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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Bargain-Hunting Aboard The Foreclosure Express

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Barbara Zucker in front of the Vegas Foreclosure Express, a bus tour she and her husband started a year and a half ago. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

LAS VEGAS--In a city with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, you don’t even have to waste gas to search among the financial ruins of others. You can take a bus.

Welcome aboard the Vegas Foreclosure Express.

When Michael and I first learned about the bus, we immediately thought of New Orleans' “devastation tours,” on which camera-toting tourists pay to see Katrina-ravaged streets. After all, we are a society of rubberneckers, slowing our cars for a better look at the roadside destruction.

How different could a foreclosure tour be?

Then we met the bus owners, Barbara and Marshall Zucker.

The Zuckers speak of Vegas as place they are personally, not just financially, invested in. They live here, too. They can tell you which grocery stores are closing and what was supposed to be built on the vast empty lots that were someone's dream of a profitable future. They know the history of the steel beams that jut into the sky, buildings frozen in a state of suspended construction.

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Plans called for the Summerlin Centre to be the largest mall complex in the state. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“This is not a spectator sport,” Barbara Zucker said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t know somebody who is losing their home, or lost their job or got a divorce” because of the economy. “People who were worth $3 million are now worth nothing.”

Take a look at Queensridge Towers, the luxury condos not far from the couple’s office. “At night, how you know it’s not doing well, it’s 95 percent dark,” she said. “You can see there’s nobody home.”

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At night, it's easy to tell the vacancies at Queensridge Towers, a building of luxury condos. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

In the blur of the Vegas Strip, it’s hard to see how the city has changed. The casinos and sidewalks both looked busy to us, although some people told of spending less. But as soon as Michael and I stepped off the Strip and drove through surrounding neighborhoods, it was easy to tell that the city was a wounded version of its former self.

At the Red Rock Casino and Resort, one frequented more by locals than tourists, more seats were empty than occupied. (As I was writing this, the news reported that the place just filed papers seeking bankruptcy protection).

Jane and Don Chilcult, who were spending a rare night out, put $5 into a slot machine before calling it a night. The parents of four don't often gamble anyway but they started deliberately cutting back on expenses after Don, who helped lay the gas line under the casino, was laid off in June. He still keeps his two-way radio close in case a job arises.

“I show up every Monday to see if there is anything and there is not,” he said. “Sometimes my boss will call me and say, ‘Don’t even worry about coming in.’”

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Vegas locals Jane and Don Chilcult spend a night out at the Red Rock Casino and Resort. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

When construction was booming, Don barely had time for meals. “There was a time there when I might just walk in the door, raid the refrigerator, and sleep for an hour,” he said.

“He was sleeping in his car,” said Jane Chilcult, who is a paralegal.

She works in family law and has seen divorces increase and child support shrink. The couple has also seen businesses close all around them. They tick off the list – drug stores, fast food joints, Jane's favorite restaurant.

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A plane passes near the Vegas Strip, where cranes hover over the stalled construction of a casino and condo complex. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Realtors Barbara and Marshall Zucker bought the bus about a year and a half ago, after realizing the housing market was dramatically changing. They figured the demand to see foreclosures would be growing.

Before stepping on the bus, which seats 26, foreclosure toursits receive an economics lesson over a breakfast of bagels and donuts.

“When we started this, people didn’t really understand what it meant to buy a foreclosed property,” Barbara Zucker said. “Now, of course, everybody does.”

The conditions of the houses they are seeing have also changed, she said.

“When it first happened, it was not uncommon to find a home that been destroyed by frustrated homeowners." But now it’s more common to find houses left in beautiful condition by families who just walked away. “It’s almost like everyone has become drones…It’s almost like they’ve gotten to a point of acceptance.”

As we drove away in the direction of the Strip, we passed more than a half dozen billboards with a housing hardship theme. “Amazing Foreclosures,” read one. And then a few seconds later: “House payment too high? 966-Help. You have options!”

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The sidewalks and roads of the Vegas Strip were crowded with tourists when we were there. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  July 30, 2009; 10:12 AM ET
 
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