According to the latest Humboldt County Economic Index, local home sales have dipped slightly, while mortgage prices have risen. Median home prices — while at nowhere near pre-recession levels — have been climbing steadily since 2012, when your financially secure friends were snapping up starter homes for pennies on the dollar. And quite a few would-be home owners are watching those rising costs and waiting for the deus ex machina of legalization to help realize their dreams. Balloon payments garnered from a good year's harvest aren't generally factored into housing analyses, but common sense dictates that the economic vacuum created by a sharp dip in black market prices might mean quite a few former growers won't be able to keep up their home payments. And if the shape of the housing market is in question, the shape of the houses on the market is going to be equally questionable.
Stories of local buildings repurposed for illegal agriculture range from the benign to the horrific. For every smart sinsemilla farmer with a low-impact garage grow, there's a renter from hell who is turning his or her landlord's property into a mildew-wracked tear down.
One tenant — who asked not to be named — moved into a former grow house under duress, as she and her partner had struggled to find a place that would take their many pets. The problems included holes in the walls and ceiling where ventilation had been, staples in the walls with black plastic stuck to them, walls warped from high humidity and a mildew problem that sent her to the emergency room.
"If [landlords] don't care whether or not a house is being grown in, they probably don't care enough to fix it up afterwards," she says.
How prevalent are current and former grow houses? One home inspector — who also requested anonymity — says that around 50 percent of the foreclosures he sees have evidence of grows. These foreclosures, which realtors have seen an uptick in recently, may be the canary in the coalmine for the intersection of the marijuana industry and the housing market.
Barry Smith, owner of Barry Smith Construction, says that remodeling grow houses has become an "ongoing issue" in his field. Poorly done vents into sub areas can cause rot and fungus damage and allow entry points for termites and rodents.
"The big challenges we find are the amount of unpermitted and unsafe work that we find," he says, adding shoddy electrical work to the laundry list of issues that are often present. "Electrical has always been manipulated in one way or another with different levels of competency and safety. I had one where they cut the floor covering out, put down plastic and put dirt right on the floor. We had to gut the place due to water and flood damage."
According to contracting websites, a ballpark figure of the costs to re-wire, re-floor, re-insulate and do mold abatement on a 1,200 square foot structure is between $50,000 and $75,000.
Even after the smell of bud has been cleared from your new home, its reputation can linger. Eureka Police Department Capt. Steve Watson has lots of practical advice for homeowners worried about would-be thieves in search of guns, cash and grass. Rip-off artists often look for the same things as cops: drawn shades, condensation on the windows and the sound of industrial strength fans. He suggests getting to know your neighbors and emphasizing that the property is under new ownership.
"Home invasion and robbery are a very real risk with grow houses. My experience is that for every one that is reported there are several that go unreported," Watson says, adding that victims rarely speak to the police.
Cases of innocent neighbors or new homeowners troubled by home invasions are not everyday occurrences, but nor are they rare, according to Watson.
"Sometimes the thugs hit the wrong house by mistake — either based on old or faulty intel or plain human error," he says.