Home "flippers" were following American Dream

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sherrill Zenie said all she wanted was a piece of the American Dream, but what she got was “a kick in the rear.”

Speculators who bought multiple homes were once a boon to the U.S. economy when they pushed home prices to record levels over a five-year period. Now their unsold homes are the bane of a sickly housing market. REUTERS/Shai Goller

Zenie is one of a legion of a relatively new type of homeowner, a “flipper,” who sought fast money by rapidly buying and selling homes to capture a profit on each as prices soared.

Speculators who bought multiple homes like Zenie were once a boon to the U.S. economy when they pushed home prices to record levels over a five-year period. Now their unsold homes are the bane of a sickly housing market.

Many are stuck with unoccupied properties they cannot sell and mortgages that are bigger than the appraised value of the home, a situation known as being “upside down.”

The glut of unsold homes comes as lenders are making it harder for borrowers to get loans, causing defaults to escalate and home prices to decline further.

“Investors that initially purchased a property with no money down or a very low down payment could now find themselves upside down, and without prospects of selling the property soon may opt to just walk away,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst, Bankrate Inc in North Palm Beach, Florida.

President Bush has proposed relief for subprime borrowers with weak credit who are at risk of losing homes because their mortgages were poorly suited for them. He refuses, however, to bail out the speculators that many see as high-rollers.

The Federal Reserve’s half percentage point interest rate cut will do more to stimulate inflation than to slice long-term mortgage rates, providing scant relief, some economists say.

Nearly one-third of prime mortgage defaults in Nevada, and 25 percent in Florida were on non-owner occupied properties as of June 30, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“Nobody is looking, either to rent or to buy,” says Sherrill Zenie, 60, of Delray Beach, Florida, who is stuck with two unsold condominiums there after profitably selling two others.

She owns the condos outright, as well as her own home, part of a vacation home in Vermont. But taxes, maintenance and a home equity credit line cost over $2,000 a month for the two condos alone, a stretch for Zenie, who is out of work on disability.

“I wanted to follow the American Dream,” she says. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur and make some money -- not a killing, but some money. Instead, I got a kick in the rear.”

Her husband has found a job in another state to help pay the bills.

“Am I panicking? I would be hysterical if my husband weren’t in Mississippi working.”


Success was the problem.

Speculators reaped hoards of money as bidding wars erupted for properties often before they were listed or even built.

“People were buying a condo in Florida, or five condos in Florida before they even broke ground, and before they even had the condo half-way built they would sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits,” notes Jim Gillespie, president and chief executive at Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

But housing is cyclical, and the record sales and price spree was unsustainable, economists and industry experts note.

“The big lesson is that even during hot times, if you’re going to invest in real estate or stocks or bonds, gold or silver, or anything, and you try to time the market and invest with the intent of flipping in a very short period of time, eventually you are going to get burned,” Gillespie said.


Andrea Wolkenberg, 50, director of a pain management clinic in White Plains, New York, says the speculative fever was too hard to resist for many.

“I think you get stars in your eyes, when the mortgage industry is throwing money at you,”

She has just rented out two Florida investment units she has long been unable to sell, and took on a third roommate in New York to ease the burden. “The condos have really been bleeding me.”

Wolkenberg bought the units after making about $200,000 on a Florida preconstruction property. “That was September 2005 and I’m still sitting with them. The market tanked hard and fast,” she says. “If the rentals work out, I will consider myself one of the lucky ones. It will make holding on until this market turns possible. Long-term, I could come out OK.”

The mention of speculators spurs a flurry of cliches by industry experts: there’s no free lunch, trees don’t grow to the sky, not having a place to sit down when the music stops.

“Sometimes they’re vilified but they shouldn’t be,” says Barry Habib, chief executive of Mortgage Market Guide, a real estate market information service in Holmdel, New Jersey. “That’s the American way. They go back to the Gold Rush.”

Speculators “add jet fuel” both on the way up and on the way down, he said. “Nobody was saying ‘hey, the speculators were bad’ on the way up, when people were selling their homes and making lots more money.”