When a house is going through foreclosure, many laws start to take effect, and many parties are pulled in. The former homeowners, the new owners, real estate agents, the bank, insurers, and even law enforcement may have a role in the process. If you are an owner involved in a home foreclosure, you may wonder what items can be removed from the home, and what must stay put. In many cases it's hard to know. And if you're not careful about what you remove, you could get sued by the bank. Here's how it works: Personal property is anything that is not real estate, and you may take it with you. Fixtures, which are affixed to the land or to the house, are not personal property, but rather real estate. This means fixtures must stay with the house.
Here you'll learn how to tell whether something is a fixture and the reasons behind the rules, so you can stay on the right side of the law in this stressful time.
- If you are leaving a home in foreclosure, you may remove personal property but not fixtures.
- Fixtures include items that are built-in or fixed to a home or yard; these are real estate and must stay with the home.
- Personal property includes items that belong to the owner and are free-standing or free-hanging, and you may take these with you.
- Homeowners insurance companies will pursue people who vandalize or strip their homes while in foreclosure to make them pay for the damage.
Setting the Scene
When a house enters foreclosure, the owners have failed to pay their mortgage for a number of months and gone into default on their loan, which triggers the bank to reclaim the property. The exact process will vary from state to state, but needless to say it's not an easy one. Former owners are in a tough spot. They may have lived in the house for years, or decades even. In some cases they may have put a lot of time and money into making the space their own. This could include a wide range of upgrades like fresh paint, new plumbing, fancy appliances, window covering and drapes, and the list goes on. The owners may feel that much of this belongs to them, and in fact some of it might, but the law draws a line to protect the home from damage.
But that doesn't stop some former owners, who may be in need of quick cash (or angry at the bank for foreclosing), from from smashing walls to rip out wiring or copper pipes and selling them for scrap in back alleys. Of course, not all former owners are after revenge; some may simply wish to claim what's theirs. (Think of a pencil drawn chart etched into the doorway that tracks a child's height over the years.) If you are dealing with a foreclosure, make sure you know what can be removed before you take any action to destroy your home in the eyes of the law.
What Cannot Be Removed From a Foreclosed Home
If you are leaving a home in foreclosure, there are certain items you may not take with you. These items are assets called fixtures, and they are within the realm of real estate. These fixtures include:
- Cabinets and counters
- Built-in appliances such as stoves, microwaves fixed to the wall, dishwashers, etc.
- Furnaces and AC units
- Plumbing and copper pipes
- Romex or other electric wirings
- Solar panels
- Light fixtures and ceiling fans
- Doors and hardware
- Flooring, ceilings, and walls
- Windows and vents
- Medicine cabinets, sinks, tubs, toilets, and showers
- Sink drains and faucets
- Built-in shelving and bookcases
- The mailbox
- Porch swings and benches (if bolted to a beam or bolted down)
- Outdoor plants that are rooted (not potted plants)
- Fencing, and built-in pools and spas
Many of these items are clearly fixtures, but some may come as a surprise. Also, this is not the full list, as each state has its own way to define the term "fixture." The best way to tell if something is a fixture or not is whether it would leave any damage to the home (or yard) if you remove it. In some states, this standard is even too narrow. In New York, for instance, tire swings are fixtures, even though they may be simply looped around a branch with rope.
Fixtures are fixtures, no matter who paid for them. This means if you buy a home and do a full remodel, much of what you pay for and install will be part of the home for the next owner, should you ever decide to sell (or be forced out).
What Can Be Removed From a Foreclosed Home
When moving out, the former owners are entitled to remove all of the items they own before leaving, but not if they are fixtures. Here are some items you can remove without fearing legal action from the bank:
- Furniture, clothing, and common household items like dishes, pots and pans, etc.
- Mirrors that are free-hanging
- Artwork and photos from the walls
- Table lamps and floor lamps
- Pets and item made for them, such as dog houses and bird cages
- Window treatments, such as drapes or curtains, that can be taken down without damage
- Some free-standing plug-in appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, TVs, etc.
- Throw rugs
- Indoor plants
- Portable fans and heaters
If a former owner leaves behind any belongings that are not fixtures, the lender will seize those items. If the lender has to store them, the former owner could be charged for the cost to rent a storage unit.
Vandalizing Homes in Foreclosure
It should go without saying, but it's never allowed to spray paint the walls or windows with graphic images or tag the home in any other way. In some extreme cases, former owners have been known to turn on the water faucets and plug up the drains before they leave.
People who vandalize a home they are losing are not harming the bank by their bitter actions. Instead, they are harming the next people who move in, who have pinched, saved, and worked hard to buy a home priced at the bottom of the market, "as is."
Of course, not only are the vandals harming the new owners, but people who trash their homes are also hurting themselves, as vandalism is against the law.
The Backlash From Vandalizing or Stripping a Foreclosed Home
Homeowners insurance companies will pursue and prosecute people who vandalize or strip their homes while in foreclosure.
When the bank receives the title to the home during the foreclosure process, many banks submit a claim to the current insurance company to cover any damage and missing real property items or fixtures.
Since insurers have to cover this claim from their own funds, they will then go after the former owners, and with good reason, because the company has faced a loss due to the former owners' wrongful actions. It's then their sole focus to force the former owner to pay for the loss.
When seeking payment due to damaged or missing items, insurers will stop at nothing to collect payment, even if it means suing former owners to the fullest extent of the law. They can even garnish your wages and seize your bank accounts after a judgment in their favor.
Although losing your home can make you angry or distraught, you will have to pay more in the long run to cover any damages that you caused to lower its value. The best course of action when you're ready to vacate the home is to know the law and leave fixtures in place.