Image: Foreclosure bus tour
Peter Cosgrove  /  AP file
Prospective buyer Marcia Coleman takes a last look at the home she just viewed during the Foreclosure Bus Tour in Orlando, Fla.
updated 3/26/2008 5:01:44 PM ET 2008-03-26T21:01:44

The white bus rumbles into the quiet suburban neighborhood, heading toward a foreclosed home that sits empty. Neighbors, young and old, cock their heads in curiosity or point at the slow-moving coach.

Once the vehicle stops, about 20 potential buyers file out and become detectives, opening and closing cabinets and drawers, knocking on walls and asking about the price, the previous owners and what repairs may be needed.

Welcome to the Foreclosure Bus Tour, a six-hour expedition to show Orlando-area homes and educate potential buyers on the vagaries of snatching foreclosures in a state where the housing market has struggled over the past two years. Real estate agents have also organized tours in California, where the idea seems to have originated, and cities such as Phoenix, Detroit, Kansas City and Jacksonville.

The Orlando prospects included working-class people looking for a family home, speculators seeking a bargain investment and even a Brit trying to take advantage of the weak dollar. To avoid embarrassing owners, the bus stops only at empty homes.

"I thought it would be nice to have a look at some American houses all at once, see how the market works," said Geoff Lamont, a London tanker truck driver who was on vacation and dreams of moving to Florida with his wife.

"You see some nice, nice properties that are much cheaper than you can get in the U.K. It's been good. You can get a feel for how a place is," said Lamont, 50.

The homes were in the market after lenders took them over from owners who failed to make mortgage payments. In February, Florida trailed only Nevada and California in the percentage of homes in foreclosure. RealtyTrac Inc. said 32,447 homes were in foreclosure statewide in February, up more than 69 percent from February of last year and up more than 7 percent from January.

For Janice Ziesig, owner of Z House Realty Group in Orlando, the tours present allow her to show homes to many people at once. A cost of $45 per person or $65 per couple covered the tour, house information, teaching sessions, a continental breakfast and lunch at Applebee's. Everyone on the bus said the fee was worth it.

The March 15 tour also included a mortgage broker; a home inspector who pointed out details such as structural issues, water damage and electrical problems; an attorney who answered questions about title insurance and short sales; and real estate agents with information on square footage, when the home was built and other key information.

The group dynamic, with 20 people from different backgrounds and income levels, made for constant dialogue between prospective buyers and the experts.

"A day like this is a great laboratory and a great classroom, and it almost gives you a stepping-off point that when you do go to buy, it gives you areas you need to dig deep into," said Ken Nuckols, who was looking for a home.

The first house — in a subdivision with single-family homes, tennis courts and abundant green space — was an example of a fixer-upper that needs "a little lipstick and rouge," Ziesig said. At $201,000, the three-bedroom, two-bath home that was built in 2003 looked fine from the outside, but inside it had visible water damage on the walls, carpet stains and other issues.

Some were intrigued at the low price and the chance to fix it up. Others weren't.

"Either it was people who weren't very careful when they ripped stuff out or the people who owned it just didn't take care of it at all," Nuckols said. "You would have to invest quite a bit of money to bring it up to a standard that you would want."

The second property, a two-story home with four bedrooms and three baths, drew raves because it was so well-maintained. Built in 2004, the 2,514-square foot, two-story home was a relative bargain at $257,000.

Between stops, mortgage broker Cecil Moore answered questions on home loans and risk, telling the riders to get a deal that fits their budget to avoid foreclosure themselves.

"Go with your gut instinct," Moore said. "If you feel like something is not right with your financing or any aspect of the transaction, it's important to feel like ... you have the ability to bring things to a halt."

A few stops later, the bus arrived in a neighborhood where homes were much older. Homes with nice lawns and updated exteriors were peppered among others with sagging rain gutters and peeling paint.

Built in 1985, the three-bedroom, two-bath home with 1,543 square feet was rife with repair issues, including a pool deck that directed water toward the home instead of away. That made the $169,000 price just a starting point.

Kim Douglas Moore, a home inspector who is no relation to Cecil Moore, estimated that the home needed more than $30,000 in repairs.

Across the street, a woman and two girls sat in their front yard, and another neighbor came walking by. They were not enthusiastic about the traffic problem the bus's presence caused and having its passengers milling about.

"If it came through every day, it would be annoying because there's kids playing here all the time," said neighbor Jennifer Mastin.

Tour participant Beverly Frazier, of Poinciana, said she wanted to buy homes to rent, and had no misgivings about buying a home that once belonged to someone who couldn't meet loan obligations.

"It doesn't affect me because you didn't do your homework and you didn't budget properly," Frazier said. "When you purchase a home you have to know that it's a big commodity and you have to actually take care of it and do research on it."

The tour ended after seven homes, and while Ziesig received no concrete offers for any of the homes, she was happy she was able to make home buying more fun and accessible to potential buyers. She plans tours in April and May, and even wants to have a bilingual tour for Spanish-speakers.

"It's turning out just the way it's supposed to," Ziesig said. "We wanted to do something different. We wanted to teach people. People are interested. It gets people to call."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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