ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If there's one place that epitomizes the burst real estate bubble, it might be Miami. There are dozens of new high-rise condo projects going up downtown. At the same time, foreclosures have doubled, sales have slowed to a trickle, and prices are dropping. With no end in sight, NPR's Greg Allen reports, in Miami, the vultures are circling.
GREG ALLEN: The more fastidious call them opportunistic investors. But Peter Zalewski doesn't mind if you call him a vulture.
Mr. PETER ZALEWSKI (Founder, Condo Vultures): Vultures don't kill, they clean up.
ALLEN: Zalewski runs a Web site and a consulting company called Condo Vultures. Standing next to the ocean on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard, we're surveying a panorama of cranes, construction sites, and brand new high-rise condos. Without moving from our spot, Zalewski gives me a tour.
Mr. ZALEWSKI: If we start at the end and I work my way down, you're going to see the Marquis, which is being built by an Israeli group. Next to that, you're going to see something called 10 Museum Park, which is built by a local developer.
ARNOLD: Within a 10-block radius, Zalewski says, 22,000 new condo units are going up. In many cases, he says, units were sold to speculators — people who put down 60 and $80,000 deposits with the intention of reselling the properties. With prices dropping, those are the sellers Zalewski targets as the most vulnerable. And continuing his tour, he says he knows where to look.
Mr. ZALEWSKI: Next to that is a building called the Vue at Brickell. It's got one of the highest foreclosure rates in South Florida. Across the street from that is a building called The Club at Brickell, it has the highest foreclosure rate.
ARNOLD: Zalewski represents only buyers, preferably those with cash. With the weak dollar, he says he's been seeing many foreign investors — people from Canada, Europe and Latin America - here to pick up bargains. One recent buyer, he says, bought a $550,000 condo for $372,000. The scariest thing about Miami's condo meltdown is that there's no telling how far down the bottom is.
Mr. JACK McCABE (CEO, McCabe Research): From a health analogy, I'd say we've got double pneumonia; from a baseball analogy, I'd say we're in the bottom of the third inning, not the top of the ninth.
ALLEN: Jack McCabe runs McCabe Research, a company that closely tracks the South Florida condo market. McCabe says, currently, Miami has an oversupply that will take the market five years to absorb. And he estimates there will be 25,000 more units finished by the end of next year. The upshot? McCabe says, many buyers are simply walking away from their deposits.
Mr. McCABE: We know that closings have not been running anywhere near what developers had proposed by the number of dark buildings that we've had recently finished in the last 12 months - beautiful in the daytime, but if there's one light on out of 10 to 20 at night, it's surprising.
So, we're expecting that we're going to see a tremendous amount of cancellations this year. But also folks that did want to close that are going to have a difficult time getting a mortgage.
ALLEN: And it's recently gotten harder. Last month, Bank United said it would no longer write mortgages on 191 condo projects in the city. Other lenders are also pulling back.
With all this bad news, you might think developers would be worried. But not if you talked with 81-year-old Tibor Hollo. He has been developing projects in Miami since the 1950s. This downturn, he says, is really nothing new.
Mr. TIBOR HOLLO (President, Florida East Coast Realty): In the 58 years that I'm in business, I went through it nine times. So, somehow, every six or so years, you run into a dip. If you take a short view, you don't fare well. If you take a long view at these things, then you can bridge it, you can go over these things. And that's what we did.
ALLEN: Hollo recently completed a 56-story condo project. He expects that as many as 100 buyers in the 635-unit project will end up walking away from their contracts. But he's not concerned about circling vultures. He says he'll buy those units himself and hold them as rental properties until the market improves. And he's already turned his attention to his next project: It's a 70-story hotel and office tower in the heart of the city, a project that he expects will become Miami's signature building.
With completion at least 10 years away, Hollo says by the time construction starts, Miami's current slump will be just a memory. But then again, he admits he's not one to dwell on the negative.
Mr. HOLLO: If you're a developer, you have to be optimistic, you know? Let's face it, you know, have you seen a pessimistic developer?
ALLEN: Certainly not here.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.