricane damage would be much higher than any potential return on the property. To avoid these costs, the bank decided not to complete the foreclosure process. As a result, the Johnsons, who had evacuated due to the hurricane and never returned, unknowingly remained the legal owners of the now derelict property.
In both scenarios, the homeowners believed they had lost their homes and moved on, unaware that they were still legally responsible for them. These circumstances illustrate the complex issues related to zombie titles and the difficulties homeowners face in these situations.
What Are Some Legal Issues with Zombie Titles?
There are numerous legal issues that can arise from a zombie title scenario:
- Ongoing Liability: The person named on the title is legally responsible for the property, including property taxes, homeowner association fees, and fines for local ordinance violations.
- Credit Damage: Because the foreclosure is often still technically in process, the homeowner’s credit score continues to be negatively affected.
- Potential for Fraud: Vacant properties can become targets for fraudulent schemes, such as illegal renting or selling of the property.
- Neglect and Decay: Abandoned properties can fall into disrepair, reducing neighborhood property values and contributing to blight.
Scenario 1: Ongoing Liability
Imagine a homeowner, Mr. Adams, who abandoned his property after being served a foreclosure notice. Unbeknownst to him, the bank discontinued the foreclosure process.
Meanwhile, the local government continued to assess property taxes and the homeowner’s association imposed fees for neglected landscaping and upkeep. Mr. Adams, still the legal owner but unaware of this, continued to accrue significant debts that he was legally obligated to pay.
Scenario 2: Credit Damage
Ms. Thompson left her property after receiving a foreclosure notice from her bank. However, the bank did not finalize the foreclosure, leaving her as the legal owner. As far as her credit report was concerned, she was still in foreclosure proceedings, causing her credit score to continue plummeting. When she later tried to rent an apartment, her application was rejected due to her poor credit rating.
Scenario 3: Potential for Fraud
A scammer noticed an empty house in Mr. Green’s name. Using forged documents, the scammer posed as Mr. Green and rented out the property to unsuspecting tenants. This scam only came to light when Mr. Green, who thought his property had been foreclosed on years ago, was served a notice for income tax evasion for unreported rental income.
Scenario 4: Neglect and Decay
Mrs. Williams left her property due to a foreclosure notice. The bank, however, did not finalize the foreclosure, and the property became derelict. With overgrown vegetation, broken windows, and accumulating trash, the house became a neighborhood eyesore. This caused surrounding property values to decrease, affecting the community at large.
Each of these scenarios illustrates how the legal issues associated with zombie titles can lead to personal and community consequences, reinforcing the importance of seeking legal advice when faced with foreclosure.
Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with a Zombie Title?
If you find yourself in a situation with a potential zombie title, it’s crucial to get legal help. Understanding your rights and the complex processes surrounding foreclosures and property titles often requires professional help. A real estate lawyer can help you navigate this confusing situation, protect your rights, and potentially help you avoid the creation of a zombie title in the first place.
For any questions or legal assistance related to real estate and potential zombie titles, consider reaching out through LegalMatch. LegalMatch can connect you with a qualified real estate lawyer who has experience dealing with zombie titles and other complex property issues.
Don’t let a zombie title affect your financial future – get the right legal help through LegalMatch today.