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Foreclosure Bus Tours Roll into 2009 Season

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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If you’re interested in finding a deal on a foreclosed or pre-foreclosed home, the first step is knowing where to look. Short sales and bank sales typically require an expedited process, so you also need to arm yourself with as much information as possible before diving in. Enter the Columbus Foreclosure Bus Tours. Realtors Donna Carstens and Michelle Foster started up their free guided tour service last year to help provide information and insight on how to go about buying a foreclosed home. We sat down with them to get a better understanding of the process.

Walker Evans: Can you give us a bit of background on the Bus Tours? Where did the idea come from?

Donna Carstens: About a year ago I saw a news story on The Today Show about Realtors doing bus tours out in California. Michelle and I agreed that it was a great idea.

Michelle Foster: After establishing that no one else was doing it here already, we did some homework and were on our first tour just six weeks later!

DC: We had some terrific mentoring from other Realtors in California, Michigan and Florida.

MF: Yes, similar tours are provided in many cities around the country, but in slightly different formats. The most high-profile tours are in Florida, California and Las Vegas. There is now even a show on TLC called “Deals on the Bus” that documents Foreclosure Bus Tours around the country. It’s still a very topical issue and pertinent service. Some tours are free like ours, and others cost around $300 per person.

WE: So how did the tours go last year? Obviously well enough to want to do them again this year, right?

MF: Last year was terrific! We put on two tours a month for six months and they were very well attended with a number of sell-out tours. On one tour we even had cars following the bus! I would say that the participants were very enthusiastic and involved, as were the media and our sponsors. Fortunately for us, our tours were a timely and newsworthy topic and we were interviewed on TV and radio and were in print too. We even made the front page of the Dispatch! Since then we have been interviewed by Money Magazine and national TV shows in regards to foreclosures. We have also mentored a number of other real estate agents with their bus tours in various parts of the country.

DC: At the same time, it was a kick in the head. Michelle and I were learning about the depth of the problem with short sales, foreclosures and HUD properties as we were getting the tours organized. The amount of information we had gathered was overwhelming, and this was still early in the housing crisis. The banks were overwhelmed and unprepared to handle the number of foreclosures that were flooding the market. Realtors were unprepared to deal with the paper work, the complexities and challenges of different account manger’s requirements, and the lengthy waiting period for approvals on deals in progress. It was definitely a whole new business model than we had been accustomed to dealing with.

MF: Of course, that caused the reactions our tour-goers to be a mixture of delight and sadness. Delight at the opportunities and prospects of a great deal, but also sadness at the evident devastation when someone loses a home. We’d sometimes see personal effects and toys strewn around a vacant property, and that really brings it home. While some of the houses and condos would be in excellent condition, others would be torn up… by neglect, anger or vandalism. It’s a real mind trip sometimes. So we try to keep things upbeat and positive. We address what they are going to see and how they may feel right away, and we explain that as a buyer, they ought not to feel guilt that they are taking advantage of a family… it’s quite the opposite really. In a short sale situation, the buyer is helping them avoid a foreclosure which would  prevent that seller from being able to purchase another home for about seven years. If they buy a foreclosed home, or a corporate REO, the benefit is to the entire neighborhood and to the house itself. Everyone suffers when there is a vacant home in the area… the homes deteriorate, are often vandalized, yards start looking shabby and they generally bring property values down though the neighborhood. It is much better to get these properties turned over quickly and install more stable buyers in there… preferably owner occupants. So long story short, it can be a bit of mind trip, but fortunately Donna is a bit of a comedienne and keeps us laughing from start to finish.

DC: We have great conversations on the bus! Sharing stories, snacks, laughs and knowledge.

MF: It really is a great value to the public, it’s totally free, with no obligation, and thanks to our sponsors, refreshments and door prizes are provided. Most importantly perhaps is the interaction and face-time with related professionals such as lenders, title companies, insurance agents and home inspectors… not to mention us as realtors. We show the best properties we can find that cover a range of price points, and because of this we have written offers on homes that have been toured. Not all of them were in great shape, but all of them were incredible deals.

DC: As you can tell, we are very proud of the education we give our tour-goers.

WE: That’s good to hear that you are thoughtfully addressing the downside of the foreclosure crisis. I have heard sometimes that these types of home tours can be viewed as taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune.

MF: We realize that some people might think that, but it’s far from the truth. Donna and I don’t prefer working the distressed properties as they are much more challenging and complicated. We try to do it more as a service to the public. We could charge for these tours, but we don’t. We don’t obligate people to work with us. We strive to keep a positive attitude and explain to potential buyers that if they buy a preforeclosure or shortsale, they have helped that distressed seller avoid foreclosure. This means that in a much shorter space of time, sometimes even months, people who have lost their previous homes can be buying a new house. In fact, poetic justice would be if they could buy a short sale themselves, and make up their lost investment on the buying side. The longer these properties sit empty, the more likely they will deteriorate, get vandalized, grow mold, or worse. I feel strongly that buyers have every right to feel good about their distressed property purchases. They assume a whole new level of risk that comes with buying ‘as-is’, they improve the properties and keep the economy provide work to every conceivable related rehab and revitalize. What’s to feel bad about?

WE: So, what can potential tour-goers expect this year?

DC: This year we are doing smaller car caravans. One of the curious situations we had last year was that everyone would get turned around and not know where they were. They suggested that if they could drive the tour they could get their bearings better. Hence the caravan tour. We will meet at a specific place, like a Kroger parking lot. Meet our tour-goers, present them with routed maps and information on the homes we will be seeing, and hit the road. At different homes we will have our affiliates available to answer questions.

MF: We already do caravans for Realtor tours so we know they work well. We’ll be driving or people can drive their own cars. Just like last year, we’ll be viewing about 5 to 7 homes and refreshments will be provided. Tour-goers should definitely dress for the weather, wear walking shoes and bring a flashlight and a pen to take notes.

WE: Are any specific neighborhoods being featured more heavily than others this year?

DC: We have tours lined up all over the city. The Dublin, Westerville, Worthington and Gahanna areas are very popular.

MF: Yes, the greatest demand is in the North half of Columbus, and we’ll be taking folks all the way from Pickerington around to Hilliard, one month at a time. Regardless of where the tour is scheduled next, we’d be glad to arrange a private tour for individuals in the areas and price ranges specific to their needs. Unfortunately every neighborhood is touched with the foreclosure crisis, and the inventory changes daily so its hard to say where the best deals would be at any given time. It seems that that homes sell more quickly in the Dublin and Worthington areas so you have to act fast if you are looking there. That said, we can find you an amazing opportunity just about anywhere. We also work with the builders and tour their deeply discounted inventory homes. In the past they have offered our passengers additional incentives, so they can really be a great option for someone who wants new, but still wants to get a deal. The cleanup and fixup is not everyone’s cup of tea.

WE: Sounds like a good way to check out a variety of options and neighborhoods all at the same time.

MF: You’d be amazed by the properties and great deals out there.

DC: Don’t forget to visit our website www.columbusforeclosurebustours.com for this years tour schedule.

WE: Thanks for sharing all the details with us!

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