Lakefront home abandoned

Hundreds of tax delinquent properties will be sold in Berrien County at auctions scheduled for July and September, but only one has drawn so much interest that officials decided to hold an open house for potential bidders.

The home is at 3500 Lakeshore Drive. It stands on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The open house was held Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Although the home has been assessed at $500,000 the minimum bid has been set at $41,000.

“The owners, the previous owners, just kind of picked up and left four or five yeas ago,” said Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski. “One went to Italy, and one still went to Chicago where they’re home base is.”

Witkowski says the home was essentially abandoned about a half decade ago. “Last time they paid any taxes was 2006; last time they mowed it was 2006.”

Witkowski says that the electric meter has been pulled and that the water has been shut off. “Last time they paid a water bill was November ’07.”

News Center 16 was there today as county officials entered the home for the first time since taking possession.

While a locksmith was able to unlock the front door, the mystery that is 3500 Lakeshore Drive may never be unlocked.

“As you walked in with us, for the first time its been open since 2005 or ‘06, and its as though they just left and were planning on coming back tomorrow,” said Witkowski.

Indeed, an unfinished painting sat on an easel in the room facing the lake.

The home was entirely furnished upstairs and down. A pair of shoes sat outside a bedroom door, and a toothbrush was positioned in a cup on the bathroom counter.

There was food in the fridge, as well as napkins and candles on the dining room table.

Much like the family pictures that were left behind, the house itself seemed to be frozen in time.

“And according to the neighbor who we talked to, he said he (the homeowner) just took his suitcase one day, left, and that was it, not sure of the reasoning, don’t know why,” Witkowski said.

Berrien County sent 13 separate letters to the property owners before the tax foreclosure, according to Witkowski. “You know, they never contacted us at any point, anytime during this process, and we know they’ve been getting the mail because it’s not coming back to us, and if they would have contacted us before March 31st, something could have been worked out, I mean our goal is not to take property, unless people chose not to work with the system that’s out there.”

Although March 31st was the deadline for the property owners to pay their overdue taxes and keep possession of the home, the family remained silent until two weeks ago.

That’s when a lawsuit was filed in an attempt to block a sale.

“You know, seems to be the only bills being paid right now is the lawyer bill,” quipped Witkowski. “To me, it’s not an issue whether this house is worth $500-thousand or $2,000, it’s an issue of fairness to everybody.”

The property was originally scheduled to be auctioned next week on the 20th of July. Because of the lawsuit, that has been pushed back until September 17th, after a scheduled trial.

The opening bid of $41,000 represents the homeowner’s outstanding debt. If the home would sell for more than that, the county would keep the cash.

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