My home is in foreclosure and someone boarded it up while I still live there. What should I do?

If the mortgage lender thinks you have abandoned your home during foreclosure, it might board it up. Here's what to do if that happens to you.

Question

I went out of state to visit my mother for a few weeks and just came home to discover that my house is totally boarded up with plywoodwindows, doors, the works. I can’t even get in. Did my mortgage lender do this? I am behind on my mortgage payments and in foreclosure. What should I do?

Answer

That sounds like the work of a property preservation company, acting on behalf of your mortgage servicer (the company that handles your account for the lender). Your servicer probably thought you abandoned the home. Sometimes homeowners who have fallen behind in mortgage payments simply walk away from their homes, leaving it to the servicer to take care of the lawn, fix broken windows, or make repairs, for example.

If you abandon the home—that is, you permanently move out—the lender (through the servicer) has the legal right to take certain steps to maintain the home and protect the property against potential harm. This is called “property preservation” in the mortgage industry. (In a few states, the lender might even expedite or “fast-track” a foreclosure if you abandon the home.)

But, in your situation, the lender shouldn’t have restricted your access to the house because you still live there. You have the right to remain in the home until a foreclosure is completed. (Learn more in Nolo’s article When Do You Have to Leave Your Home When It's in Foreclosure?)

How Property Preservation Works

When you fall behind in your home mortgage payments or go into foreclosure, one of the first things that will happen is that an inspector will go out to your home to find out if the place is occupied or vacant. If the inspector determines that the home is abandoned, the lender has the right to secure and maintain the home. Typically, the mortgage servicer is called upon to make sure this gets done. The servicer usually hires a property preservation company.

Unfortunately, property preservation workers sometimes go into currently occupied homes, cause damage, and/or take valuables. Some of the reported abuses that have been committed by property preservation workers are:

  • changing the locks on the wrong house
  • ripping out holes in walls (purportedly on a search for hazardous Chinese-made drywall), and
  • removing personal property, such as computers, clothes, paintings, electronics, and jewelry.

(Learn about how to protect your home and property from a property preservation company.)

Why Your House Was Boarded Up

The inspectors that determine whether homeowners have permanently left their properties often make mistakes. Generally, these types of inspections are quick and, in many cases, the inspector doesn’t even get out of his or her car. In your situation, it’s quite likely that the inspector simply got it wrong since you’ve been out of town and the house looked vacant. (Learn about steps you can take to ensure the lender doesn’t treat your occupied home as vacant.)

Once the inspector (mistakenly) determined your home was abandoned, the lender or servicer hired a property preservation company to board it upprobably in an attempt to protect it from vandals. In the past, boarding up a property usually involved covering the windows and sometimes doors with sheets of plywood, but now Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored entities that own or back many mortgages in the U.S.) has adopted a policy of using see-through polycarbonate "clear boards" to secure homes that are facing foreclosure. This change is mainly the result of certain local and state governments, including Ohio, outlawing the use of plywood on vacant properties. Even though clear boarding looks nicer than plywood, the effect on you is likely the same—you can't get into your home.

Getting Back Into Your Home

You should let your mortgage servicer know that you still live in the house and that it needs to let you into the property immediately. If the servicer won’t make arrangements to give you access to the home, you should consider hiring an attorney who can help you enforce your rights.

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