STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
There are a lot of homes for sale in Lee County, Florida. Real estate prices exploded when the market was humming a few years ago. That was before lots and lots of foreclosures sent prices tumbling and turned Lee County into a giant bargain basement for house hunters. Analysts say it will take three to five years to work through the unsold inventory.
For the second of two reports, NPR's Jim Zarroli rode around with a real estate agent who's trying to turn the glut of bank-owned properties to his advantage.
JIM ZARROLI: Every day in Lee County, some 40 new foreclosed homes come onto the market. And right now, real estate agent Marc Joseph and his staff of three are climbing out of their bright green bus to inspect one.
Mr. MARC JOSEPH (Real Estate Agent): Three bedroom, two bath, built in the year 2000, has 2,132 square feet of living. It's $.47 on the dollar.
ZARROLI: The house exemplifies the dramatic downturn in the real estate market here. It sold for $685,000 less than two years ago. The bank took it over and is now trying to unload it for $325,000. That's a drop of more than 50 percent.
Joseph and his staff split up to inspect the property. He says before people surrender their homes to the bank, they often strip them bare, taking appliances, light fixtures, even closet doors.
Mr. JOSEPH: They're in a financial crisis, so some of things that they can get cash for are pool pumps, pool heaters, and air conditioners. And even thought they're selling them off very cheap, it's still movie money and gas money for somebody that may be in a financial crisis.
ZARROLI: This house is in pretty good shape.
Mr. JOSEPH: Monty, how did the rooms look?
MONTY: Bathroom right there, around the tub needs drywall where the faucets are. It's all caved in.
Mr. JOSEPH: Okay.
MONTY: But overall, it's not too bad. It looks pretty good.
Mr. JOSEPH: Okay. Very good. Jen, how about our kitchen? Tell me about our kitchen.
ZARROLI: Joseph decides to show the home on his next foreclosure tour. A few months ago, Joseph noticed something. There were an incredible number of foreclosures happening in the area, and everywhere he went people asked about them. They wanted in on the great deals.
Mr. JOSEPH: Real estate is feast or famine. Right now, there's a lot of famine going on, and I'm a survivor. What a better business model than to buy a bus and take them out and show them foreclosures?
ZARROLI: Joseph painted the bus bright green and printed Foreclosure Tours R Us on the side. It was so gaudy, his homeowner's association wouldn't let him park it in his driveway overnight. But the tours are drawing customers, and the money he earns from commissions is keeping his business going through the downturn.
Mr. JOSEPH: So as far as the waterfront wonderland of Florida, it's Cape Coral.
ZARROLI: The next morning, about a dozen people show up for a tour. Joseph stands in front of the bus with a microphone, tossing quips like a standup comic. He says he always figured that when he turned 40, he'd buy a Porsche. Instead, he marked his midlife crisis with a green bus.
A few people laugh politely. The crowd here is a serious one, intent on finding the good deals. Joseph has connections with the banks, so he often hears about foreclosures before other agents. Some of the homes we see are in pristine shape, but there are also ranches with weedy driveways and algae-filled pools.
The group includes a Canadian couple taking advantage of the weak U.S. dollar, and two locals who want to buy a condo for their daughter. There's also Leo Felber, a retired courier who says he's tired of shoveling snow in Rhode Island. He says prices here have grown more reasonable.
Mr. LEO FELBER: I was down here when they were at their peak, and they've really dropped drastically.
ZARROLI: Did you think of buying before?
Mr. FELBER: Not when the prices were high. No. I mean, they were just too high. I mean, I can afford what's down here now.
ZARROLI: That is the silver lining in the real estate crisis. Marc Joseph says a lot of people who couldn't afford to buy in Lee County two years ago, including teachers and cops and service workers, can suddenly do so again.
Joseph knows that some people seem him as an opportunist, profiting from other people's misfortunes. But he insists he's helping the area recover.
Mr. JOSEPH: I'm helping the economy out by taking the product off the market that's driving our economy down. And I'm taking the product that is driving the economy down and I'm putting it in the hands of people who deserve it, the affordable buyers that are out there, that couldn't buy two and a half years ago.
ZARROLI: And buyers, he says, are eager to take advantage of the prices. Two days after the tour, two of the people who rode on the bus call Joseph to say they want to bid on properties they saw.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can hear the first of Jim's stories on the many home foreclosures in Lee County, Florida at npr.org.
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