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RISMEDIA, March 13, 2010—(MCT)—The listing describes the new, six-bedroom, six-bath Colonial on Timberlane Road in Upper Saddle River, N.J., as “spectacular.” With an asking price of almost $1.6 million, it’s a “must see,” the listing says.

But up close, the picture gets more complicated. Though the home’s exterior is mostly finished, the brick facade is missing in spots. The front steps are temporary, made of plywood. The listing says it’s a short sale—in other words, expected to sell for less than is owed on the mortgage, if the bank approves. “Builder will finish the building if desired, currently sold as is,” the listing says.

Unfinished homes like this one are the most forlorn sign of the real estate market’s nosedive. One notable example is the “New American Home,” a showcase house built every year for the International Builders’ Show. This year’s home, in Las Vegas, was left only 75% done at the time of the show, because the builder lost his financing.

In North Jersey, such homes are rare. More common are the empty lots that builders once expected to fill with apartments, homes, offices and stores. Many of these projects have been shelved as the economy tanked and loan money dried up. But the half-done buildings are the more disturbing symbols of the downturn. “You have an aesthetic issue if the outside’s not done,” said Gary Montroy, the construction official in Mahwah. “If you leave plywood exposed, it will start warping and you end up having to rebuild. If water gets into the house, you’ll have to go back and do it over. “You’ve got neighbors looking at a half-finished property,” he continued. “It becomes a real eyesore. You can issue a summons on the property and take the owner to court. But they’ll say: ‘I have no money.’ ”

Often in these cases, another builder ends up taking over the project. In Edgewater, for example, a luxury riverfront development of 18 town houses and condos, called the Moorings, was begun in early 2007. The units were priced at $1.8 million to $3.9 million. But the housing market was sliding into its worst downturn in decades, and the bank shut off financing during the credit crisis of September 2008, according to builder Anthony Rinaldi. With seven town houses and four condos in place but not complete, construction halted in 2008. The lender began foreclosure proceedings last year on a $15 million loan, and the project was left half-done. Construction may soon start again. Edgewater builder Fred Daibes is representing a group of investors who bought the bank loans on the property; they hope to take possession of it and complete the project, possibly by the end of this year. The group paid about $9 million for two loans—a deep discount—and expects to spend $3.5 million to finish construction. Daibes says the town homes will sell for about $1.1 million, “much, much lower” than Rinaldi had planned. “There’s only one place in Bergen County where you can live on the Hudson River. That’s why we like this project,” said Daibes, who normally builds larger rental buildings.

For his part, Rinaldi blames not only the housing and credit markets for the Moorings’ problems, but also the long process of getting state permits to build on the waterfront. Without that years-long delay, he said, the Moorings would have been done before the economic storm hit.

Selling unfinished properties can be a challenge, because buyers worry they can’t complete the work at a reasonable price. The property’s no bargain if the buyer spends more to finish it than it would cost to buy a place that’s move-in ready.

In addition, even if a builder would like to finish these projects, credit is tight. “The question is, who’s going to release the money to build?” asked Fort Lee real estate broker Nelson Chen.

In Glen Rock, N.J., a three-bedroom house sits sheathed in insulation, waiting for siding. It’s listed for sale for $399,000, but the listing notes that it needs to be completed. The photos show that the inside is framed, but has no walls or other finishes. “Bring flashlight, no electricity,” the listing warns real estate agents who might show the property. Wendell Maki, the real estate agent listing the house, says that the home must be sold because of the death of one of the owners. The couple had taken out the mortgage based on two incomes. But when one of them died, the survivor couldn’t carry the loan. Maki estimates finishing the home would run $125,000 to $150,000—for a total cost of around $550,000. He considers that a good deal for new construction in a sought-after town like Glen Rock. But so far, no buyer has taken the bait. Financing is an issue because lenders won’t write conventional loans on unfinished homes, Maki said; any buyer would have to get a special Federal Housing Administration loan.

Working out a deal with a new builder can take time. In Clifton, for example, an age-restricted condo community called Royal Club at Winthrop Court was left half-finished when its builder, Stratland Homes of Westwood, ran into serious financial issues. Almost half of the units had been sold when construction halted in summer 2008. The rest of the complex was left in various states of completion: from a building that was finished on the outside but not inside, to one that was clad in plywood and partly open to the elements, to one that was only a foundation.

But 39 unfinished units are expected to be completed soon. The Pinnacle Cos. bought the debt on those units from their lender, Rutherford-based Boiling Springs Savings Bank, and expects to complete and sell the units over the next year or two, according to Brian Stolar, Pinnacle’s CEO. Stolar predicted that it will be a few years before all the troubled projects left by the housing bust are completed.

(c) 2010, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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