28 Houses In 51 Minutes: No Buyers, No Bidders
Twenty-eight houses sold in 51 minutes, each auction the final spin in a harrowing death spiral for 28 families that believed just a year or so ago that they had found security and comfort.
On a blustery spring afternoon at the edge of a parking garage in Upper Marlboro, eight people stood in a semicircle in front of the auctioneers whose job it was to sell off the houses those 28 families couldn't pay for anymore. Each person in the audience -- all professional house buyers who travel the circuit of courthouse auctions -- spent the hour glued to a cellphone, awaiting instructions from anonymous investors.
At the end of the hour, all eight buyers, even the ones who had blank bank checks in their hands, stood up and silently walked away.
The house on Canberra Drive in Clinton, listed for sale for $450,000, went back to the bank for $297,000. The house on Harbour Town Drive in Beltsville, bought 15 months ago for $800,000 and assessed by the taxman at $528,000, went back to the bank for $640,000.
"Can I get any bidders, any buyers, any advance on $161,000" for a house in Capitol Heights, auctioneer Kemp Blair barked into the crisp air, and he might as well have been talking to himself. The only buyer for that house was the one that bought nearly half of the day's offerings, Deutsche Bank, acting as trustee for the loan service company that got stuck when yet another family stopped making its mortgage payments and walked away.
No bidders, no buyers. Not a single bargain hunter found anything worth taking a chance on in this lot of houses in Prince George's County. Blair packed up his big pile of files -- two milk cartons full -- and prepared to move on to the next auction.
"It's kind of sad, really," he said.
Most of the families whose houses were sold on this day came here from Africa and Central America. They own small businesses and work for the government and sell cars and toil in the hospital. These houses were their dreams. They were more committed to the idea of riding the American wealth elevator of real estate than to the ideals of democracy: Of the 28 people whose houses were auctioned here, one is a registered voter.
A passerby stopped to watch the auction for a few minutes. When Blair called out for bids, the visitor perked up: "Take food stamps?"
"Cash or bank check," Blair replied.
Again this time, no bidders. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. bought a house in Oxon Hill for $337,000, $13,000 less than what the last owner paid for it in July.
A house in Hyattsville went for $150,000 less than the mortgage on the property. Still no bidders.
"Rolling right along," Blair said.
The 28 families whose last gasp of hope for their old houses expired at this auction have, among them, 46 disconnected phone numbers. Two had forwarding numbers, both unpublished. When you lose your house, you lose a lot more than lodging.
In any package of pain, someone is doing well. The auctioneers are busier than ever. But even their success reflects the tough times. Blair is here because his actual career wasn't going anywhere. He was a real estate developer.
"We haven't had a sale to a builder since December '05," he says. "We were on top of the world in December, and by February, we were, like, 'What's happening here?' " He and his partners sold a lot in West Virginia for $26,500 a couple of years ago; they recently sold one right next to it for $5,500.
So he travels the highways of Maryland on the auction circuit. The business these days is mostly foreclosures, the banks collecting enormous portfolios of property and then trying somehow to unload the houses.
"I'd rather be building properties," Blair says. "I'm just glad to be working in real estate, getting paid for talking."
Even if no one is listening. "Can I get any bidders, any buyers?" Silence.
Blair turns to the man beside him, the fellow in the crisp white shirt who represents the banks. The trustee nods. Blair proceeds with the formalities, without much conviction: "Sold."
Of the 28 families whose houses went this day, at least 11 have downsized to apartments, at least four have left the state, and not one returns a call.
"No buyers, no bidders."
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