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Fla. Real Estate Agent Offers Foreclosure Tours

Prospective home buyers file off of real estate agent Marc Joseph's "Foreclosure Tours R Us" bus in Lee County, Fla., where the housing boom has turned into a bust.
Jim Zarroli, NPR
Prospective home buyers file off of real estate agent Marc Joseph's "Foreclosure Tours R Us" bus in Lee County, Fla., where the housing boom has turned into a bust.

Real estate agent Marc Joseph always figured that when he turned 40 and hit his midlife crisis, he'd go out and buy an expensive sports car — maybe a Porsche or a Viper.

Instead, he ended up sinking his money into the green bus.

Joseph offers tours of bank-owned properties in Lee County, Fla., where the housing boom has turned into a bust faster than you can say "sheriff's sale."

Foreclosures are something of a growth industry in the area these days, with about 40 coming on the market each day, and Joseph noticed not long ago that everywhere he went, people were asking him about how to find them.

So he bought a bus from a church, painted it green and printed "Foreclosure Tours R Us" across the side.

"As a business owner with years of experience, when you realize your business is starting to suffer, you need to make a move or you're going to be put out of business. My move was the green bus, selling foreclosures," Joseph said.

The tours are only a few months old, but Joseph says they are luring a lot of bargain-hunters into the area.

On a recent Saturday morning, Joseph and his staff drove about a dozen people through the streets of Cape Coral, a city of about 160,000 people on the Gulf of Mexico. For three hours, they visited nearly a dozen bank-owned properties, many of which had been marked down more than 50 percent. They included:

-- A four-bedroom, three-bathroom house with an in-ground pool that last sold for $741,500 in March 2006; it's on the market now for $369,900

-- A three-bedroom ranch house on a freshwater canal selling for $143,500, having been sold just 17 months ago for $316,800

-- A five-year-old, three-bedroom condo with Italian-marble floors selling for $284,900; it sold for $480,000 in December 2006

The real estate fervor that gripped Florida and other states during the easy-money days of 2005 and '06 has left a glut of unsold properties. Fishkind and Associates estimates that Lee County has a three- to five-year inventory of unsold homes, compared with one year in normal times.

As a result, homes can now be bought for well under the replacement cost, Joseph says.

"There is a lot of inventory on the market, and there's a lot more coming," Joseph says. "The key to understanding what's happening is that when these foreclosures are gone, and we've cleaned up our subprime problem, we will be back to our original market. And that is going to be the point at which everyone is going to say they wish they had done something."

Those showing up for the tour included a Canadian couple eager to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate by buying a retirement home; a Michigan businessman eager to relocate to the area; and a couple hoping to buy an inexpensive condo for their daughter, who has a low-paying bank job.

Prices are "very reasonable. I was down here when they were at their peak, and they've really dropped drastically," said Leo Felber, a retiree with family in the area. He had tried to buy before, but prices were too high.

"I can afford what's down here now," he said.

In fact, the silver lining of the real estate downturn has been that housing has become affordable again. During the boom, working people such as teachers, police officers and service workers had trouble buying homes in the county, says Shelton Weeks, professor of real estate at Florida Gulf Coast University. The high housing costs made recruiting employees into the area much harder, Weeks says.

Joseph says he started the foreclosure tours to keep his business going, earning commissions when he sells bank-owned properties. But Joseph, who grew up in Fort Myers, also believes he is helping Lee County bounce back from the housing bust.

"I'm taking the product off the market that's driving our economy down," he says, "and I'm taking the product that is on the market and putting it in the hands of people who deserve it — [the buyers] who couldn't afford it two and a half years ago."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.