By Joshua Alvarez
The house in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood is large and beautiful, its lawn is regularly manicured and, peering through its large windows from the sidewalk, it looks meticulously clean inside. Problem is, nobody lives there.
The house is an example of what is popularly referred to as a "ghost home," a property owned by a nonresident (sometimes noncitizen) who has no plans on ever moving in.
"I try not to think about it," said the 26-year Palo Alto resident who lives next door to the ghost home. "I watch the house as if it were a neighbor so I pick up paper, and if the recycle bin is left out I'll be sure to move it back. It costs so much money to live in Palo Alto, it's kind of unfathomable that you'd just buy it and never come in," she said.
A 15-year homeowner across the street talked about the Chinese homebuyers he's heard about: "We would love to actually see them and their kids. We like neighbors. It's a waste with the housing shortage. It's a crazy use of a house."
Indeed, Palo Alto has attracted growing numbers of Chinese nationals over the past four years, according to Ken DeLeon, a real estate agent who connects Chinese buyers to properties in the Bay Area.
"California is their favorite market and within that is Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. Many of them already have friends or colleagues living and working around here. There's an established Chinese community with Mandarin schools ... for their children to attend. There are Chinese grocery stores with the food that they want and plenty of Mandarin speakers. So psychologically it's something that they feel comfortable with," he said.
Some Chinese have purchased homes and sent their wives and kids to live in them to establish residency and enroll the kids into excellent American schools. Some, however, purchase property solely for the investment value and have no intention of ever setting foot inside.
"Sometimes they'll purchase the home just as a security play, just to move some assets out of China. They feel very comfortable with the Silicon Valley investment environment," said DeLeon.
For some residents, living near ghost homes is a source of annoyance and disappointment.
"It's not troubling, but it's not what we had hoped for," said a two-year resident who lives a few houses down from a ghost home. "We would prefer neighbors looking out for neighbors and families and children out on the block. It's wonderful to have neighbors who can look out for each other and say hello, goodbye and goodnight. On the flip side, it's made the value of the neighborhood go up," she said.
The trend has troubled some potential sellers. Daniel Kwang has lived in Palo Alto since the 1970s and is considering selling his deceased mother's home. "I'm not going to sell my house to some overseas investor. If I'm going to sell to anyone it's going to be someone who has a family and will be part of the neighborhood. Think it would be a waste given the housing market," he said.
In some cases, ghost homes have proven to be a safety concern for those nearby.
"My home and the ghost house next door were robbed on a Sunday a few years back," said the 26-year Crescent Park resident. "I hope no one is watching. At the time it happened I think it was mostly based off the economy and people not leaving their doors locked. But you wonder if anyone will go inside and vandalize it. It is a safety concern."
Some residents are wholly indifferent to ghost homes or believe the resentment is misplaced.
"We're more concerned about the monster home getting built next door," said Phil Salsbury. He lives across from an empty house, but the owners are actually planning on moving in and have introduced themselves.
Another resident does not really blame the buyers. "I just think it's part of the progress of the city. A lot of times people are buying them so they can get in for the schools. Housing inventory is really low," she said.
DeLeon says he urges his clients to at least rent out their homes, but there is a trend that the more expensive the home is, the less likely the buyers will place it on the rental market.
"Generally, if my Chinese clients buy a mid-level home ($2-3 million) they are comfortable renting out. But as you go up in price point or with new construction, they are more leery about renting it out. There is a higher propensity to keep the home in a pristine condition. An empty home is a shame, and, I think, inefficient. If someone can afford $10,000 a month of rent it's probably someone who is very responsible and can take care of the home. It would be ideal to have all the home space fully utilized."