From the street, at least, Robert and Shannon Vigil's old home looks great.

Sunlight falls gently on the two-story pad on a corner lot in San Tan Heights, just another sprawling subdivision in Pinal County's unincorporated Queen Creek.

But look over the backyard wall, or venture inside, and it's easy to see that nearly two years of vacancy has taken its toll. Vandals have trashed the home, breaking windows, dumping mattresses into the backyard, throwing beer bottles into the pool and even stuffing the toilet with crossword books.

"I just couldn't believe that anyone would be so disrespectful," Shannon Vigil said. "But at the same time, the bank, they basically allowed it to happen by not taking the house when we told them we were leaving, by not working with us when we were trying to save the house."

Count the Vigils' old house as one of thousands of vacant homes across the state, and part of a shadow inventory of foreclosures that will continue to come on the market for years. Although the Vigils said they stopped making payments in February 2008 and moved out at the end of the year, neither Countrywide, which issued their primary loan, nor Bank of America, which acquired Countrywide, has foreclosed. Three auction notices have been recorded, but nothing has happened.

What bothers the Vigils, who were extremely upside down on their home, is that they tried to pursue a modification and then a short sale at about $155,000 before walking away and filing for bankruptcy. To see the house sit and get trashed nags at them because it feels like a waste.

"Basically, they don't want to lose any money," Shannon Vigil said. "Well, hello, the house has been sitting vacant for two years. You've lost plenty of money."

Calls and e-mails to Bank of America were not returned.

United States Postal Service data show about 120,000 vacant housing units across the state, said University of Arizona economist Marshall Vest. Of those, about 25,000 units are in the Tucson metro area and 90,000 are in the Phoenix metro area.

The data track previously occupied units that have gone without mail delivery for 90 days.

"If anything, I would think those numbers understate the idea of vacant houses," Vest said.

The Vigils took a typical path to financial ruin. They bought the five-bedroom house in 2004 for $207,000, only to refinance a year later on a $292,500 loan from Countrywide. They then took out a second loan from Arizona Federal Credit Union of $26,000 to put in a pool. They planned to flip the home after three years to move into something bigger and better.

The Countrywide loan was a bad one: an adjustable rate with payment options. These types of loans have been described as financial weapons of mass destruction because they give borrowers a range of payment options including a "minimum payment," which tacks on additional principal to the loan. The Vigils didn't totally understand what they signed up for.

"Our understanding was principal and interest was going to be $1,400," Shannon Vigil said. But they found out that $1,400 was the minimum payment.

Eventually the Vigils found themselves in a total bind. They owed $318,500, on a home that is now worth maybe $120,000.

The Vigils still live in Queen Creek, renting a home Robert's mother bought for them, which they hope to own when their credit improves. Financial distress almost ripped the young couple apart, but they say things are better now that they are free of the house. They live on a budget, save for things, and their new plan is to stay put and raise their kids. No more house flipping.

"It's not all the bank's fault. It's the bank's and our fault," Robert Vigil said. "Everybody was talking about how good (the housing market) was. … We were on record pace and the market is going to keep doing what it's been doing. Why not ride the boat, you know? And it sunk on us, basically."

Instead of reflecting promise, Pinal now reflects the state’s present-day challenges — namely few jobs, high unemployment and an economy over-reliant on housing construction.

How Pinal recovers from the housing crisis — if ever — will set the tone for the Arizona of the future and whether the state’s two leading cities merge.

For Pinal’s leaders, recovery means luring more growth.

While hyper-growth fueled Pinal’s housing mess, growth, Pinal officials say, will lead the county out of it.

In this two-part investigation, the Arizona Daily Star brings readers inside Pinal County, the heart of the state’s housing crisis.

Part 1
After housing bust, Pinal sees solution: more growth

Part 2
Pinal plight: lots of roofs, few jobs