Image: Auction
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
To the uninitiated, it would be hard to tell that millions of dollars’ worth of real estate is changing hands at this foreclosure auction outside the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/19/2009 6:16:17 AM ET 2009-03-19T10:16:17

Opportunity is knocking in the chilly winter air of this Seattle suburb, and Rock Harrison intends to answer it.

Built like a linebacker and sporting a mustache-goatee combo, Harrison, 37, is one of three dozen people who have gathered around an aluminum picnic table outside an office building in a strip mall for one of two weekly public foreclosure auctions in Washington’s King County.

Harrison and four competitors have qualified to bid on a 3,300-square-foot McMansion on an acre lot in the south county town of Auburn. The house last sold for $470,450 more than four years ago, the county assesses it at $577,000, and well over $600,000 is owed against it on a pair of loans.

But the foreclosing lender, trying to recoup what it can in an area of plummeting real estate prices, has set the opening bid at just $267,000. Interest is high because most would-be buyers figure the house, currently vacant and in decent shape, can be quickly resold for about $500,000.

A short, bespectacled crier presides over the auction from one end of the picnic table.

Image: Auction
Mike Stuckey  /  msnbc.com
Rock Harrison
The bidding quickly leaps over $300,000, going up $3,000 and $4,000 at a pop, with offers from all participants. Above $320,000, where Harrison drops out, it becomes a two-man contest, each new bid often just $100 or $200 above the last. After more than 10 minutes and 75 bids, the property finally sells for just under $371,000.

Harrison tosses his bidding card on the table, tugs on his baseball cap with its Skidoo logo and awaits his next prospect.

The Bellevue bidders are participating in what is one of the few growth areas in the battered U.S. real estate industry. While savvy investors have long profited from dealing in distressed properties, the soaring rate of U.S. home foreclosures over the past few years has attracted  mainstream interest and crowds of new bidders.

“We’ve seen a sea change over the last three years,” said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of marketing for California-based RealtyTrac, an Internet service aimed at participants in the real estate foreclosure market.

On track for 3 million?
Sharga’s company, one of the most oft-quoted sources of nationwide foreclosure data, predicts that up to 3 million U.S. homes will face foreclosure proceedings this year — three to four times the normal number. Properties in foreclosure, “a niche market for so long,” have become so numerous that “now, conservatively, at least 50 to 60 percent of people who are in the market to buy a house are at least considering a foreclosure purchase,” Sharga said. “Historically, that simply hasn’t been the case.”

Foreclosure, or the threat of it, can lead to the disposal of real estate in three basic ways: a pre-foreclosure sale, often done as a “short sale,” in which the lender is willing to accept less than what is owed on the note; a trustee’s sale at public auction on the proverbial “courthouse steps,” with the property going to the highest bidder, often the lender itself; or post-foreclosure sales of properties that have reverted to the lenders, sometimes called REOs for “real estate owned.” And trustee sales should not be confused with giant auditorium “foreclosure auctions,” in which banks and other property owners dispose of portfolios of land and homes that they have taken back in earlier foreclosure procedures.

There’s no way to know how many foreclosed homes nationwide are actually sold to third parties at trustee sale auctions, said Sharga, who is probably in a better position than anyone else to know. Conventional wisdom puts the figure at about 20 percent, but “everyone’s estimate right now is that there are a much smaller percentage of properties being bought that way and a huge number are being taken back by banks,” which are entitled to set a minimum bid of what they are owed on a foreclosed note.

Spot figures confirm the lower rate. In California last year, just 3.6 percent of 249,940 properties sold at trustee auctions went to third-party buyers, according to the Web site ForeclosureRadar.com. In King County, Wash., where Harrison was bidding last week, just seven of 125 properties scheduled for auction were bought by third parties.

While short sales and REO homes are often listed and advertised for sale in ways identical to non-distressed property, generating commissions for agents who list and sell them, such is not the case with property destined for a trustee-sale auction.

“Realtors have absolutely zero interest in a trustee sale,” Sharga said. And investors who have been attending auctions for years have little interest in new competition. As a result, the process often remains shrouded in mystery. “It’s sort of a secret society without formal membership dues,” Sharga said.

For most first-timers, uneducated in advance, the action at a typical public auction would be impossible to follow. At most, there are no signs, no official programs, no helpful public employees. The auction criers are nothing like the mile-a-minute-talking, spittle-spewing, gavel-banging auctioneers who preside over livestock sales. They generally speak calmly and softly, heard only by the crowd in their immediate vicinity. It can be hard to tell from just a few feet away when an auction has started or finished. The only clear signal is when money changes hands.

But the regulars — who often appear to be dressed more for a ballgame than a high-stakes financial transaction as they shuffle papers and communicate furtively with partners and investors via ubiquitous Bluetooth earpieces — know exactly what’s going on. They are bidding on houses to hold as rental properties, to renovate and resell, or, less often, to move into themselves. Some are bidding for clients who don’t want to attend the auctions in person.

The most important thing to understand is the terms of payment, said Duane Harden, a Manhattan-based investor who has bought a couple of dozen foreclosed properties at auctions in several states since 2001. In New York, winning bidders must immediately fork over 10 percent of the purchase price and pay the balance within 30 to 45 days, he said.

“Do your homework,” he stressed in an interview with msnbc.com. “Know if they are going to deliver a clear title, know your redemption rules” which protect the foreclosed homeowner’s right, if any, to buy the auctioned property back.

In Washington state, bidders must pay the full purchase price on the spot with cash or a cashier’s check. In fact, they must “qualify” for a maximum amount for each property they want to bid for by showing the auctioneer their money.

There are plenty of other potential pitfalls when it comes to buying real estate at auction, which Sharga of RealtyTrac called “the highest-risk way” of obtaining distressed property. Bidders must be sure of what they’re getting, or they’ll “wind up buying a lemon,” he said. “There’s no recourse once you buy a property at an auction. If you didn’t realize all the wiring had been ripped out, if you didn’t find out there were two tax liens and three mechanics’ liens, that’s your problem, too.”

Hundreds of specialized firms
To help investors avoid those problems and deal with many other challenges of buying distressed property, both at auction and not, hundreds of specialized companies have sprung up, from local real estate offices to RealtyTrac and its 1.9 million foreclosure listings at the national level.

Image: Auction
Mike Stuckey  /  msnbc.com
Harley Dufek
“There’s traditional real estate, which is 99.9 percent of what’s out there, and then there’s us,” said Harley Dufek, 34, a partner in Real Estate Investment Firm of Redmond, Wash. A key part of the small company’s business is advising clients on buying at auction. These days, the company is using the public auctions as a marketing opportunity, handing out free packets of information on the properties that will be offered as a means of enticing auction newcomers to a weekly seminar where they can sign up as clients.

At the seminar, company founder Matthew Steel explains how his partners and employees pore over lists of homes scheduled for auction, drive through neighborhoods, peer into back yards, try to legally see inside houses wherever they can, and research mortgages, title status, tax liens, building permits and zoning.

He shows off the Web site where the firm’s registered clients can access all the data if they are willing to agree to pay a 3 percent commission on any properties they buy at foreclosure auctions. Becoming a client also gives an investor access to short-term financing and the luxury of having someone with Steel’s firm handle the actual bidding. Since investors often must bid on many properties to actually buy just one, such services can eliminate the need to shuffle funds from one cashier’s check to another and take time away from other tasks to attend the auctions.

Big risks, big rewards
Steel, 32, who has operated his own businesses since he was a high school senior, exudes enthusiasm about foreclosure auctions but cautions that “it takes work.

“There are extra liabilities. That’s why at a foreclosure auction you can get such good deals,” he said.

To Steele, a good deal at a foreclosure auction means buying a property for about 70 percent to 80 percent of its current value.

Christopher Hall, founder of Vestus, which he says buys 40 percent of all properties that sell to third parties at Washington state foreclosure auctions, said the prices paid by his firm at recent auctions range from 67 percent to 71 percent, down from 78 percent to 82 percent a year ago.

RealtyTrac advises its members that “a reasonable purchase amount at auction is at least 20 percent below full market value, and much better deals are often possible,” but Sharga notes that some buyers have unreasonable expectations. A recent survey by his firm found that 30 percent of consumers think they ought to get a 50 percent discount on a home bought at auction.

“People pay too much attention to infomercials,” Sharga said. “There is a myth and a misperception that you’re going to go to these auctions and buy properties for nothing. There are those properties. Go to Cleveland, you can buy a property for a few hundred dollars, but it’s in Cleveland, probably a part of Cleveland you don’t want to live in, and you’re not going to move your family there.”

Still, every serious player in the foreclosure auction game has stories about deals that seem almost too good to be true. For Harden, the Manhattan investor, it was a property mistakenly listed as a single unit. “It was two,” he said. “I got two for the price of one.” Likewise, Harrison, the Bellevue bidder, learned through extra homework that a house on an island in Puget Sound sat on two acres, not one, as listed in foreclosure documents. He was the only bidder who knew that.

And the insiders also have plenty of auction horror stories.

Recently, Steel said, an auction newcomer bought a home in a neighboring Washington county for $200,000. By all appearances, the home was easily worth twice that amount on the open market. However, “he bought a second-mortgage position,” said Steel, which meant that there was a first mortgage, likely for more than $200,000, still owing on the home. To make matters worse, the buyer was probably the only person at the auction who didn’t realize what he was doing. Some of the regular auction-goers were happy to see new competition so quickly derailed.

“If we see that kind of thing, we point it out,” Steel said, but “if you’re at an auction and think you’re getting something for 50 cents on the dollar and everybody else is standing around watching, something is wrong.”

That’s why Steel and everyone else on the bidding side who spoke with msnbc.com stressed education, information and patience when asked how they would advise newcomers to prepare for auctions.

A ringside seat
When Manhattan investor Duane Harden’s mother, Rose, wanted to try her hand at foreclosure auctions, her son “told me, ‘Mom, just go to the courthouse and learn how to do it.’” So Rose Harden, a resident of Georgia at the time, did just that: “I took me a folding chair, and I learned the rhythm and the recipe of it.” A short time later, she and her son bought three homes at an auction in Savannah, Ga.

Some auction participants said newcomers should be aware of the stigma associated with being a party to proceedings that can ultimately force families from their homes, whether they were owners or renters. In some cases, the new owner must actually evict them. But Dufek points out that his firm works with troubled sellers just as earnestly as with opportunistic buyers, and he said win-win situations can sometimes be created through short sales or leasebacks.

Dufek said it is important for bidders to know their “exit strategies” when buying foreclosed homes. While more and more auction buyers are seeking a one-time good deal on a primary residence for themselves, many regulars are still looking for rental properties or “flips,” homes they can quickly resell.

Image: Auction
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Matthew Steel works a foreclosure auction in downtown Seattle.
Steel finds current conditions unattractive for flipping, although his firm still works with clients who want to speculate that way. “I’m absolutely against it,” he said. “This is a great time to buy and hold.”

The Hardens strictly seek rentals, meaning any properties they buy have to “cash flow” immediately. “Equity investing” in real estate these days, or counting on appreciation, “is gambling,” Duane Harden said. “You might as well go to Atlantic City.”

But Harrison, who bowed out of the bidding on the big vacant house in Auburn, Wash., still sees lots of room for cautious speculation, especially for a contractor like himself who can accurately size up what a house needs to make it market-ready and then get the work done quickly.

The value of uncertainty
“I personally like massively trashed places,” he said. “They really scare people. They look horrible, but I’m going to strip all that out anyway. A vacant house that has little fix-up goes for a premium. The houses that are occupied, trashed or with question marks or permits or zoning, those are very intimidating to people.”

After losing the first house, Harrison bid on and picked up another on a good street in the popular Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle. He paid $330,000 for a 1,740-square-foot, three-bedroom home that was built in 2000 and is valued by the county at $509,000.

Far from “massively trashed,” the biggest problem with the house is that “it’s really plain.” He’ll fix that with some stone work outside and paint and carpet on the inside and quickly have it on the market.

Asking price? “Around $425,000,” Harrison said with a smile.

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