By Susan Tebben
The theft of copper pipes that officials say inadvertently led to an explosion at an Austintown home has opened up a discussion about how to keep vacant houses secure while they are being sold or foreclosed.
Police and fire responded Sunday to a vacant home at 2216 S. Turner Road after neighbors called in a possible natural-gas explosion. When police entered the home, they found half-inch copper pipes broken and bent, including a gas line in the basement that caused the explosion, according to reports by responding police officers and Fire Chief Andy Frost III.
One neighbor said he saw a light-green Kia Soul parked in the driveway of the home — which is for sale — Sunday morning. A white male whom the neighbor did not recognize left in the vehicle about an hour later.
Police responded to the explosion about 8:15 that night.
No showings were scheduled for the home, “so no one should have been in the residence on this date,” the real-estate agent for the house told police.
At a recent township trustee meeting, fire and police department officials discussed the problem and how hard it is to keep track of the vacant houses. The township has 54 vacant homes on a list of nuisance properties kept by the zoning department.
“But those are the ones neighbors have complained about, so there are probably some we don’t have,” said Darren Crivelli, Austintown zoning inspector.
There are some neighborhoods that have “adopted” houses that are vacant, which is what Frost said would help keep homes safe. “You need some neighborhood groups to cut the grass and help out,” Frost said.
The zoning office only has the funds to cut grass for vacant lots about once a month, according to Crivelli, and the township doesn’t have time to cover everything that could tip off burglars and metal thieves to an empty house.
“We just ask neighbors to pick up circulars, newspapers, mail — that sort of thing that piles up,” Crivelli said. “If possible, even park cars in the driveway.”
Real-estate agencies typically don’t ask neighbors to watch out for homes while they are in the sales process, but acknowledge it could be a good thing to start doing.
“We try to have the landscaping kept up, and in the winter keep the driveways clear,” said Nancy Cuffle, a sales associate for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services. “Some put lock boxes on back doors, and it often helps to put lights on timers in different parts of the home to make it look like someone lives there.”
Cuffle, who also does staging for houses to spur sales, said keeping curtains and blinds on windows also helps.
Some of the dangers could be taken away simply by keeping the previous homeowners in the homes when possible.
“If banks [that foreclose on homes] would allow people to stay in their homes until they are brought to a Realtor or sold, that would be a big help,” Cuffle said.