The abandoned house at 40 Sand Fiddler Road in Sea Pines was driving GeorgeAnne Salerno crazy.
The eyesore was right next door, and she could see it all: the tarp covering the roof, the unpainted plywood boards holding the front steps together and the unkempt swimming pool — a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Yellow notices from utility companies, warning the owner of impending disconnections, littered the front porch. Small pests had moved in. Salerno had seen teenagers sneak in to smoke marijuana.
"Dead rodents eat fiberglass. You find them all over the yard," Salerno said. "And there are snakes. It's a pain the neck ... I said to my husband, 'God forbid if we wanted to sell our house.'"
Hilton Head Island may be known as a dreamy beach spot. But residents like Salerno, who live in the island's other gated neighborhoods, know that even paradise has abandoned eyesores. (These eyesores just happen to have hefty price tags.)
Salerno and her neighbors weren't willing to sit around and watch the home, once valued at nearly $725,000, rot.
Eyesore homes, Hilton Head style
Neighbor Dana Guazzo, was confused as to why town government — with its focus on maintaining the island as a sort of paradise, where even business signs must meet strict regulation — would allow a home to fall into such disrepair.
After all, Guazzo, Salerno and the rest of the neighbors on Sand Fiddler Road had signed the Sea Pines covenants. They paid the fees. They had reasonable expectation that the neighboring houses would be kept up as much as their own.
"No noxious or offensive activity shall be carried on upon any lot, nor shall anything be thereon tending to cause embarrassment, discomfort, annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood," the Sea Pines covenant stated.
It continued: "There shall not be maintained any plants or animals, or device of any sort whose normal activities or existence is in any way noxious, dangerous, unsightly, unpleasant or of a nature as may diminish or destroy the enjoyment of other property in the neighborhood by the owners thereof."
In other words, the house at 40 Sand Fiddler was not just empty. It also violated the rules.
While Sea Pines' Community Associates, or the CSA, sent letters to the owner about the property's dismal state, nothing was done about it.
Last year, Guazzo had enough. She began digging.
Guazzo learned that house was originally built in 1980, another one of the well-kept homes in Sea Pines.
Records show a family moved into the house several years later and fell behind on mortgage payments. In 2010, the family owed the bank nearly $863,000.
That year, 40 Sand Fiddler Road went into foreclosure. Neighbors say a few years later, the family moved out.
And, according to neighbors, that's when 40 Sand Fiddler Road became a problem for the community. The house deteriorated. That, paired with the recession, plunged the property's market value from $724,996 in 2012 to $549,500 the next year, according to Beaufort County property records.
The house was in such a state that Hilton Head Fire and Rescue tagged it as vacant and unsafe in its system — a warning that firefighters must be wary of going inside the building if it bursts into flames, according to Joheida Fister, spokesperson for the fire department.
Guazzo also discovered that major financial institutions were involved in the Sandfiddler saga. And some of those institutions had histories Guazzo found dubious.
There was the Bank of New York Mellon, the trustee; C-Bass Mortgage Loan Asset-Backed Certificates, an early adopter of the subprime mortgage lending strategy, which currently owns the deed to the house; Ocwen Financial Corporation, a large mortgage servicer in charge of billing customers and then giving those payments to the lender (in 2017, Ocwen was sued by 22 states for illegal foreclosures, deceptive fees and mishandling customers' home loan payments); and Altisource, the property maintenance company contracted by C-Bass in order to keep the house safe and presentable while it stood empty.
The house has stayed in foreclosure since 2010. Dick Matthews, a board member of the Association of Sea Pines Plantation Property Owners, or ASPPPO, attributed the seemingly perpetual state of foreclosure to "questionable legal advice allowed the bank in question to create a genuine identifiable health hazard to our community of Sea Pines."
It's not clear why the bank has kept the house in foreclosure for so long, though. Chad Burgess, the attorney representing the Bank of New York Mellon, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
How do you solve a problem like 40 Sand Fiddler?
First, the neighbors went to the town for help and requested a building inspection in August 2017.
When someone makes a complaint about a structure, building inspectors go out to assess whether it's unsafe, said Charles Cousins, the town's director of community development.
Four days later, an inspector determined that the building was not technically unsafe, meaning that it met safety parameters outlined in the town's building code.
"We look at the light and ventilation," said Chris Yates, Hilton Head's building official. "And we look at whether it's structurally sound, if it will collapse ... Those are the basic parameters it would have to meet to be considered unsafe."
Nevertheless, the town found that if the building continued to deteriorate, it could devolve into a dangerous situation. The town added it to its list of unsafe structures on October 23. The town also demanded that Altisource, a property maintenance company being paid by C-Bass to maintain the house, fix things up by December.
Altisource missed the deadline.
Pressure for the town and residents mounted, and the company finally got to work in the winter. Altisource set up a fence around the house in February and nailed plywood to the front steps a month later.
But, to the neighbors, that wasn't enough.
When Hurricane Matthew blew onto Hilton Head in 2016, it tore a massive hole in the house's roof. Altisource's solution: It covered the open spot with a tarp. The fence around the house had two gaps, and although those gaps were filled with bushes, determined hooligans or curious wanderers could still get into the backyard and on to the rotting back porch.
Then there was that even bigger task: getting the house sold and out of foreclosure.
For years, no party involved with the house had made any effort to set an auction date. It simply seemed to dangle, a property overrun with unruly plants and unwelcome critters.
Of course, the neighbors hadn't forgotten about it.
In the fall, Guazzo took matters into her own hands.
Along with ASPPPO board member Matthews, she created a task force to solve the problem of 40 Sand Fiddler Road last November. The association gave the task force some funding for legal matters.
The task force asked McNair Law Firm to issue a letter to the bank, demanding they take immediate action. Finally, the house had a final auction date: April 2.
Except nothing happened.
Ads for the foreclosure sale hadn't run for a full three weeks, explained the bank's attorney in a email to Guazzo.
Now, final foreclosure sale has been rescheduled for May.
Guazzo and Matthews believe that the town’s public safety ordinances have too many gaps to be entirely effective. They also feel that the town should consider putting into place a property maintenance ordinance.
For its part, Sea Pines CSA and ASPPPO have jointly formed a permanent land use management committee, which will focus on handling problem properties within the community.
And Guazzo, at least, believes that time is running out.
"The problem will get worse," Guazzo said. "As the island ages, buildings age, people age, we're going to see this happen more and more."