Sunday, March 2, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Considering that the collapse of the housing market means fewer jobs, families being tossed out of their homes and possibly, just possibly, a recession ... well, considering all that, taking a weekend real estate tour on a bus called the Foreclosure Express might seem a touch ghoulish, like robbing the dead or at least whistling past a graveyard.
But you would be wrong.
On the Foreclosure Express, they sing.
“All aboard the Foreclosure Express,” Realtor Barbara Zucker sings with a show-tune lilt, snapping her fingers. “Climb aboard, get your houses for less.”
By the time this four-hour tour through bank-owned Summerlin is through, the rest of the bus is singing along.
“All aboard the Foreclosure Express,” they sing, their heads swaying. “Climb aboard, get your houses for less.”
In the Great Circle of Real Estate, we all have our roles to play, even scavengers.
Especially right now. More than 22,000 houses are for sale in and around Las Vegas, Zucker says, compared with the 2,000 that were on the market back when it was hot, a couple of years ago. More than 11,000 homes in Clark County are owned by banks, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based mortgage research company. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are coming off house prices like the faces melting off the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
While many real estate agents have packed it in and are considering exciting careers in applecart vending, Marshall and Barbara Zucker bought a bus. That’s why 16 people — nearly all of them middle-aged or older, except for one young woman and her baby — have shown up here on a Saturday morning in an office park just off the 215. They’re here for the bus.
The bus itself is one of those 24-seat airport shuttle-sized buses. Outside, the bus is covered in vinyl advertising graphics bragging that it’s the “Foreclosure Express,” featuring the faces of the Zuckers and a winding road tracing around homes and a silhouette of the Strip skyline featuring the Luxor and, next to it, something that is supposed to be the Excalibur but looks an awful lot like the onion-domed cathedral next to the Kremlin. Inside the bus, there’s bottled water and pretzels in case anyone needs a nibble.
The Zuckers will, over time, take the Foreclosure Express all over town — North Las Vegas, Green Valley, Sun City Anthem and probably your neighborhood, too — but today it’s nine homes in Summerlin, from the merely nice parts to the incredibly nice and heavily gated parts.
As the bus rolls down the highway, Barbara Zucker points out the window to a lot full of dirt and rocks and asks, “Can anyone guess what’s going to go into this open field to your left?”
“Shopping center!” more than one passenger shouts.
“That’s right,” Barbara says. “We’ve heard Macy’s and Nordstrom are talking about moving in. This is about improving our quality of life.”
The first stop is in a subdivision called Asbury Park.
The story of the Las Vegas real estate crackup is told in numbers, and the numbers on this house, a nice three-bed, two-bath with tile, granite counters and a small bricked yard are as follows:
It was first sold in 2003 for $235,000. In 2006, it was resold for $395,000. Today, the bank has it listed at $285,000, and Barbara says she’d offer less. The bank owns too much property and banks aren’t too proud to negotiate.
Home tours on the Foreclosure Express are the real estate version of speed dating. Everyone is through the house in five, maybe 10 minutes, and it’s off to the next house a mile and a half away. It sold in ’01 for $180,000, in ’05 for $410,000 and today is up for $309,000. Three and two, with wash views.
Driving away from that house, it’s time for Barbara to give the talk.
They’ve tried to check out the houses first, she says, but remember: Foreclosed houses are not always in the best shape. Sometimes, people who lose their houses do awful things to them.
“Not meaning any disrespect, because you’ve got to have a lot of compassion for them,” Barbara says. “But they put their foot through the wall, they pee pee all over the carpet.”
The bus is appalled. How could they do that? What are they, animals?
Barbara says, no, they’re just people under a lot of stress. They’ve lost their houses, they’re upset. And they probably got into it, not to speak ill of anyone, because other, less scrupulous real estate agents and lenders told them they could afford it, afford anything. And they trusted those guys.
The bus is less sympathetic.
“Is that an excuse?” Diane Cortest says. “They had to do their homework.”
A woman behind her named Bettye Olds-Green speaks up for the foreclosed. “I think they trusted too much.”
“I guess they learned their lesson about that,” says Diane’s husband, Tony.
Eventually, people cheer up with another chorus of “All aboard the Foreclosure Express.”
As the bus pulls away from the fourth house, a three and 2 1/2 that sold new in ’05 for $440,000, sold again in ’06 for $469,000 and is now on the market for $269,000, a crowd of adorable, mostly blond children gathers on the curb. They shake their little fists at the bus and jeer.
In every neighborhood the bus goes through, people glare at it. It’s not a rational response. Most experts think house prices are going to keep going down. (The Zuckers are betting on at least two more years. They put $100,000 into this bus, Marshall says, and they might get a second one.)
Looked at in that light, seeing the Foreclosure Express in your neighborhood is good news. The sooner that empty house down the street sells, the less its price, and the value of your house, will fall.
And yet people glare, often with their hands on their hips. The people on this bus might buy the house down the street for half what the rest of the neighborhood paid.
House No. 6, for instance, is a massive 2,243-square-foot three and two loaded with granite and dark wood cabinets and sits behind the guarded gates of the Red Rock Country Club. It sold new in ’01 for $438,000 and as late as December ’07 was listed for $748,000. Today it’s $449,000.
Neighbors come out of their houses to glare at the Foreclosure Express like it’s a flock of buzzards. The last house to sell around here went for more than $600,000.
While the bus is rolling between houses, and when she isn’t talking about property or leading everyone in song, Barbara tells jokes. They’re corny old Borscht-belt knee-slappers, the kind of jokes that involve an Italian, a Jew and a Pole. Punch lines today include cannibalism, suicide and bankruptcy.
Home No. 8 is a modest 1,500-square-footer with a bright layout. Its price never fluctuated too much, peaking at $279,000 in ’05. Today it’s $227,000. But maybe now is not the right time to buy. From the driveway, you can see four other for sale signs.
The last house first sold in ’01 for $264,000, sold in ’05 for $525,000 and today is $365,000. It’s a roomy four and three, with the master bed and bath bigger than most college apartments. One of the spare bedrooms could fit a pool table and furniture. The back yard could fit a swimming pool or three. Another real estate agent is holding an open house there today. He seems very happy to see the 16 potential buyers the bus brought.
On the way back to the office, Barbara leads everyone in one last round of “All aboard the Foreclosure Express.”
She’s going to have the jingle professionally done for commercials. And she’ll be singing it on Sunday’s bus tour and all the rest of the tours. She came up with it herself, you know.
“I actually wrote that song in the shower,” she says.
A man pipes up from the back of the bus.
“I’ll bet it sounded good in the shower.”