Originally created 12/13/04

'House flipping' target of state, federal probes



ALBANY, N.Y. - A four-bedroom, 1-1/2 bath colonial for only a $450 monthly mortgage payment? How can you go wrong?

Lots of ways. Fair housing advocates say the first-time buyer of that $85,000 Syracuse, N.Y., home lost out in one of many forms of "house flipping," or the fast resale of property at high profits.

Now, house flippers who practice legally or in a grey area of law nationwide and over the Internet are being targeted by federal and state officials.

In this case, a real-estate developer interested a prospective client in the house, then bought it himself for $44,000 and resold it hours later for $85,000, according to the Fair Housing Council of Central New York.

A subsequent appraisal arranged by the nonprofit advocacy group put the house value at $45,000. The new owner buckled under the $707 monthly payments she thought would be less than $500. In a year, she moved into public housing.

The group referred the case to New York state's Department of State, which regulates licensed professionals, and to three state Assembly committees examining house flipping in a hearing on Thursday.

Now that house is another foreclosed property and a problem for its neighbors and other city taxpayers. Nationally, the practice can be costly to all taxpayers because the deals often involve government-subsidized loans that end in default, according to Adam Glantz of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The buyer of the Syracuse home, former foster mother Myrtis Jackson, 54, wanted to step up from her subsidized apartment that cost $110 a month. She said the foreclosure forced her to send her ill mother to a nursing home, and one of her three adopted sons was beaten up for his sneakers and bike during their fearful months in public housing.

"They came from a bad beginning and I wanted to give them something that I didn't have," Jackson said.

The developer did not return a request for comment. He faces no criminal charges.

House flipping was first noticed in Baltimore in the 1990s. It spread to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities with large minority and/or immigrant populations.

"Minorities are usually targeted, simply because they are often first-time home buyers and they don't have a mentor - a father or brother - to walk them through the process," Glantz said.

They can be left with a seller who arranges the appraisal, mortgage, contractors, even the buyer's attorney. Reports came in to HUD- 3,000 complaints and 1,400 verified cases in four years - of house flipping. Sometimes, a house's sale value increased 300 percent in a few hours.

HUD acted. For the last 12 months, new rules have been required of banks and other HUD-backed mortgage lenders. Among them is a rule that a house cannot be bought and sold with HUD loans within 90 days.

New York officials want to do more. On Thursday, an Assembly hearing in Buffalo will focus on house flipping and Internet real estate sales. Three committees plan to draw up bills based on the information to better protect consumers, neighborhoods and taxpayers, said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat.

He and the heads of the Assembly housing, banking and consumer protection committees have enlisted the help of eBay, the online auction house. The officials have asked eBay to enact further restrictions to ward off unscrupulous sellers of real estate who pressure buyers too far away to view the property. Hoyt says escrow accounts and "cooling off" periods in which a buyer can change his or mind might be needed.

Hani Durzy, a spokesman for eBay, said real estate is the only auction subject where a winning bid isn't legally binding. He said real estate deals started on eBay are still subject to all state and local legal filings and safeguards.

Sealing the deal "is up to the buyer and seller," he said. On Friday, eBay's 30 million listings included 3,638 properties, 975 of which were residential.

Nationwide, house flipping takes many forms, sometimes aided by the rise in Internet sales of real estate sight-unseen at rock-bottom prices. House flipping can also include inflated appraisals, undisclosed insurance and tax costs in projected monthly payments, and pressure to refinance repeatedly so that the house flipper gets a quick fee while the homeowner is left with a costly and ill-advised new mortgage, according to state and federal officials.

"It's an absolute concern," said Eamon Moynihan of the New York State Department of State. But he notes that when the practice breaks the law, such as with an inflated appraisal, enforcement is difficult. Compounding the problem are historic high housing prices in many areas, driven in part by a demand fueled by record low mortgage interest rates.

"In this context of rising housing prices, it probably gets masked a lot," Moynihan said. "We have been clear with the industry that we are going to take this very seriously when we hear about it."