By JAMES R. HAGERTY
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Four years after the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble, flipping homes is back in fashion.
Jon Mirmelli, a Phoenix real-estate investor, learned late in the morning of Sept. 28 that a never-occupied custom house on the northern fringes of this Phoenix suburb was going up for auction around noon the same day. The six-bedroom home, built on a three-acre desert plot, has a kitchen with two dishwashers, four ovens, “antibacterial” copper sinks, and a master “spa” bathroom with space for a flat-screen TV visible from the tub.
Avraham Azoulay and Donna Valva looked over their list of foreclosed houses outside the Maricopa County Court building during an auction in Phoenix, Dec. 3, 2009.
The minimum bid, as set by a unit of Citigroup Inc., which had a $1.3 million mortgage on the home, was $379,900. After several minutes of bidding among investors and their representatives, some wearing shorts and flip-flops, Mr. Mirmelli won the home for $486,300. A week later, he agreed to sell it for $690,000 to a woman who moved in this month.
During the housing boom, millions of Americans tried to make money by buying and then quickly reselling new houses and condominiums. That kind of flipping stopped several years ago as home sales stalled amid a surge in foreclosures and curtailed lending.
Now, a different breed of flipper is proliferating: one who seeks bargains at foreclosure auctions. Unlike the boom-time flippers, the latest generation needs cold cash, lots of local-market knowledge and strong nerves.
Investors compete mostly with other full-time professionals who monitor foreclosure auctions at county courthouses across the country. The bidders often haven’t had a chance to inspect the property or determine whether it’s occupied by tenants, who may be hard to evict.
Sometimes “you have half an hour to make a half-million-dollar decision,” says Damon Lines, an executive at PostedProperties.com, a Phoenix firm that provides information to foreclosure investors and bids on their behalf. “That’s something most people can’t or aren’t willing to do.”
In the states where home prices have fallen the most, many local real-estate markets are dominated by foreclosed property, dragging down the value of neighboring homes. Barclays Capital estimates that banks and mortgage investors have 639,000 foreclosed homes for sale across the U.S., largely concentrated in Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada. That’s equivalent to more than 10% of expected U.S. home sales this year.
“ Don’t try this at home kids. It’s still a risky business. ”
— Charlie Rose.
Flippers swoop in at public auctions of foreclosed homes, known as trustee or sheriff sales. In many states, the lender sets the minimum bid, and takes possession of the property only if no one bids more. In the past, the minimum generally was about equal to the mortgage balance due. But in today’s market, in which many home values have dropped far below the loan balance, lenders wouldn’t attract investors if they set the minimum at that level.
So lenders, or the loan-servicing firms that represent banks and investors, are increasingly likely to set the minimum much lower. Their goal is to tempt others to buy the house and spare banks the headaches and costs that come with taking possession.
Sean O’Toole, chief executive officer of ForeclosureRadar.com, a research firm, estimates that in November about 21% of homes sold in trustee sales in California went to investors rather than to a foreclosing lender, up from 6% a year earlier. The trend is similar in some other areas with high foreclosure rates, including Phoenix and Miami.
The advantage of such an outcome for the bank is that it gets money for the property right away, even if it isn’t enough to cover the loan balance due. The bank doesn’t need to make repairs to the home, cover the taxes and insurance, or pay real-estate-agent commissions.
The risk for banks is that if they set the minimum bid too low, the home might end up selling for much less than they could reap if they took ownership of it and sold it themselves. But with some 7.5 million U.S. households behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure, many lenders are overwhelmed. They’re negotiating with distressed borrowers and figuring out how to sell the growing supply of foreclosed homes.
“The banks are so screwed up,” says Mr. Mirmelli, the Phoenix investor, that they don’t always have a clear idea of the value of the property they are foreclosing on.
To help them set the minimum bid, banks often consult with local real-estate agents and use software that estimates housing values. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., which collects payments and handles foreclosures on behalf of banks and loan investors, uses a formula designed to “achieve a fair value for the property and induce third-party bidders,” says Christine Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Coppell, Texas-based firm.
American Home starts with a broker’s estimate and subtracts the expected costs of taking ownership of the house and selling it. The minimum bid is above the net proceeds American Homes believes it could get by acquiring and selling the property itself, she says.
Outside the Maricopa County court building in downtown Phoenix, trustees, companies that are hired to handle foreclosure auctions, offer as many as 600 or 700 houses every weekday. A typical auction lasts only a few minutes. On a recent afternoon, a few dozen bidders and onlookers were clustered around a trustee employee seated on a lawn chair conducting auctions. He kept track of the bids on a laptop computer perched on one knee.
Many of the bidders are regulars at the sale, bidding for themselves or on behalf of investor clients. “We’re all kind of like a little dysfunctional family,” says Steve Mutsaers, a representative of PostedProperties, who was wearing black sunglasses, a white polo shirt and gray plaid shorts. During the summer, Mr. Mutsaers says, he wears a sombrero to cope with temperatures well above 100 degrees.
People who attend trustee sales here and in other foreclosure hot spots around the nation say the auctions have recently been attracting more bidders. “Properties are getting bid up,” says Hal Feinberg, a Phoenix property investor. “You can still get good deals, but you’ve got to be more patient than you were a year ago.” He and other investors in the Phoenix area say they have been flipping a lot of the homes they buy to Canadians taking advantage of a weak U.S. dollar.
Buying at these auctions is perilous. There are no public viewings, so bidders often can’t know how much damage may have been done inside a house by occupants facing foreclosure. “We’ve seen everything,” says Doug Hopkins, chief executive of PostedProperties. “We’ve seen people pour concrete down the toilets.” Unless they’ve done their homework, bidders also don’t always know whether they’re buying a home subject to a lien from another lender, which can happen in cases where the borrower took out more than one home loan.
Investors in Phoenix gather at one of the 700 auctions that take place here each weekday.
Because of such complexities, many of the bidders are people with experience in the property business. Jon Goodman, a real-estate lawyer in Boulder, Colo., for example, has bought 19 properties so far this year with other investors and sold 11 of them.
In February, the group won an auction for a home in Commerce City, Colo., near Denver, by bidding $142,000. Only afterwards did they discover that the previous owners had stripped the house of a toilet, much of the carpeting and a kitchen range. They replaced the missing items and made other minor improvements, eventually selling the house in May for $209,000. (The loan balance on the house had been $265,663.)
Mr. Goodman says their expenses came to about $24,000, including about $8,000 for real-estate commissions. That left a pretax profit of about $43,000.
The foreclosure auction was handled by American Home Mortgage Servicing. Ms. Sullivan, the spokeswoman for American Home, says the firm believes it didn’t underprice the home and it received “a fair, market-value price for the property.”
In Miami, a group of investors led by Oded M. Kaiser recently bought a condo at auction for $170,000. Two weeks later, they flipped it for $330,000. The loan balance was about $466,000. A spokeswoman for Litton Loan Servicing, which handled the sale on behalf of mortgage investors, declined to comment.
Not all flippers come out on top. Mr. Goodman says one of his legal clients, bidding on his own, unwittingly bought a house that was still subject to a first-lien mortgage. To gain control of the property, the client had to pay off the first mortgage. As a result, says Mr. Goodman, the client, who declined to be named, is likely to have at least a small loss on the deal.
Last summer, Phoenix investor Greg Thielen bought a home at an auction and later found that the former owner had stripped out air-conditioning units, granite countertops and kitchen cabinets, and uprooted palm trees from the lawn. Repair costs came to about $30,000, leaving Mr. Thielen with a small loss on the purchase. “It’s not as easy as people think,” says Mr. Thielen.
Investor Jon Mirmelli in the kitchen of the Scottsdale home he flipped.
The Scottsdale property bought by Mr. Mirmelli was supposed to be the dream home for Brad and Michelle McCaughey and their three children. Mr. McCaughey, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., was a minor-league hockey player and coach after graduating from the University of Michigan. About nine years ago, having moved to Phoenix, he says he discovered “a passion for real estate.” He became a real-estate agent and began investing with his father and brothers-in-law in rental properties. Soon they had a dozen homes.
In 2005, Mr. McCaughey and his wife paid about $500,000 for three acres of desert land and began building a home. By the time the house was nearing completion in 2008, the family rental-property business was in trouble because financing and other costs were exceeding their income.
The McCaugheys started selling their rental properties and put their own house on the market. They hoped to avert a foreclosure by getting Citigroup to accept a short sale, in which a home is sold for less than the loan balance due. Before they could find a buyer, though, Citigroup foreclosed on the home, and it went up for auction at the Maricopa County Courthouse this past September.
Citigroup initially set the minimum bid at auction at $1.3 million, far more than the market value, given comparable sales in the neighborhood. Then, on the morning of the sale, Citigroup lowered that minimum to $379,900. PostedProperties, which monitors Web sites for such price changes, sent out an email on the opportunity to Mr. Mirmelli.
A Reluctant House Flipper Yearns to Buy and Hold
Mr. Mirmelli has his iPhone set up so he can call up the address of a home due to be auctioned, see a map of the neighborhood with a tap of his finger and then see panoramic photos of the street with another tap. While he researched the home, one of his partners drove out to see the exterior and make sure there were no occupants. A PostedProperties employee bid on their behalf and won the house for $486,300, a sum that then went through the trustee to Citigroup.
After expenses of about $54,000, including real-estate commissions and minor repairs, Mr. Mirmelli and his partners expect a profit of about $150,000 on the flip. “It turned out to be a very good return,” he says.
A spokesman for Citigroup declined to comment on the transaction.
The McCaugheys, who formerly owned the house, are now renting a smaller home. Mr. McCaughey now works for a telecommunications service and is thinking about going back into hockey-related work.
Over a bowl of soup at a Paradise Bakery & Café in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, Mr. McCaughey says he sees a lot of real-estate bargains now and may jump back into the market at some point. As for the losses he’s taken on his former holdings, he says: “It is what it is. You deal with it.”