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Empty Houses: When it becomes your turn to feel the downturn 

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My children recently enjoyed an unseasonably warm December afternoon by running and playing games in the backyard of our northwest Redmond home.

As their screams and laughter grew louder, I stuck my head out the sliding glass door to say, "Quiet down. You'll bother the neighbors."

But then I remembered. The two houses that border our backyard now stand empty. There is no one to ask to throw a stray ball back over the fence. No sounds of yard work or family life to break up the afternoon monotony.

As much as I enjoy tranquility, this silence around us is both strange and sad. Once noisy and alive with the sounds of kids at play and lawn mowers at work, my neighborhood is starting to feel more like a ghost town. There's something a little haunting about being surrounded by vacant 2,300-square foot homes. You look up at the windows and almost expect to see shadows. Each empty house serves as a reminder of a battle lost or a dream shattered.


Sure, we can look at all the graphs and statistics to get the depressing facts of Central Oregon's housing market crash. But the bigger punch in the gut comes from driving around neighborhoods like mine. You can see a yard where a neighbor carefully planted trees and flowers now being overtaken by weeds. The screaming "Price Reduced" signs only add to the feelings of desperation.

The houses in my subdivision were built in 2005 - when it seemed like everyone was upgrading to a new home and every construction worker was working overtime to keep up with the frenzy. I remember driving around this and other neighborhoods under construction and asking my husband, "Where are all these people coming from?"

"Where are they working to be able to afford these homes?"

There was so much construction activity that people had even set up a little business to sell water bottles and refreshments to all the workers in the area.

Our subdivision is the last development on the northern edge of town, bordering fields that would have born houses had the housing boom continued another two years. Homes on the eastern side of the subdivision stand on the edge of Redmond's Dry Canyon. This part of Redmond, north of the Catholic Church, changed from an area of small farms and ranches to a Mecca of middle class subdivisions during the boom.

The homes in our subdivision are comfortable and spacious, but not fancy. Built at a time of travertine tile, stainless steel appliances and marble countertops, our house is rather plain Jane. And as we're discovering by the fast-fading exterior paint, the malfunctioning irrigation system and a few other problems, it was put together with a degree of haste.

We moved here in February of 2007, the second owners of our home.

Through the better part of the housing boom, we had been content to stay in our 1970s era home we purchased in 1998. Our mortgage was manageable enough that I could feel good about staying at home with our children. We had enough equity to feel secure if we suddenly had to move.

But the birth of our third child left us overwhelmed and cramped for space, and, I must admit, I longed for something new and clean. We had plenty of realtors call us over the past couple years to get us to list our canyon-front property. Why not take advantage of our equity and upgrade?

And here's where we made our biggest mistake. We found our new home and purchased it before we sold the old house. We figured it would only take a couple months to sell a 16,000-square-foot lot on the Dry Canyon.

No one was more surprised than our real estate agent to find that through the spring and summer of 2007, only a handful of people would even look at our old house. The only offers we had disappeared as soon as we tried to counteroffer. By September of 2007, we joined the ranks of accidental landlords and pulled our house off the market to wait for things to improve. Obviously, we're still waiting.

As we moved into our new neighborhood on a sunny February day, we were greeted by kids and families riding bikes down the street and throwing a football across the cul-de-sac. The neighborhood, I was told, had lots of fun family gatherings. It took some getting used to, being part of a neighborhood with so many kids running around, but my kids were excited to find playmates.

We were only in our house for about four months before the first "For Sale" sign went up in the neighborhood. After several price reductions that house finally sold with a lease to own option. The "For Sale" and the "For Rent" signs keep coming and the other home owners haven't been as lucky. One little girl who played with my daughter came by one day last spring and said, "My Dad is going to let the bank have our house." Another neighbor told us he stopped paying his mortgage after he and his wife had their income cut. He found a house to rent for significantly cheaper than his monthly mortgage.

Every month that we make a mortgage payment, I feel like we're staying alive in some kind of real estate edition of Survivor. Except the only prize is to keep paying a mortgage on a home that is now worth about $65,000 less than what we paid for it less than two years ago.

I know that in time things will turn around and I will eventually meet new neighbors. For now, I can't help but look at the empty houses and say, "We paved over pastureland for this?"

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