A Niche in the Wreckage of Florida Real Estate
Chip Litherland for The New York Times
Published: April 7, 2011
NORTH PORT, Fla. — One recent morning, Shannon Moore raced through a musty pink house — three bedrooms, two baths — that was advertised as having “good bones” and “primed for renovation.” As in many recently foreclosed homes in Florida, the appliances and air-conditioner were missing from this one, either taken by the previous residents or stolen.
”It’s not as bad as I thought,” Ms. Moore said. “You could probably get this place fixed up for $8,000. You could get a refrigerator on Craigslistfor $200.”
“$70,000?” she asks aloud, referring to the list price. “What the heck?” Ms. Moore, a real estate broker, has found a profitable niche in the wreckage of Florida’s real estate market, where a glut of vacant homes continues to depress prices. She scouts out deals for several groups of investors, including one that counts a professional poker player as a member and a group of Macedonians from Toronto.
Just a few years back, real estate investors were considered pariahs for fomenting a buying frenzy that drove home prices to stratospheric levels. This time around, housing experts say investors are desperately needed because there are so many vacant homes and homebuyers are having such trouble obtaining credit.
“If Florida is going to have a comeback anytime soon, investors are going to have to play a role,” said Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at RealtyTrac. “There are just too many properties for traditional home buyers to absorb.”
Of course, speculators have been picking through the rubble of America’s real estate collapse for several years now, and the housing industry remains deeply troubled across the country, suggesting that it would be far worse were it not for investors. Data released by the National Association of Realtors recently shows that investors represented 17 percent of all home sales in 2010 nationwide, the same as the previous year. But in recent months, investment activity has picked up, according to Walter Molony, an association spokesman, who attributed the increase to relatively cheap prices and the lack of available credit for homebuyers.
There is no shortage of deals in Florida. The Census Bureau recently reported that 17 percent of the homes in Florida were vacant. Even though the figure includes vacation homes that were unoccupied at the time of the survey, the underlying rate within the state reflects a sustained downturn.
The median house price in Florida, meanwhile, had dropped to $121,900 in February, from $257,800 in June 2006, a decline of 53 percent, according to Metrostudy, a housing research firm. Indeed, some houses and condominiums in Florida are selling for roughly the price of a practical family sedan, new or used.
For instance, a two-bedroom house in Port Charlotte, just south of North Port on the gulf coast of the state, recently sold for $8,000, and listings for $25,000 homes are not uncommon. Many experts expect prices to drop even further.
”Nationally we are expecting prices to stabilize by the end of this year,” said Celia Chen, senior director at Moody’s Analytics. “We don’t expect it to stabilize in Florida until sometime in 2012, and that’s a direct overhang of the excess inventory.”
Despite the risks, several investors expressed optimism about their chances of making money, if not a killing.
“A wise man told me that the best time to enter a business is during a recession,” said Peter Ide, a British builder who was transferred by his company to Florida to buy up homes, fix them up and resell them. “The potential here is phenomenal.”
Steve Barnhardt, a friend of Ms. Moore’s, said he began buying up houses to stay afloat until the market revived. On this morning, he was installing inexpensive carpet in a three-bedroom house that he purchased for $76,000 and had just sold for $103,000; he estimates his profit was $9,000 after paying $5,000 in back taxes and closing costs. (He says he could have made more if not for “low-life” neighbors.)
“The things I used to do are no longer out there,” said Mr. Barnhardt, who had previously made a comfortable living investing in commercial real estate and operating heavy equipment. “Right now, this is what is paying my property taxes and keeping me alive.”
Not everyone views real estate investors as that benign, or savvy. April Charney, a public aid lawyer who lives in nearby Venice, questioned why investors would fix up houses with so few eligible buyers. Besides, she said the new owners were likely to end up with a vacant home next door with squatters, mold or filthy pools.
“They are dreaming,” she said. “That’s just a pipe dream in North Port.”
As for investors, there is the occasional reminder that they are benefitting from the misfortunes of others. A few weeks ago, a painter found a letter addressed to “the next occupant of this fine home” in one of the houses Ms. Moore’s investors had purchased.
“This house was my dream but like life sometimes dreams don’t work out,” the letter read. “Now I’m just surrounded with boxes of memories and dashed intentions of what may have been. So do me a favor. Make your own good memories here.”
About 35 miles southeast of Sarasota, North Port was carved out of shrub land in the 1950s by the General Development Corporation, which sold the plots to buyers up north. It remained a relatively quiet community until the last decade, when developers erected one subdivision after the next.
North Port’s population doubled in less than four years, city officials say. There are now about 55,000 residents.
In those high-flying days of Florida real estate, Ms. Moore said she would buy up vacant shrub land and sell seven or eight lots on a good day, for $50,000 apiece, making as much as 40 percent in profits.
Those days are long gone, and North Port has fallen hard. Ms. Moore, a Florida native, is stuck with four plots that cost her $38,000 each (each is worth $5,000 or less) and a duplex she bought for $140,000 (it’s now worth $30,000, she says).
She is also $100,000 under water on her house and living on a street, Mistleto Lane, in which a third of the houses are vacant, including one just across the street.
Nonetheless, Ms. Moore reinvented herself as an intelligence agent of sorts, alerting her clients, for instance, to details like whether a house has undesirable neighbors, Chinese drywall or an unsavory past. (She steered her clients away from a three-bedroom house that appeared to be a steal, but was tied to a grisly rape and murder.)
One investor, a Florida businessman, exclusively buys duplexes. Ms. Moore’s Macedonian clients want three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses that cost about $100,000, which they buy and rent. Mr. Ide’s group, which includes a retired Maryland developer and the poker player, buys homes at foreclosure auctions, fixes them up and resells them.
Since investors can’t inspect the inside of a foreclosed house before auction, Mr. Ide’s group is particularly reliant on Ms. Moore’s local knowledge. If she isn’t familiar with a house, she drives by and often brings along two of her three daughters, who are home-schooled. (Her 13-year-old, Willow, has made as much as $400 a week on Craigslist, selling belongings left behind in vacant homes.)
During a recent auction, Ms. Moore sat in front of a computer screen in her office, with Mr. Ide’s partner, Jon Breen, the retired developer, on the speaker phone. Thirteen properties were being auctioned by the county this morning, though Mr. Breen focused his attention on a half dozen or so.
Ms. Moore pulled up comparable sales and back taxes, while Mr. Breen calculated his costs aloud.
“Barcelona has $8,367 in back taxes,” she says, referring to a house on Barcelona Avenue in Sarasota. “Remember the house next door had an odd color.”
“I think it’s a junky piece of property,” Mr. Breen said, before bidding $59,000.
Later, when the house sells for $64,001, she says, “Who is the dummy today? They are paying way too much.”
Mr. Breen ended up buying two houses in North Port, one for $111,001 and another for $77,002.
Later that day, when Ms. Moore met the investors to change the locks and inspect the houses, they were pleasantly surprised. Both houses were in relatively good condition and would require only some paint and minor repairs.
“This is about as good as it gets,” Mr. Ide said, as he inspected the $111,001 house, a four-bedroom where some water damage around the Jacuzzi was the only apparent problem. But it did get better.
A week later, after $4,500 was spent on new appliances and repairs, an offer was made on the house for $152,000.
Ms. Moore, meanwhile, has plowed her earnings into her own deals, recently purchasing a second duplex for $30,000 in cash. “I’m getting $650 a side in rent, a lot better than the stock market,” she said. “My plan is to buy up as much multifamily as I can while the market is down.”