Do your homework before buying

Shelagh McNally
National Post
September 24, 2011

When the U.S. real estate bubble burst, housing prices plummeted and foreclosures surged. It's still a buyer's market, particularly in Arizona and Florida, and Canadians are taking advantage of our strong dollar and shopping for real estate in these sun belt destinations.

A recent Leger Marketing Survey on behalf of BMO found that one in five Canadians would consider purchasing a home in the U.S.

"Canadians of all ages are buying property down south. Some are at retirement age but there is also the 30 to 40 crowd who are buying these houses as investment properties," says Matt Reid, founder of CanuckAbroad.com, a website helping Canadians relocate outside the country.

But buying your vacation getaway is more complicated than late-night TV commercials make it sound and can be fraught with unforeseen and sometimes expensive problems.

The key to a successful purchase is doing your homework and understanding that real estate is a very different business south of the border.

"The No. 1 mistake Canadians make when buying a vacation property is not having the right group of professionals who know the law for both sides of the border. This industry is not as regulated as in Canada. Here you can become a realtor after nine days of classes," says Diane Costain, founder of Buy The Sun, based in Phoenix. "Buying a home in this foreign country is not difficult but it does take some research."

Rhonda Scharf, an Ottawa based motivational speaker and owner of On the Right Track Training, bought her vacation home in Fort Myers, Fla., after doing extensive research. She paid $104,000 for a threeyear old, four-bedroom bungalow. The original selling price was $350,000.

"There are no guarantees," Ms. Scharf says. "You may not get the home right up to the close day. Networking is important. Talk to someone who owns a vacation home. Get support and do your homework. We didn't see those totally destroyed homes they are showing on TV but we saw a lot of homes that had stopped being loved. The owners knew the bank was coming so they stopped caring."

Repossessed homes can be sold either as short sales, foreclosures, or real estate owned (REO) property. Short sales means the bank is accepting a discounted selling price knowing the proceeds of the sale are going to fall short of what is owed. While there can be some tantalizing bargains, few short sales get approved by the banks and are extremely complicated to deal with.

Foreclosure sales begin with a minimum bid that is usually more than the value of the property. Since the properties are sold "as is" including any current tenants, foreclosure auctions usually don't result in a sale. When this happens, the property reverts back to the bank and becomes an REO.

"With foreclosed homes, you don't know whom you are dealing with. You hire one of the bidding companies and give them $10,000 up front before they will bid for you. You pay the balance the next day. The bid companies don't need to be licensed," Ms. Costain says. "There are so many good deals, there's no need for a vacation homebuyer to take the chance of buying foreclosed properties."

Foreclosed properties are often plagued with problems: tenants refuse to leave, angry owners trash the place or thieves steal the contents or fixtures. Sometimes the owners don't know their property has been sold until the new owner shows up at the door. This happened to Ms. Costain with one of her first properties.

"The owners had no idea their house had been sold. The woman fell to the ground in shock, sobbing. I let them live in the house free for six weeks and gave them $1,000. I decided not to invest in any more foreclosed properties. I can do just as well with short sales and REOs with a lot less emotional turmoil," she says.

Mr. Reid has found that most Canadians are buying REO properties.

"REOs are easy to buy since you pay cash upfront and avoid getting a mortgage. It's a lot more difficult for a Canadian to get a mortgage in the States. You're not a resident, you don't have a USA credit rating, so for the banks you don't have an identity," Mr. Reid says.

"Sometimes REOs can be a bargain, sometimes they are not ... Research the home and any potential problems. Don't go cheap either. Spend that few extra thousand to hire a real estate professional who specializes in these kinds of properties. It's easy to miss something that may have consequences later on."

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Roger Townsend

Roger Townsend

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