Foreclosure: Tips and Advice for Buying (or Walking Away from) a Foreclosed House

Fear and loathing in foreclosure: After falling in love with a house in foreclosure, a local couple decided to play “real estate roulette.” They lost. Or did they?


Illustration by Leo Acadia

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Going in, we knew one thing for sure: We weren’t buying a foreclosure. Too risky. Too messy. And the idea of capitalizing on somebody else’s misfortune, or indeed making good on some callous stranger’s financial excess, was pungently unappealing to us.
My wife Steph and I are in our late 20s. We’re responsible and have made solid starts in our respective careers — she’s a social worker, I’m a writer — so we figured the time had come to buy a house. That black hole that has swallowed up our rent checks for the last decade would have to make do without our offerings. We’d invest in bricks and mortar.

We’ve lived in London, Brussels, Washington, D.C., and Westchester; but we’ve always liked the Hudson Valley. Steph grew up in Newburgh, and her family still lives there. When she took a job in Poughkeepsie, it was settled: We’d move to Beacon. It was commutable; sufficiently city without being expensive or overwhelming; had the requisite coffee shops for us to pretend we’re not hipsters in; and walkable enough for my European sensibilities.

Picking Beacon was the easy part; finding a house there proved much harder. Beacon had no houses for sale — none. Well, that is to say, there were small ones and shoddy ones and badly situated ones and very dated ones and ones in bad neighborhoods and plain weird ones. But nothing that was right for us. We sort of settled on something that was almost there, but I dragged my feet and somebody beat us to it. Then we got serious about a place in the Spackenkill region of Poughkeepsie. Great neighborhood, great school district, great potential, but nothing to do for a couple with no kids.

At length, we spotted something on the Web site Zillow. We’re not sure who saw it first — maybe it was Steph, maybe her mother — but it doesn’t matter. We were in love before we’d even seen it.

And when we walked three steps into it, we loved it even more. So striking was this house, so majestic and well-appointed and historic. It had a view of the river. That had been the dream: I could make my home office in one of the rooms that looked out on the water; I could procrastinate so much better there. And it was just three blocks down the hill from her folks. I thought about commissioning a feasibility study to see if we could affix a zipline from their kitchen to ours; my mother-in-law could shoot leftovers of that succulent roast of hers down the line and through our kitchen window, which would land on a dedicated carving station with a soft bounce.

But... It was a foreclosure. In Newburgh.

I’d sworn I’d never live in Newburgh — you know, the murder capital of New York. I’d always been enchanted and scared of it in equal measure. My work has taken me to some of the most destitute places on earth and I was never uncomfortable; but truth be told, Newburgh always gave me the creeps. A lot of people living in its inner city have nothing to lose, and that scares me. But its infrastructure is magnificent: the Victorians, the colonials, the brick mansions and brownstones, the churches, even the factories and riverside warehouses. The place holds an irrepressible promise of a future as grand as its past, when titans of industry lived in those houses. Whether that past will also be its future we don’t know for sure. Newburgh might be a town of only yesterdays and tomorrows.

Whatever — that was the house, and that was the view. It felt like ours before we’d so much as put in an offer. And if it was in Newburgh, we placated ourselves by anointing it Balmville, the more soothingly named enclave in the northern section of town, far away from the sketchier parts.

We had other reservations to overcome. Two of the bedrooms had clearly belonged to young children. Stickers of flowers and Winnie the Pooh dotted the walls. Imagining the fate of this foreclosed-upon family made us feel terrible — until we did some sleuthing on Facebook. It seemed like — or we chose to believe — the previous owner had tried to sell the place, given up, abandoned it, and then somehow bought another, much bigger place. How exactly he did this we don’t know. But we’re pretty sure his kids have much nicer rooms now.

(Continued on next page)


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