They say there are snake pits on Wall Street.
Chase has learned there are snake pits on Main Street, too.
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Last year, the J.P. Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) banking unit foreclosed on a home near Rexburg, Idaho, that is infested with garter snakes.
They slide through the yard, the crawlspace, the walls, the ceilings, even across the floors. Sure, they're harmless, but there are perhaps thousands of them. They give off malodorous secretions when alarmed, and can even leave the well water tasting a bit like they smell.
Two families have fled the house in scenes reminiscent of horror film classics. One turned to a local TV station in 2006 to document the infestation, complaining of not being able to sleep at night. The video is still available on YouTube and is doing absolutely nothing for sales.
The next family appeared on TV's "Animal Planet" earlier this year. They said they were told the previous owners came up with the snake story to explain why they stopped paying their mortgage. But it turns out, the story was true.
Search "Idaho snake house" on the Internet and several intriguing posts emerge. Zillow.com offers a sales description that mentions "a large kitchen with center island," but nothing about snakes on the kitchen floor.
The house, built in 1920 and remodeled about five years ago, has somehow become a hibernaculum, where snakes gather en masse for winter. It is so famously infested that Chase has taken it off the market.
Earlier this year, the five-bedroom home at 675 W. 5000 North was listed for $109,200. That's about $66,000 below its market value. But somehow there were no takers, even in a region known for its Snake River.
Chase is now in the unenviable position of having to be delicate with snakes that continue to live in the home despite a defaulted mortgage. Once a house has been featured on "Animal Planet," you can't just burn it down or otherwise slaughter its reptilian residents. You have to be nice to snakes. It's just good business.
"We have contracted to have the snakes trapped and released," said Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot, a Chase spokeswoman in Seattle.
"We plan to seal the foundation and install a barrier around the foundation to help prevent future access," she said. "A report will be issued by the contractor to be provided to any potential buyers."
Possible buyers might include some guy with a flute and a turban, or maybe a salesman looking to replenish his line of proprietary oil. More likely, though, Chase is going to be stuck with the Idaho snake house for a long time.
Protesters recently appeared in Ohio at the annual meeting of Chase's parent, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., to complain about its foreclosure practices. There've been similar protests at all major banks, as if these institutions actually love foreclosing on homes.
Banks currently have about 1.9 million homes on their books or in foreclosure proceedings, according to real estate market researcher RealtyTrac.
Imagine all the disrepair, the pet-fouled carpets, the mold, the bugs, the rats and the snakes.
Foreclosures have slowed in recent months, but that trend is largely attributed to legal delays, including banks' dubious use of "robo-signers" on court documents.
Yes, major banks have major problems. But they're still swamped with more foreclosures than they can handle, and Americans are still slithering away from their homes like it's not a snake-like thing to do.
The Mortgage Bankers Association recently reported that about 8.3% of homeowners missed at least one mortgage payment in the January-March quarter. In a healthy market, that figure holds at about 1.1%.
Foreclosed homes made up 28% of all U.S. home sales in the quarter, according to RealtyTrac. And 2011 is on track to be another record year with about 1.2 million foreclosures expected. This dashes any hope for a housing market recovery any time soon.
The snakes are just starting to awaken at the Idaho snake house. Chase can't chase them out just yet.
"Hopefully, in a few weeks," Donahoe-Wilmot said. "The contractor feels there is not yet enough activity to perform the capture."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)