cows FloridaJerilee Wei never expected to be living next to a cow pasture when she bought her home in Lakeland, Fla., in 2007. In her upscale community, newly constructed houses were selling for between $300,000 and $425,000. Then one morning she woke up and found some cattle had moved in.

It turns out that the developer had changed the legal status of the land, taking advantage of a "greenbelt classification" law that lowers taxes for farmers. The land once set aside for lakefront homes was now a pasture.

The developer had planned to build 600 homes but only 25 have been completed, and half of those are still empty. The pool and community center were built as planned, but not the tennis courts. Wei wonders how the few homeowners who are left will be able to pay for the upkeep of the community. The builder has pulled out his crews, and real estate agents have vanished -- and what was expected to be a gated paradise is becoming a ghost town with cattle for neighbors.

Fountains and Barbed Wire

The residents were given no warning about the change in plans. "We all stared in disbelief as the fencing went up. There was great speculation as to what was going on. Barbed wire and split post didn't exactly fit with the community's Italian resort theme," Wei wrote in a blog post about her experience. Then the cows were moved in overnight.

Before the cows arrived, the neighbors enjoyed a community with the "serenity of fountains and statues, cement benches overflowing with fragrant flowers," according to Wei. The homeowners thought they were buying into a wildlife preserve, with 60% of the land set aside to be preserved for conservation and 40% for homes -- but the wildlife they expected to see included sand hill cranes, wild boars, coyotes, foxes, eagles and alligators.

Florida ghost townsIn Florida, developers have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes by having their planned developments re-designated as agricultural land. Today, these unfinished projects in central Florida's Polk County sit on land valued for tax purposes at $128,032. Without the greenbelt classification, the developers would be paying taxes on property worth $8.4 million. Those homeowners who bought before the crash are paying higher taxes on single homes than the developer's are paying on the undeveloped land they still hold in the developments. The developers can re-designate the land for housing whenever they want, so when they are ready, they can start building again. But until then, the homeowners are left in sparsely populated communities with property they can't sell.

What Comes Next?

Wei bought her house through a private real estate deal, so she didn't have a mortgage directly with the bank. After she was living the home it for two and a half years, she learned that the person who still had the mortgage had stopped paying on it. In the middle of 2009, she abandoned the property and bought an older house in historic Lakeland. She assumes that the development property has since been foreclosed upon. Wei lost $50,000, but she's thankful she didn't have the mortgage on the property and was able to get out quickly, and stop the financial bleeding without killing her credit score. Many others in the Florida ghost towns are not so lucky. They're stuck with underwater homes, plus the upkeep of expensive amenities and few people to pay for them.

When she's visited the property since moving out, she says she experienced a "frontier-like silence, reminding you of what it must have been like after a gold rush boom, as towns emptied out and people moved on to the next paradise."

Ghost towns like the one Wei describes dot the Florida landscape. South Florida has been the hardest hit: Most of the homes built in 2006 are selling for half of their original price, if they can be sold at all. RiverTown in St. Johns County was started with a $13.9 million improvement bond, but today sits with finished streets and only a few homes.

Amazingly, those builders that still survive are starting to buy up failed developments with plans to resume construction. Avatar and Toll Brothers are two of the most active in planning to restart Florida development. I live in an Avatar active-adult community in central Florida where building has started again, though there are cows nearby (see the photo above). Perhaps someday other ghost towns may become living communities once again.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including The 250 Questions Everyone Should Ask About Buying Foreclosures and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal Bankruptcy.

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When weighing the difference between an FHA-insured loan and a conventional mortgage, homeowners should also consider the future of home prices and mortgage rates.

July 19 2013 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd rather live next to cows than be surrounded by 600 families in identical houses on tiny lots.

December 14 2010 at 11:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Hey, make friends with the cows. They are peaceful animals and are interested in only chewing on the grass and weeds. There are developments like your all over the country where the so called 'developer' is in reality a scam artist. Buying a $425,000 home in Lakeland Florida is not a wise decision. This is cattle and red-neck country nowadays since the Citrus Industry moved south, and there's nothing wrong with either. Put up the split rail fence and add a barn and a corral. Lakeland is a country town and it won't change easily. Lakeland and Italian housing designs in housing don't match up. If you wanted 'fancy living' you should have bought into Disneys Celebration fantasy village. Lakeland is a fine place to live, but its COUNTRY. Simple as that.

December 14 2010 at 6:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Free beef for life. if you ask me. If life throws you a lemon, make a lemonade.

December 14 2010 at 5:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A basic question is: "Didn't these Developers make an implicit and explicit commitment to develop these communities as they had represented them in the sales representations and in the community documents. By what stretch of some legal hair splitting are they being able to leave those who purchased these properties staranded with half completed communities and amidst barb wire enclosures for livestock? It would appear that they defaulted on, and failed to deliver on their contractual obligations to those who purchased homes in these communities. I don't usually agree with litigating most matters; but this is certainly a worthwhile case that needs to be litigated in favor of the homeowners.

December 14 2010 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Another example of what happens when godless, lazy, greedy, moral reprobates are left to run a government. You won't find one congressperson foreclosed on. You won't find one congressperson who has incurred a loss on their wealth portfolio.

December 14 2010 at 8:36 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'd rather have cows then alligators.

December 13 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I'm not sure it's the cows the homeowner minds. I think she minds having bought one thing and had something else delivered. Kind of like ordering steak, paying for steak, but being served a hot dog. Nothing wrong with hot dogs if that's what your ordered and paid for. The developer led people to believe they were going to live in a developed community so they expect side walks, and well lit streets, parks, etc. They are paying taxes that would support those things but with only 25 house holds paying, there will not be enough money to cover the expenses of the community. The cows aren't paying for sure. So either the ammenties water and utilities...or the taxes go up.

December 13 2010 at 5:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On the West Coast, we have Nevada and Arizona. Arizona has counties with Open Range ordinances. There is no water, save for community water, in many parts of the State. Nevada had a favorable tax climate, which appealed to retiring Seniors. Now, the people who got fleeced are stuck. Happened in the '50's and '60's, repeated itself this decade. In a Boeing town, Northwest people are used to boom-and-bust. Tax structure friendly to business ... now we can't support our basic services and local government is making cuts. Nice to have the long view, from a somewhat-safe corner ... and no mortgage.

December 13 2010 at 5:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

sounds like the old girl should have keep her but up in ny with the rest of the snow birds. Florida is the leeding cattle state in the country. Who would have ever thought. Silly snow birds

December 13 2010 at 2:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply