The number of U.S. houses left vacant because of foreclosure fell 43 percent in the third quarter compared with the same period last year, yet New Jersey's share of these so-called zombies keeps it at the top of a national list.
RealtyTrac, an Irvine, Calif., real estate information company that monitors foreclosures, reports that the number of these zombies - houses vacated by their owners at the start of foreclosures that were never completed - rose 29 percent in New Jersey year-over-year in the third quarter.
New Jersey had 3,997 zombies, compared with 3,108 in third quarter 2014. Florida was next with 3,512, followed by New York with 3,365.
The Garden State generally has a three-year timeline for moving foreclosures through the courts, but high volume has exacerbated the situation. In the first quarter, the state's timeline was 1,152 days, tied with New York for longest in the country.
Nationwide, "what is surprising is there are so many vacant homes where the homeowners do not appear to be in financial distress - with only 3 percent in foreclosure or bank-owned [repossessed] and only 6 percent that are under water," said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.
In Pennsylvania, the number of zombies fell 43 percent year over year, to 567, mirroring the national trend.
Some South Jersey real estate agents question how RealtyTrac arrived at its numbers.
"I haven't seen an increase in vacant properties," said Mike Lentz of Keller Williams Real Estate in Sewell.
Since the first of the year, 322 properties have sold at Gloucester County sheriff sale, Lentz said, and there were 376 bank-owned listings.
Though he said he could pinpoint some specific cases of zombies, "I do not see this at mass scale."
Camden County had the highest number of vacant houses in foreclosure in South Jersey and the region, as well, with 558, up from 420 in 2014's third quarter.
"I'm seeing more at the higher end, however," said Val Nunnenkamp of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors in Marlton.
He recently sold a zombie for $655,000. It sold originally in the $900,000s and had been vacant for three years. Another zombie sale is pending in the mid-$500,000s, for a house that first sold for $775,000.
Both are in Voorhees, where Nunnenkamp lives, so "I've started seeing more abandoned homes as I have been driving around."
Delaware County's 70 zombies represented the highest level in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs in the third quarter, RealtyTrac said.
Philadelphia itself had only 122 zombies in foreclosure, down 42 percent from third quarter 2014.
"Cash investors are snatching them up before they're on the market and renting them," said Carol McCann of Re/Max Millennium in Fox Chase.
Said Donald Sepety, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors in Collegeville: "We just settled one in Chester County that sold for $507,000, with 11 offers on the property, all qualified and many for cash."
Cash offers and investors abound in the market, even in counties such as Chester, Bucks, and Montgomery that have very low zombie numbers.
Though investors typically look for lower-priced houses that can be flipped easily, "higher prices don't seem to scare these people anymore," said Sepety, who described the volume of distressed houses as "consistent" in the years since the housing boom turned to bust in 2007.
He is handling two zombie sales in Chester County: one in Spring City for $200,000; the other in East Vincent for $300,000.
Lenders typically sell such houses as is. But the East Vincent property has gotten a new roof and was repainted.
"I was shocked," said Sepety, suggesting that the lender might be trying to discourage investors.
Frank Dolski of Coldwell Banker Hearthside Real Estate in Lahaska said he just showed a zombie in Doylestown, listed at $166,000 in a neighborhood of $425,000 to $475,000 houses, to four different investor clients.
"It has mold on the walls from the basement to the second floor," he said. "The power was shut off and for two years, the sump pump didn't operate and the basement kept flooding in heavy rain."
Yet the listing agent has received 20 bids, he said.