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Foreclosure costs higher in summer
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With one of the highest foreclosure rates in the region, Newton County and Covington code enforcement offices are kept busy with complaints about vacant homes and the warmer weather only increases issues.

County and city officials are forced to devote more time and resources to tracking down owners responsible for the upkeep, and Covington spent around $90,000 in 2011 to maintain properties, research ownership and file liens on those properties so the city can then recoup costs, according to Jim Berry, Covington's head of code enforcement.

"As far as foreclosures go, they are the biggest issue I deal with," Berry said foreclosed properties account for about 50 percent of the complaints to his office.

Covington requires residents to keep their property clean of garbage and free of weeds or grass more than 12 inches tall.

When complaints are received, Berry inspects the property.

If it is found to be in violation, Berry files a request with the Newton County Tax Office to determine the responsible property owner, a process made more difficult by the slicing up and bundling of mortgages for investment purposes.

The citations are mailed to the recipient's last known address and published in local newspapers. The citation and public notice give the recipient notification of a court hearing.

If the property owner fails to show up at court, a lien for the clean up amount is filed through the Newton County Superior Court.

Berry said owners of properties under foreclosure often are not aware that they are responsible for the upkeep - leaving the county or city to use its resources to track down and charge owners.

"Our biggest problem is when we can't contact people," said Berry.
Foreclosed properties make this problem even worse.

"The people who have to experience it are no doubt done with the properties at that point," Berry said. "The problem I face is they say that the bank or some other institution is now in charge of the property when in reality, until the foreclosure is complete, the former owners are still held accountable for the property."

The properties that cost the city the most are those that have structures that must be demolished.

Last year, a commercial foreclosed property on Washington Street had a structure that needed to be demolished, which cost the city about $30,000.

However, the city has been able to recover this amount through the lien. Unlike the county, the city of Covington includes more than $100,000 in its annual budget to cover liens like these.

Warm seasons bring more complaints on unkempt, foreclosed properties, says Newton County Code Enforcement Coordinator Pamela Maxwell.

"During the spring and summer, the complaints increase slightly due to high grass violations," says Maxwell.

However, Covington Police Chief Steve Cotton says that the properties have not caused much headache for his department.

"We have received calls about homes being broken into, but I wouldn't say it was a very big problem," says Cotton. "Mostly, it is the stealing of the air conditioning units from outside the home."

Cotton says the activity is not as common now as it was "when the economy first started going down" and has leveled off.

According to numbers released by RealtyTrac in March, one out of every 184 housing units in Newton County has been filed for foreclosure. In Covington, the number is even lower at one out of every 194 housing units.

The only surrounding county with a rate worse than Newton County is Rockdale County - where one out of every 168 housing units has been filed for foreclosure. However, Newton County has almost 15,000 more residents than Rockdale County, so the number of total foreclosures in Newton is higher.