Sharon Ermel Spadaccini, of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors in New Hope, was curious about how RealtyTrac separates zombies from the rest of the foreclosure data.
So she asked.
The answer: the U.S. Postal Service.
"RealtyTrac gathers information from the banks when they send out the initial default notice to the homeowner," she was told. Then it waits two months, contacts the Postal Service for change-of-address or other information, and arrives at the number of homes vacated based on mail delivery.
Two search categories are used:
"National change of address," which determines whether a person has moved and provided a forwarding address.
"Delivery service verification," under which, if delivery is being made to a property, the Postal Service will stop after a period of time when mail has piled up.
Although 6,101 zombies look like a lot, the numbers have declined, RealtyTrac told Spadaccini, "because homeowners now know it takes the banks years for them to be removed once a mortgage default notice is served."
So these homeowners know that as long as they pay for their water and sewer and electric service, "they can work the system and stay as long as they can until they are physically forced out, all the while for free," she was told.
"You do not automatically lose your home," Colmar bankruptcy lawyer William D. Schroeder Jr. advises his clients.
For real estate agents, that makes it tough to figure out which houses are zombies. It took me several attempts to find one.
Philadelphia is a tough nut. I asked the city, a mortgage-counseling agency, and a bankruptcy lawyer if they could sift out the zombies from the long dead, and they could not.
But the city's vacant-house problem is perennial. A Temple University study in 1995 put the number at close to 30,000, many created, it said, when homeowners die and their suburban-dwelling children won't deal with the properties.
No matter how many there are, the fact is some neighborhoods that took a big equity hit when the housing bubble burst have one or two zombies bringing down the values of those homes for which mortgages are being paid.
David Lauder inspects Philadelphia-area zombie houses for banks.
"I could give you horror stories about the condition of some of them," he said.
Schroeder cited one in Dresher, "an extremely nice neighborhood, and [the house] has been sitting vacant for over two years, deteriorating."
"A travesty," he said.