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Real estate investment clubs are thriving

With the giddy days of the high-tech investment bubble a fading memory, America’s housing boom is providing investors with a tempting new chance to grab a slice of the fortunes now being made on the streets of many towns and cities. By Roland Jones

On a hot and humid summer evening, about 50 novice real estate investors have gathered in a midtown Manhattan conference room for a seminar on investing strategies.

Today’s topic: Pre-foreclosures. Wesley Barney, founder of the Ultimate Investors Real Estate Club, is discussing the best strategies for finding and buying at a discount properties that are in danger of being reclaimed by a financial institution because their owners, often in financial distress, have fallen behind on mortgage payments.

“How do you get information about someone who is delinquent on their property, and how do you approach them about a sale?” Barney asks the investors, who are dressed in anything from business attire to shorts. “Well, you can get pre-foreclosure lists online, or you can do direct mailing campaigns.

"Then you start knocking on doors, and that takes guts,” Barney continues. “I used to do it on Sundays because folks thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness. … That’s how to do it — you’ve got to come up with your own marketing strategy.”

With the giddy days of the high-tech investment bubble a fading memory and home prices in some of the hottest housing markets up 100 percent over the past few years, America’s housing boom is providing investors with a tempting new chance to grab a slice of the fortunes now being made on the streets of many towns and cities.

New York’s Ultimate Investors Real Estate Club, for example, is one of 178 in the National Real Estate Investors Association, up from slightly more than 40 in late 2002. The association now counts some 35,000 individual investors as members.

One of about a dozen real estate investment clubs in the New York area, Ultimate Investors has seen its membership mushroom to nearly 300 over the past few years, says Barney. The  club offers paid members the opportunity to network with other investors and industry specialists at monthly meetings, go on field trips to scope out housing markets and attend educational workshops. Members, who pay $189 in annual dues, also get a newsletter on real estate investing.

Barney, worked for for the New York City Fire Department until becoming a full-time investor about five years ago, says that because New York City real estate prices are so high, the main goal of his group is to help members find affordable properties in up-and-coming markets like Syracuse, N.Y., and Kansas City, Mo.

Sylvia Scott, a mortgage specialist from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., who is a relative newcomer to real-estate investing, recently placed bids on three properties in Syracuse — two single-family homes and a six-apartment building — after her husband, Louis, visited the city on one of Barney’s trips. “For people just starting out in real estate investing a place like Syracuse is a good place because the city is on its way up,” Scott said.

Scott and her husband joined the club in November looking for a way to make extra cash outside the volatile stock market. She hopes to gain the expertise to one day specialize in tax liens, buying homes seized from delinquent taxpayers and sold at government auctions.

“My husband and I realized that we needed to take control of our own financial destiny,” Scott said. “We were looking for a way to make extra income, and so far things are going well.”

Like many Americans skittish about investing in stocks after the market’s sharp decline from 2000 to 2002, Scott sees real estate as a good alternative.

Scott says she feels her lack of sophistication as a stock investor left her vulnerable to the market’s gyrations. Investing in real estate allows her to take a more active role in her finances, she reasons. And she enjoys learning about real estate.

“It’s fun, but with housing you really have to do your homework,” Scott said. "You have to make sure you buy without emotion and make sure there is enough cash flow. And you need to think about other things too. You need to comply with a town’s guidelines for owning property. You need to make sure the snow is removed, and the grass is mowed. And you need to work with a management company to properly manage a property."

Leon Vigdorchick, a 27-year-old accountant from Elizabeth, N.J., is a recent recruit to the club. Although he has yet to invest in a property, he says he has attended three seminars and made some valuable connections. Talk of a real estate bubble doesn’t worry him.

“What I’m looking to do is buy and sell land and property. I’m not in this for the long term,” Vigdorchick said. “Personally, I think the housing market will crash soon, but I hope it won’t crash when I’m buying and selling. If it does crash, I don’t think it will impact me directly. It’s more of a worry for those that are in it for the long term.”

Dwight McLeod, 51, joined the group in October and is similarly unfazed by talk of a housing bubble. He says he was looking for a way to combine work and his love of travel after retiring from phone company Verizon in November 2003.

McLeod says he has modeled his real estate investment philosophy after the writings of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki. McLeod says he does not make an investment without thinking of his return. In one of his properties, for example, he rents four units at $1,000 a month each and pays $2,800 in maintenance and other expenses.

“I’m not buying something and waiting for it to appreciate in value,” McLeod notes. “The housing bubble, if there is one, will hurt people in homes that are mortgaged to the hilt. In fact, I’m looking forward to it bursting because there’ll be some deep discounts out there.”