'Foreclosure tourism' is a ticket to opportunity
The buyers on the bus seek dream deals on the homes where other families' dreams once lived.
Down tree-canopied Cromwell Drive – an entry point to middle-class America with its split levels, college pennants flapping in the breeze, and two newer cars in every driveway – lies the beginning and the end of the American dream.Skip to next paragraph
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The red split-level home at 33313 Cromwell Dr. looks as if it was someone's proudly kept dream home. And the "for sale" sign in the front yard seems innocent enough. But behind it lies a message of the angst of a family that just couldn't manage. Maybe they didn't pay close-enough attention to the balloon payment schedule; maybe they didn't have a choice in the refinancing process. Maybe someone lost a job, got sick, or died.
Though the empty house suggests the end of the dream for one family, this is still America – where legions of dreamers are ready to take their place. And in true American fashion, there's someone selling tickets to that place – on the foreclosure bus tour.
Complete with box lunches and lemonade – and a crew of onboard experts including a home inspector, mortgage lender, and representative of a title company – ReMax Haven Realty's foreclosure bus tour takes hopeful homeowners, at $15 a seat, to see the bank-owned homes that are in "short sale."
It's a nationwide trend: The foreclosure crisis – one in every 519 American households received a foreclosure filing in April, up 65 percent from a year ago – doesn't stop at the well-manicured boundaries of these affluent suburbs. Its reach extends into every neighborhood and income level. Maybe you've seen the foreclosure tours in your own neighborhood. They can be a welcome sight when your neighbor's home sits vacant for months on end.
But they can be a disconcerting sight, too. Home ownership is what defines us as Americans. Location, size, and style say more about who we are and what we want in life than any backyard conversation can. But what happens when living the dream costs too much? The neighbors – the ones you chatted with on summer evenings in the driveway about the Cavaliers' chances in the playoffs or the condition of your lawn – vanish without a word.
Realtors will tell you that foreclosures hit less than 10 percent of all homeowners. That 90 percent of us pay our bills on time and keep our homes. But that doesn't begin to tell the story that plays out on your street, or my street, or this street that was once "their" street.
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C.J. Hartson, the agent who organized today's tour for nine hopeful homeowners to seven bank-owned houses in the middle-class Solon and Chagrin Falls suburbs of Cleveland, says that "banks don't want to hold onto the homes, so there are opportunities for some deals for buyers."
On the ride out to the first home, in Chagrin Falls, known for its New England atmosphere and 100-year-old architecture, the home seekers have few expectations. They want to see what their money will buy.
Some tours across the country require that participants prequalify for loans. That's not the case on this tour. It doesn't matter, because everyone in the group is an interested buyer.
Henry Bertorelli, a retired power company employee, has been living in an apartment. He admits that the circumstances of foreclosure are "depressing," but he's looking for a good deal on a modest home and had heard a report about foreclosure tours on National Public Radio. Dee Alexander and her two daughters are looking for a good-sized home and have marked a star by the last – and largest – on the tour. Sidney Brown, a businessman in constant cellphone and BlackBerry motion, is single, but looking for a spacious home. Another middle-aged couple follows the bus by car.