Abandoned Buildings

Abandoned building in Caswell County, NC This is a picture of a building in Caswell County, NC.  This house is right on NC-86, between Yanceyville and the Virginia border.  And I wonder how houses can be abandoned and just fall apart like this.  Things like this have been bouncing around in my head ever since high school.  I think that there is going to be an explosion of abandoned subdivisions, strip malls, and suburbs, and it might be happening now with all of the foreclosures due to the economic crisis.  A person who sent in a letter to NPR’s Planet Money podcast/blog said that he would never pay down the principal on his mortage because if diaster struck, he could just walk away and all that would happen would be his bad credit for 7 years.  He’s basically paying rent payments for his house and would be able to walk away without having sunk hundreds of thousands of extra dollars into his house when he feels that he doesn’t need to. I don’t know whether or not I agree with that notion, but it is interesting to think about.  But going back to an earlier point, how can a house fall apart like this?  I must assume that this building couldn’t have had a mortgage on it, because I doubt that a bank would have let it deteriorate like this.  Perhaps something catastrophic happened to this property, causing the owner to just give up and the bank not try to do anything to it, but for some reason that doesn’t seem likely. Or if the owner didn’t have a mortgage on the house, the owner may have just walked away and then there is no one who’s responsible for this place after the owner.  In some places a homeowner’s association might have some say over this sort of thing, but are there any laws about abandoned buildings?  Can a local government reposses and auction a house after a determination that its abanonded?  And how would they determine if its abandoned? All of this makes my head hurt.


Ben Brumfield - Feb 5, 2010

I’m familiar with the area, since my family has been in Pittsylvania Co, VA for a very long time, and still has land there. (In fact I drive NC-86 a few times a year from RDU.) To answer your question, there are altogether different forces at work in the area than those operating in the suburbs of Tucson. Eighty years ago, around the time when the house you photographed was new, this house was probably the home of a farmer, who likely owned an average size tobacco farm of 50-200 acres. Also on that farm would be a fairly new frame-built tenant house for a sharecropper or tenant farmer, and probably the log cabin the farmer had lived in before building the house in the picture. All of the houses–except perhaps the old log one–were occupied by families. Thirty years later, post-War prosperity had allowed the farmer to build a new brick house with central heat, and both his and the tenant’s children had moved away. The house in the photo is rented out, and the old tenant house is either vacant or occupied by the now-elderly couple who live there alone. Twenty years after that, the land and tobacco quota is rented to someone else, and the retired farmer lives in their brick house. The old tenant house is vacant, and the house in your photo is no longer worth the effort of renting, as tenants can find more modern housing and those that can’t are more trouble than they’re worth. The empty house is maintained for a decade or so, though less aggressively as the retirees become less mobile. By now, the property has changed hands, passing to out-of-town children, retirees looking to move to the country, or somebody else who sees a smallish-but-pleasant fifty-year-old brick house on a lot of land, with a few outbuildings and a couple of dilapidated old houses. If any mortgage was involved on the property, the house in the photo was valued at zero, and I’ll bet that if it had been well maintained it would still have constituted a tiny fraction of the appraised value of the property. If it had been maintained, it still would be expensive to heat, with antiquated wiring and inconvenient plumbing. This is far less attractive than the housing a trailer or modular home could offer. And who would live there? The mechanization of tobacco farming in the 1970s greatly reduced rural population density and the 1990s demise of the tobacco and cotton mill economy has emptied the area of its young. It’s a lovely photo, by the way. I hope you keep putting them up.