'From dream home to hellhole'

The renovation contractor even showed the house off to the bank’s executives and other visitors, she said. But her family soon discovered the spruced up 84-year-old home wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Three days after they moved in last February, the house flooded during a rainstorm, beginning a nearly yearlong battle with repeated flooding, mold, water damage, roof leaks, buckling floors and months-long power outages.

“It went from a dream home to a hellhole,” Preston, 27, said of the house, now owned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. after Omni failed in March.

Mold contamination sickened many members of the family. They lived for months by candlelight, with kerosene heaters and no air conditioning, after Omni failed in March, leaving behind more than $4,000 in unpaid power bills. “I was just sick all the time. Throwing up. Cold,” said Preston, who is pregnant.

They finally gave up and moved out in December.

What the family hadn’t seen hidden beneath the house’s neatly painted walls was a history of neglect and shoddy repairs — much of it financed with ever-escalating mortgages from Omni, which repossessed the home three times in two years.

The house was a boarded-up haven for squatters and drug users for most of the past decade, said Barry Bennett, who lives across Lawton Street from the house. Contractors began working on it less than two years ago, but they clearly didn’t do a good job, he said.

“It ain’t in good condition now,” said Bennett, who last year waded waist-deep through the house’s flooded basement to help rescue Preston’s children.

On paper, however, the house underwent a more dramatic transformation.

Between 2006 and 2008, it nearly doubled in value, according to Fulton County tax records. During that period, Omni repossessed the house three times, at values that rose from $160,000 to $308,875.

By the time the string of sales of the Lawton Street house ended in 2008, its value on Omni’s books had risen to as much as three times the value of similar houses in the neighborhood, said Brent Brewer, a civil engineer who lives two blocks away.

Most of that dramatic rise occurred while the house sat vacant and windowless, with huge sections of its exterior walls torn away.

“No construction was happening,” said Brewer, a member of 30310 Mortgage Task Force, a neighborhood group battling property-flippers in the hard-hit area. “It just sat.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.