'Foreclosure tourism' is a ticket to opportunity
The buyers on the bus seek dream deals on the homes where other families' dreams once lived.
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Mr. Hartson encourages the buyers to see beyond the surface, mentioning that home repair loans are available through the Federal Housing Administration. Buyers look leery, but quickly turn back to their information packets.Skip to next paragraph
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After circling a block of classically elegant houses, the bus stops at the first home: the price tag is $189,900. Curb appeal is lacking, but its Craftsman-style detail makes the interior of the three-bedroom house architecturally interesting. A walk down the driveway to the backyard shows a worn basketball hoop, an overturned trash can, and a tire swing hanging from a giant tulip tree.
The kitchen floors reveal years of wear – kids' cleats, that darned dog – all leaving their mark. The heavy odor of cigarette smoke lingers as if the last butt was smashed on the way out. A needlepoint-covered brick still holds an upstairs bedroom door open. And "Judy" painted a bra on the hardwood floor of her bedroom with the inscription, "2000 36C."
"Does anyone have any questions about the house?" asks Phillip Wells, a home inspector who, at each stop, checks electrical service, roofs, furnaces, windows, foundations, and looks for water damage. Armed with his flashlight and knowledge, he's the most valuable passenger.
After hearing a few tips on what to look for, the group pulls up to the next home – a large four-bedroom, three-bath Cape with an in-law suite on nearly two acres – asking price is $290,000.
Upstairs in the master bedroom, leaning against the wall are a headboard and large mirror. Maybe these – and the cradle filled with dolls in the attic – didn't fit in the truck when the homeowners moved. No room, no time to think about toys. Those things stayed behind just like their name engraved on the door knocker.
There's not been a lot of buzz about the homes, until the bus pulls up to the next-to-the-last stop – the red split-level on Cromwell Drive in Solon.
The foreclosure "tourists" who braved the spring rain file off the mini-charter bus nodding approval at this $189,000 three-bedroom, 2-1/2-bath home with grand old trees and fresh mulch in the beds.
Someone loved this house, tried hard to sell it. The sticklike crab-apple tree in the backyard still has a cardboard sleeve covering its trunk. Price tags still dangle from the euonymus plants in the front bed. Propped inside the garage are "for sale" signs. They tried to sell on their own. A sale didn't come in time.
While some homeowners in foreclosure take out their anger by ripping out appliances, plumbing, and cabinetry, others like this home's owners leave a little of their heart, along with the Christmas wreath in the garage.
"[It's] the kind of house that makes you wonder what went wrong," says Hartson.
From the living room, Ms. Alexander calls her teenage daughter on her cellphone to come off the bus and check it out. "This is nice," she says, as her younger daughter runs excitedly from room to room. "But I'm waiting to see the Winchester house."
That house is a large, newer home in a well-off neighborhood. Though the grass and shrubs are overgrown, the four-bedroom home has curb appeal and is priced at $269,900.
No sooner are the buyers in the house when two neighbors ask if they can have a look. It's the second time this home is in foreclosure, they say. The first owner's husband died, and she lost the house. The second, the neighbors believe, tried to do a quick rehab for resale.
"It was OK, but I'm concerned about the roof and the dampness in the basement," says Alexander. She was glad to have the home inspector on the tour. "I'm looking for something a little bigger," she says. Mr. Brown, too, is looking for a good deal on a house in a higher price range.
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They want their house with the lush land and two cars in the driveway – this kind of homeownership is hard-wired into the American psyche.
When all is lost, either through our own poor choices or circumstances beyond our control, so, too, is a bit of America. But for these foreclosure bus tourists – and others like them across the country – the American dream endures.