Foreclosure Express

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They boarded the Foreclosure Express Bus early last Saturday, ready to hunt for bargains amid South Florida's housing bust.

The monthly tours, which start at $99, help investors find, buy and fix up the thousands of bank-owned homes across Broward and Palm Beach counties.

"The distressed real estate in California and Florida is the biggest opportunity I've seen in my career," said Ray List, 67, a former chief executive of public companies and one of eight investors on Saturday's tour.

Another investor, John Tuoto, 45, was looking for more foreclosures after completing his first project last week.

He bought a three-bedroom home west of Boca Raton, Fla., for $93,500, spent $20,000 on renovations and resold it for nearly $150,000.

With so much money tied up in the home, Tuoto, who works full time for a paint manufacturer, said it was torture waiting the 10 days for a buyer.

"It feels like somebody grabs your heart and squeezes it," he said.

Multiple foreclosure bus tours started popping up across the state three years ago, shortly after the foreclosure wave turned into a tsunami.

David Dweck, founder of the Boca Real Estate Investment Club and organizer of last weekend's 41/2;-hour tour, said he's been doing them for 15 years.

When the bus pulled up to the first foreclosure, a cream-colored house with tan trim, Dweck walked through the living room, pointing out potential renovations.

"Now with this black marble flooring," he said, "what I would do here is go right over it with tile."

The three-bedroom house near Boca Raton is listed for sale at $93,000, more than many other foreclosures. The profit margin after renovations might not be suitable, Dweck said, adding that the home likely would make an investor more money as a $1,300-a-month rental.

If so, Dweck said, whoever buys it shouldn't outfit it with fancy finishes and high-end appliances because tenants don't demand them.

Dweck insists that the "buy low, sell high" mantra is a misnomer. He preaches "buy low, sell low" so that investors don't get stuck with properties they can't unload. His rule of thumb: Buy a home that costs no more than 65 percent of the market value after repairs.

He said people don't have to be rich to invest in foreclosures, but they must have some savings.

Dweck offers short-term financing to buy the homes. Still, investors need $15,000 to $20,000 of their own cash to fix up one property and carry it until it's sold.

The last of the six homes on Saturday's tour presented a challenge for any investor. It was a split-level property on a corner lot in a good neighborhood — but it needed a new roof and extensive repairs inside.

Claudia Dunne, a self-described HGTV junkie who took the tour because she expects to become a full-time investor, decided to pass.

"Too big of an undertaking for me," she said as she settled back into her seat on the bus.

A couple of the more experienced investors seemed interested, if they could buy the home for well below the $80,000 asking price.

Real estate investors helped fuel the housing boom, and many were devastated financially when the market crashed.

Investors now are sometimes derided as vultures, but they insist they're helping the housing market recover by renovating homes and improving neighborhoods that have been decimated in the past several years.

"The homes are on the market; we didn't put them there," investor Valerie Szymaniak said. "We're not taking advantage of anyone's misfortune. Some of these homes are in such bad shape that (a regular buyer) couldn't see the potential."

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