By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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Carmen Massie, who sits on the board of the Texas Federation of Housing Counselors, says the lease is the very kind of contract she tells consumers to avoid. The federation is approved by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to educate first-time home buyers.
"I've worked with other investors who actually do these types of lease-purchase contracts, and they only do these things for their benefit," she says. "They always know that the tenants are never going to go through with the purchase, so that's why they charge these high lease-option fees."
The federation's classes are approved by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs' first-time home buyer program. Many of the consumers Massie works with have the same kind of credit as Wizig's clients.
"This is predatory," she says. Buyers with bad credit "just look at it, 'Well, oh, somebody's going to give me a house ' And their eyes just get so bright that they really don't pay attention as to what they're signing. They really don't. And they end up in a lot of trouble."
But Wizig says he's providing a valuable service, helping people who can't get help anywhere else.
Of his Buffalo experience, Wizig says, "We made some mistakes, no question about it. Ultimately, we tried to do the best we could, and we resolved any consumer complaints that we had there."
He says that although some of his lease provisions may be firm, he's always willing to work with tenants to make sure they can keep their homes. He says his sales staff's motto is "underpromise and overdeliver."
"We're a company that really prides ourselves on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt," he says. He accuses Lynda Bushy of taking advantage of his company's patience by being late on her very first rent check.
"From day one, she breached this agreement," he says. He points out that Bushy broke her yearlong lease with her previous landlord at the manufactured-home community, ultimately owing them several thousand dollars. Bushy says the $2,000 owed comes not from lease penalties but from the landlord's claim that her faulty washing machine damaged the floors.
Wizig sees her lease-breaking and debt as a sign of an unfit tenant. Yet Bushy had no problem moving her family into a town house immediately after she was evicted.
Robert Wisner, a Houston real estate lawyer who helped draft Wizig's lease, says the provisions are clear, fair and legal. Wisner, who has written several books and many articles on truth-in-lending issues, says Wizig goes out of his way to comply with Texas's mammoth property code.
"He's put people in homes who would not otherwise have an ability to get into homes. And obviously these are people who cannot go to traditional landlords so there's a certain additional amount of risk that he takes," Wisner says. "You've got to keep on these people a little bit harder and make sure you get paid every month, and when you don't, you kind of got to follow up on it. Otherwise, you know, they'll kill you -- you know, you'll end up with people just living in your homes, not paying you."
On the 8500 block of Lee Otis Street, a little dead-end road between Cullen and Scott, sits a small wood-framed house on concrete blocks.
Its 720 square feet contain four rooms in total, including two bedrooms and one bath. Built in 1950, it has a window air-conditioning unit and is graded an E-plus by the Harris County Appraisal District, the second-lowest grade possible. A grade of C means the structure has an "average quality of workmanship, architectural design and materials." The house is adjacent to and across the street from several boarded-up and burned-out wood-framed homes.
The district valued the home at $13,600. Wizig just sold it for $49,199.
The house was last sold in 1994 for $3,240.
Wizig says the county's appraised value is not a true indicator of what a home should sell for.
"The HCAD value has little to do with what the sales price is," he says. "Our prices are simply market-driven. If our price is too high, the consumer lets us know by not buying the home."
Not so, says the county's assistant chief appraiser, Guy Griscom.
"It's a grossly elevated price, based on the other properties that are actually selling out there," Griscom says. He says a similarly sized and graded house in the same neighborhood recently sold for $15,000.
"This is not a very good neighborhood, and the idea that somebody paid $50,000 for a house in there is -- you know, there's some other story that goes with that."
That story, according to Griscom, involves a property owner who does not believe the buyer will ever pay off his liens, which are under Wizig's name.
"I guarantee you he has no intention of those people ever paying off those liens," Griscom says. "He wants to milk out as much as he can get out of it, get it back, fix it back up to the minimum he needs to do to sell it to some other poor soul that can't do anything else."