ATLANTIC CITY — As a single man, Steven Hunter Jr., 27, could afford his three-bedroom, 2½-bath, corner lot house in the resort because he bought it out of foreclosure.
Hunter, a 2010 Oakcrest High School graduate, lived with his parents for a couple of years to save money for a down payment.
He spent seven months searching for the perfect home and found what he was looking for on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The South Jersey Gas employee was determined not to buy a house that needed more than cosmetic fixes. He purchased a house in August that was built in 2006 for $85,900.
“The word foreclosure turns a lot of people away,” said Hunter, who added the price decreased each of the three times he saw the house. “If it wasn’t in foreclosure, I might not have been able to afford it.”
For five months in 2015 and the first six months of 2016, Atlantic County led the nation in foreclosure activity for metropolitan areas with more than 200,000 residents. One in every 230 homes in the county had some foreclosure activity in May 2015, according to real estate data company RealtyTrac.
During the past four years, the picture in Atlantic County has improved considerably. One in 933 housing units in the county had some type of foreclosure filing in October, according to a report from ATTOM Data Solutions.
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Experts say the county’s situation improved because the overall economy improved. People from inside and outside the area have had more money available to take homes off banks’ hands, they say.
Foreclosed homes can have a deleterious effect on a neighborhood. If there are enough “zombie” properties in one area — homes or other buildings in foreclosure that have been abandoned by former owners and are not maintained — that can degrade a neighborhood, lowering property values.
If left vacant long enough, they can become magnets for vandalism and crime, all of which makes it even more difficult for a community to recover, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson has said.
In 2015, Atlantic County chose Community Champions of Melbourne, Florida, to run a vacant-and-foreclosed property registry to help municipalities get maintenance done on empty homes.
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Nineteen of the 23 municipalities in the county signed up for the service, which now operates under the name ProChamps. The exceptions are Folsom, Longport, Margate and Pleasantville.
The number of active registered properties in foreclosure in Atlantic County dropped from 4,908 in September 2018 to 2,802 this past September, a 43% decrease, said Ted Mucellin, relationship manager for ProChamps.
“Larger economic trends can of course impact this number at any time,” Mucellin said. “But, currently, our program is aiding the removal of these properties off bank ledgers and into active use.”
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With a positive economic outlook by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, the county has seen property values increase by 7% this year with a projection by Zillow of an additional 4% increase next year, Levinson said.
When Atlantic County was the top metropolitan area in the nation for foreclosures, those numbers were artificially high, said Michael Affuso, director of government relations for the New Jersey Bankers Association.
The county’s numbers were so bad because of the 2007-09 recession, distressed properties delayed by previous backlogs and moratoriums and the 2014 Atlantic City casino closings.
“The resolution of old foreclosures plus the economic improvement has led to the decrease” in the number of foreclosures, Affuso said.
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Shawn O’Brien, president of the Atlantic City & County Board of Realtors, said the improved economy has given banks more incentive to sell foreclosed homes and to make homeowners work harder to stay in their homes instead of walking away.
“Before, when they were not worth a lot, the banks were holding onto them because they couldn’t get rid of them, or just dumping them,” O’Brien said. “The banks are being more proactive, and the homeowners are being more proactive because they feel their houses are worth more.”
During the recession and when Atlantic City casinos were closing, investors mostly were interested in buying foreclosed properties because only they had the money to not only purchase houses but to either fix them up, or demolish them and build new, said Georgeanna “Tracey” Newmones, a real estate broker in Atlantic County.
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Banks have been arranging for painting and cleanup of properties and turning on the utilities when they put foreclosed homes on the market to be sold, Newmones said.
“You have to compete,” said Newmones, who added banks are fixing up their foreclosed properties to attract the same buyers who are looking at houses that have been flipped.
Even though Hunter’s house was ready for him to move into, there are some minor repairs he will be making. He wants to paint, patch holes in the walls and look into adding hardwood floors upstairs.
“The word foreclosure may scare a lot of people away, but there are many foreclosures that are nice. It might not need to be fixed up,” Hunter said.