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Prying Off the Plywood from Vacant Properties

(Editor's note: This select print feature originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of MReport)

For as far back anyone in the property preservation industry can remember, the answer to how best to shore up doors and windows on vacant properties was always the same word: plywood. Even today, when a house goes vacant, the first solution is to literally board a place up.

The Easy Way Out Is an Easy Way In 

It’s easy to understand why. Plywood is cheap, and it’s readily available. You can buy sheets of it for a few bucks from any large hardware store, and those are pretty much everywhere. Plywood is also easy to handle. Just hold a piece up, pop a few bolts into it, and you have a temporary barrier against pests, weather, and intruders.

The reason for boarding up a property to begin with, of course, is because glass windows and sometimes flimsy doors are pretty easily broken through. If the wrong people get wind of a property being vacant, what’s going to keep them from getting inside? A pane of glass? Hardly. 

Even if you take away the prospect of intruders, what happens when there’s a storm and a branch hits a window? Now there’s broken glass letting in whatever natural elements come along, and that can quickly lead to rot, mold, and infestations.

So plywood over a window or other opening is better than gaping holes and leaving things to chance. The trouble, though, is that despite all of its seeming advantages, plywood is not that good of a deterrent. For one thing, plywood is easily broken through or removed. Pests and other invasive animals can easily chew and dig through it, and anyone with a pry bar, a screwdriver, or even a strong enough kick can quickly make an opening. Over time, plywood warps and deteriorates and ends up looking terrible—and some properties can sit vacant for anywhere from several months to multiple years. 

A Factor in Neighborhood Blight 

More than anything, though, the problem with boarding up a vacant property is that the boards make the property stand out in the wrong way. Whenever you throw plywood up on a vacant property, regardless of the community it’s in, plywood puts a big red X on that property. It immediately becomes a beacon for squatters, drug users, and thieves who break in to steal appliances or copper wiring because plywood makes it very apparent that no one is home, and no one will be for a long time. 

Aesthetically, of course, plywood just doesn’t look very good. Even when you put it up brand new, it still looks like cheap wood where a window or door should be. And let’s face it; nobody wants the property next door to them to be boarded with plywood. For one thing, no one wants to look out their own windows and see that; and for another, it’s bad for neighborhood property values to have boards up on the block. Some pretty depressing data shows that properties sitting next to plywood-boarded houses suffer in value.

This, of course, affects investors and mortgage servicers too. It’s hard to sell a house with boards on all the windows because, frankly, a prospective owner occupant has a hard time envisioning his or her future house without the plywood attached.

And despite what a lot of people outside the housing industry might think, banks and servicers don’t want to own abandoned, boarded-up houses. They want to sell the properties, preferably to someone who will live there. That gets a lot harder to do when the place looks terrible due to plywood and has, in plenty of cases, become a destination for unpleasantness. 

Beyond property values and money, there’s a very real safety factor at play for neighbors. Think about it—if you were to live next to a big red X of an abandoned property, you stand a good chance of that house having unwanted visitors, whether people or animals, hanging around just a few feet from you and your family.

That’s not alarmism either. Smart Growth America, in fact, once found that vacant properties generate nearly three times the number of calls for drugs and twice the calls about theft as occupied properties. And by the way, all those calls are a significant drain on local police, fire, and ambulance services; and those calls just pass more costs on to taxpayers.

So, what can be done about this? Well, fortunately, there are some very good alternatives available for mortgage servicers and property preservation companies that can keep a property safer and even keep it from looking abandoned at all.

Strength in Steel 

One solution popping up is 14-gauge steel door and window casings. Steel is a huge theft deterrent. Yes, it does make it apparent that no one is living at the property, but it’s still a steel wall between the bad guys and the inside. Intruders see it and pretty much know to move on to the next place, which is probably boarded over with plywood.

Steel, of course, is not the ideal solution for all communities. But it’s becoming more common in higher crime areas, where break-ins and property theft of items and materials left inside a building are more likely. We’ve seen this solution work extremely well in major urban areas around the whole country, in fact. 

Despite how daunting it might sound to have to work with steel, the truth is, the professionals who install the barriers can do it fast and properly. Steel casings go up on the front and rear doors and over all the windows, and the system works on a rental basis. In other words, the company putting up the barriers owns the steel. They come and put the steel screens up and secure them in place, and those steel panels stay in place until the property is sold or conveyed to the investor. Then the company comes by and removes the steel panels without leaving anything in place to even suggest a wall of steel was once there. Remember, though, that steel casings are not always the ideal solution, depending on the community. Some communities would very much rather not see any houses look as if no one is living there, even if the security system in place is extremely hard to get through.

An Eye Toward Aesthetics with Polycarbonate 

In these areas, another potential solution is polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is a clear plastic that, similar to plywood, is available in large sheets. Property preservation companies looking to preserve the image that a property is still inhabited are more often using polycarbonate to replace glass in windows.

There are multiple providers of polycarbonate around the country. The material comes in large sheets that installers cut to size and install, and then if the eventual new owners want to keep them in, they can. 

The intention is to make the property look as if someone lives there, thus deterring break-ins before they cross anyone’s mind. Since the polycarbonate looks more like traditional windows, this solution also helps to retain neighborhood property values. 

Polycarbonate can also help agents and brokers show vacant homes, as potential buyers can better envision themselves in the property when plywood isn’t interfering with the look of the home.

Due to the ability to see into and of the home, polycarbonate is also becoming favored among law enforcement officials, who appreciate being able check for potential hazards before entering.

The point, of course, is that there are far better solutions for securing a property than plywood and that there’s a right fit for solutions like steel and polycarbonate. It’s just a matter of getting the word out about these alternatives to plywood. A lot of mortgage servicers and property preservation companies just don’t realize there are good solutions that everyone from the bank to the investors to the neighbors in our communities will support.

Neighbors and code enforcement officers in communities where steel and polycarbonate systems have been put in place are extremely appreciative of the efforts to move away from the big red X of plywood. They appreciate knowing someone is looking out for the property and ensuring it is safe and livable. When a property is well maintained, it has a positive effect on the rest of the community. 

About Author: Chad Mosley

Chad Mosley is the Chief Operating Officer for Mortgage Contracting Services (MCS) Solutions, a nationwide provider of property valuations, settlement services, title, and other mortgage-related services. Mosley joined MCS in summer 2008 as AVP of business development and with over 15 years in the industry he now assumes executive responsibility for MCS Valuations, MCS Title, and Vacant Property Security (VPS).

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