April 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Laura Berman

Empty homes dot Oakland County's upscale suburbs

This house in Bloomfield Township was priced down to $135,000 from $340,000 after the sellers had to walk away from their mortgage. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Numbers don't lie: They tell unpleasant stories, including new census numbers pinpointing high vacancy rates in some of Oakland County's most elite suburbs.

The half-secret behind many of the well-maintained facades and manicured lawns of some of the area's most lavish properties is that nobody's home.

Birmingham (9.4 percent) and Bloomfield Hills (10.2 percent) showed vacancy rates significantly higher than 10 years ago. Those rates are similar to Detroit's vacancy rate a decade ago.

Tiny Lake Angelus, with 132 households in north Oakland County, is historically a pocket of the county's wealth. Always private, the census takers also found that 13.2 percent of the residences were unoccupied. Vacancies in Farmington Hills were 6.8 percent, up from 3.3 percent in 2000.

"One of the striking things is that the foreclosure crisis has hit parts of Oakland County that we would have thought are untouchable," said Andy Meisner, Oakland County treasurer.

Vacancy is a distress signal and communities try to hide the red flags of emptiness. Owners — even banks — maintain the lawns and exteriors, and when they don't, neighbors call the city.

"Even our blight is better," quipped Annabel Cohen, a Bloomfield Township homeowner who hasn't noticed any deterioration.

Others aren't as chipper, saying that as the crisis goes on, homeowners are more likely to be as distressed as their unsold properties. "Someone who bought a house for $1.7 million, moved out, and knows the most they'll get is $700,000 doesn't see the necessity to spend more money keeping it up," said Mike Sher, an associate broker with Max Broock Real Estate in Bloomfield Hills.

"Homeowners are getting weary. They're fed up," said Sher, who specializes in distressed properties — short sales and foreclosures — which are now more than 50 percent of Oakland County home sales.

He described a current Bloomfield Hills sale: elderly couple moving into assisted living, vacant home with a $280,000 mortgage, and a rock bottom sale price of $135,000.

"They didn't think it would be right to walk away," Sher said.

Lower prices are driving other downturns: The circa 2005 craze of "staging" homes professionally has faded, as real estate agents and owners scrimp on costs.

In Birmingham, Robert Bruner has been city manager for seven weeks and said the city is pressed to maintain property right now.

"We have to be vigilant," he said, citing a need for more staff. "When times are tough, there's pressure to lower our standards, but I think that's the time when you maintain standards."

Weir-Manuel real estate agent Rebecca Meisner has clients who sold a $450,000 home in Bloomfield Township to buy a $70,000 house in Royal Oak.

"The city spent $153 last summer mowing the lawn when it was in foreclosure," said Meisner, who is unrelated to Oakland's treasurer.

Birmingham's population increased by 4.3 percent over the decade, as developers built condos and town houses. When the boom busted, vacancies almost doubled.

Real estate agents aren't necessarily surprised by the hard facts: They've become accustomed to short sales — when the seller owes more than the house is worth and the bank helps close the deal — and foreclosures since prices plummeted in 2007.

In the raw cold of early spring, no lawns earn bragging rights.

But if you want to stay ahead of economic forecasts, keep an eye on the spiffiness of landscaping and lawns.

"This is going to be an interesting spring," Sher said.

lberman@detnews.com

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