Up in Smoke: House Fire Reveals Huge Marijuana Operation

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marijuana growers reche canyonIn a scene straight out of the stoner flick "Pineapple Express," firefighters in California's Riverside County discovered a massive pot-grow operation in a burning, vacant home on Friday.

Located in the unincorporated area of Reche Canyon, the large rural home lit up soon after midnight and took firefighters three hours to extinguish, ABC News-Los Angeles reports. No one was found in the home and no injuries were reported.

When the blaze finally was out, authorities entered the 4,000-square-foot home to discover that nearly three-quarters of the first floor was being used to grow the illicit plant. Most of the marijuana was destroyed by the flames.

Police are still investigating the cause of the fire, but said that squatters may have had something to do with it, especially since the house has long sat vacant.



The incident is the latest in what some experts call a budding trend: The vast inventory of foreclosures and otherwise vacant homes in states hit hard by the housing crisis are proving fertile ground for marijuana grow operations.

Think we're blowing smoke? In Nevada, which suffered greatly from a run-up in speculative buying during the housing bubble, the discovery of pot-grow homes has risen dramatically. In 2005, when prices were still on a meteoric rise, there were 18 reported pot sites and 1,000 confiscated plants in the state, the Los Angeles Times reported. In 2010, there were 153 recorded grow operations and 13,000 plants found.

With an enormous surge in foreclosures in states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona, vacant homes and urban blight are not far behind. When bank-owned homes fail to sell at foreclosure, vandals and squatters can run amok. As these foreclosures languish on the market, neighboring homes suffer from property value declines, exacerbating sellers' problems in an already stagnant market.

As a proposed stopgap, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke uncharacteristically weighed in on the issue of vacant homes this week by suggestion that more foreclosures be converted into rental properties. That way, the thinking goes, at least lenders recoup some of their losses and prevent further damage to the properties by vandals and -- possibly -- illicit-drug farmers.

Also see:
Squatters Claim $2.7 Million Texas Mansion

Vacant House Targeted by Squatters, Scammers and Thieves
Realtors' Latest Challenge: A Surge of Squatters


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Up in Smoke: House Fire Reveals Huge Marijuana Operation

Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +32%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,273
Unemployment: 7.6%
% home value down from peak: -12.42%

Columbus hit its median home value peak in the first quarter of 2006. Since that time, home values have declined a relatively modest 12.4%, including a 3.4% drop last year. By the second quarter of 2012, Fiserv projects that homes in the area will lose another 2.3% of their value. Median family income in Columbus is above the national average, and unemployment is just 8%, a full percentage point less than the national average. Despite the fact that things don’t look so bad for the Columbus housing market compared to other regions, the city foreclosure rate still increased by 32% last quarter. A total of 2,273 homes were foreclosed upon during that time.

See foreclosed homes for sale in Columbus, Ohio

Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +35%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,743
Unemployment: 11.2%
% home value down from peak: -59.3%

There is arguably no single housing market with a worse long-term outlook than southwest Florida, and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers region is the worst of these. Housing prices in the have already dropped 59.3% from their peak, and Fiserv project them to decline another 12.2% by the second quarter of next year. According to Corelogic, 47% of the homes in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area are worth less than their mortgages because of declining values. Foreclosures have increased 35% in the last quarter, and with no sign of recovery in the immediate future that trend may worsen in the coming months.

See foreclosed homes for sale in Fort Myers, Fla.

Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +36%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,348
Unemployment: 11%
% home value down from peak: -59.1%

As of last month, Vallejo-Fairfield had the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with one out of every 51 homes being foreclosed upon in the third quarter of this year. This was a 36% increase in foreclosures from the second quarter. Home values have dropped 7.5% in the past year and are projected by Fiserv to drop an additional 4.9% by the second quarter of 2012. A remarkable 53% of homes in the region are worth less than their mortgages. This is the seventh highest rate of homes with underwater mortgages in the country.

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Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +41%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,174
Unemployment: 14.9%
% home value down from peak: -54%

Fresno’s economy has continued to suffer since housing prices began to drop in 2006. It currently has an unemployment rate of 14.9%, which is one of the highest in the country. Home prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006 and have been decreasing since. The metropolitan area also has one of the highest underwater mortgage rates in the country, with a negative equity share of nearly 46%. In the last year alone home prices have dropped 11%.

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Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +44%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,039
Unemployment: 11.6%
% home value down from peak: -53.4%

More than 1,000 homes were foreclosed upon in the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville region last quarter, a 44% increase from the previous three-month period. Nearly half of the region’s homes are worth less than their mortgages. With Fiserv projecting home values would drop 7.1% by next year and another 4.9% the year after that, things may just get even worse.

See foreclosed homes for sale in Titusville, Fla.

Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +49%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,559
Unemployment: 9.5%
% home value down from peak: -39.3%

Jacksonville has experienced a quarterly increase in foreclosures of nearly 50%. Home prices have dropped 39.1% since their peak in the second quarter of 2006. The metropolitan area’s negative equity share also exceeds 46%, making it among the worst in the country for underwater mortgages. Home prices are expected to decrease another 10.7% by the second quarter of 2012.

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Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +55%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,956
Unemployment: 8.7%
% home value down from peak: -15.9%

Nearly 2,000 homes were foreclosed upon during the last quarter, a 55% increase from the previous three months. Unlike many of the regions on this list with accelerating home foreclures, Cincinnati’s local economy is doing fairly well. Home prices are only down 15.9% from their peak in the first quarter of 2006. Unemployment and median family income are both better than average. One possible explanation for this recent increase may be that nearly a third of the total decline in home value since the peak has occurred in the past 12 months.

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Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +57%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,673
Unemployment: 11%
% home value down from peak: -51.4%

The Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice metropolitan area has seen the third largest increase in the country in foreclosures in the third quarter. However, only 1,673 homes out of the 311,475 on the market were foreclosed upon. The housing market has suffered a great deal since housing prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006. Since then, overall home prices have dropped 51.4%.

See foreclosed homes for sale in Venice, Fla.

Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +67%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,003
Unemployment: 6.6%
% home value down from peak: -15.8%

The Boston metropolitan area is considered to have a particularly resilient housing market. In the most recent quarter, however, foreclosures have increased 67%. Home prices have only dropped 15.8% since they peaked in the third quarter of 2005. The national average is -32.3%. From the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2011, home prices dropped a mere 1.7%.

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Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +151%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,358
Unemployment: 6.9%
% home value down from peak: -14.9%

Albuquerque’s housing market, like Boston’s, is relatively healthy. While home prices decreased 32.3% nationally after their peak, home prices in Albuquerque only decreased 14.9% since they peaked. Regardless, foreclosures have recently skyrocketed. In the third quarter of 2011, the number of foreclosures in Albuquerque increased 151%. According to New Mexico Business Weekly, the lack of job creation in the area has been a major contributor to this problem.

See foreclosed homes for sale in Albuquerque, N.M.

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