Receiving Stolen Property

By: Bill Kibbel , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old Houses, In The News

Over the past two years, I’ve been inspecting significantly more buildings that are vacant.  Some, because of the amount of time they sit on the market, owners have had to move on.  Others are because of bank foreclosures.  The theft of “parts” from these buildings initially started with some exterior elements.  Copper gutters and downspouts, copper conductors from lightening rod systems and the coils from air conditioning compressors were the most common missing items.  When our economy really took a dive, the thieves moved to breaking and entering.  In some buildings, after all the exposed copper plumbing is removed, the thieves bust large holes in the walls looking for the concealed pipes.  Occasionally a church bell disappears.

I’ve heard of some attempts at getting local governments to try to mitigate these thefts by quickly boarding up and securing vacant buildings.  I’ve even heard a proposal for one city to enclose building lots with high fences.  Not much has been implemented – this costs money.  I can’t help but think that the scrap dealers have some responsibility to “sense a rat” and call police.  I wonder if regulating the scrap dealers would help.

More recently, there’s been a major increase in “architectural theft” from historically significant buildings.  It’s not just big ticket items like marble fireplace surrounds  and ornate railings.  Door knobs, window locks, paneled doors, stained glass windows and even simple moldings are being stripped from vacant homes.  These thefts often occur in daylight.  The thieves look just like contractors showing up to do work on the building.  This type of theft causes significantly more damage than by the copper-for-crack-money thieves.  It permanently eradicates original elements that part of the character of the historic building.  Here’s some pics of a crime scene.

This isn’t anything new for communities in Great Britain and Ireland.  This has been a major problem for their architectural treasures for decades.  Fine old buildings get stripped and the “parts’ are quickly packed into shipping containers and sent to the US for resale in some upscale architectural antiques retailers.

Us old house restorers act like kids in a toy store when in architectural salvage shops.  It might make a small difference if we take a few minutes to interview the proprietor.  I know some that won’t accept any merchandise without being confident that it’s from a legitimate source.  Also, looking out for and reporting suspicious activity at our empty neighbors might help preserve the character of our historic communities – and hope someone moves in soon (and doesn’t ruin it).


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  1. 5 Responses  to “Receiving Stolen Property”

  2. Aug 19, 2014
    We run into the concern of gutters being stolen all the time. However, if you are going to have a house that already has them or spend to get them, the cost of protecting your copper gutters is worth it. If installed properly, they are not easy to remove.
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    I don't believe metals / materials used to build houses have any identifying marks, but if they do you can report stolen property like this on a online stolen property list like I used it to report stolen property, a stolen ipod actually, a couple months ago but thought I'd simply mention it. Could be moot.
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    It's not just old homes, either (although I know that's the subject matter here). When my wife and I lived in Jamul, CA (East County San Diego) we saw an outbuilding, or at least what we thought was the beginning of one (a poured foundation). We came to find out that the building wasn't going UP, but had been torn DOWN - the sheet metal had been sold for drug money! It is a shame when you see so much great housing stock in towns that are no longer economic centers. Take for example a place like Newburgh, NY - once named America's most beautiful city (in the 1950s). Then came the social welfare movement in the 1960s. And you now have beautiful homes falling down. It's as much a crime as what's happening on those same streets.
  5. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    This is a very sad reality. I know it's been going on for a while, but I was startled a few months ago when I read in the NYT's weekend magazine, a great (but long) article called All Boarded Up, about Cleveland's continuing struggle with house molesters. Saddest of all: most of these old houses have been so badly pillaged and destroyed, that the only solution, according to banks and the city, is to raze them.
  6. Brian Berry
    Aug 29, 2011
    Bill, Thanks for covering this subject. Theft of this nature has a long history in Baltimore, especially copper and other salvageable metals. Sadly, the phenomenon is integral to the city's persistent and ever-growing cocaine/heroin addict population, ever-present illegal open-air drug markets, and convenient metal salvage yards. Some discussion of salvage yard regulation has occurred; however, no action has been taken to apply the brake on this easy source of drug money.