Forget those late-night infomercials -- here's how you get rich in real estate:
First, find a city with a large population of vulnerable consumers. We're talking first-time home buyers, undocumented immigrants, people with no credit or with credit shot to hell. Houston will work perfectly -- these folks are on their own here.
Next, get thee to the Secretary of State and incorporate a boatload of limited partnerships. Go crazy. When it comes to LPs and LLCs, there's no such thing as "too much." Now, pluck one of these shell corporations at random and go down to the courthouse on the first Tuesday of the month, and buy whatever dilapidated properties you can. No windows? No problem. You aren't going to live there.
Now go around the city and illegally slap your ugly and un-ignorable bandit signs all over the place. Between those suckers and your Greensheet ads, you're going to get a ton of traffic. That's why you'll want a smooth-talking sales force. Mind you, these people don't need licenses, because they're selling your property on your behalf. That way, they're out of the reach of the Texas Real Estate Commission, which has jurisdiction only over licensed personnel.
Now, you might wonder how on Earth you can sell an uninhabitable home to someone -- no one can be that dumb, right? You'd be surprised. It turns out there's an endless stream. You'll sell these homes "owner-financed," making you the bank. You have the ultimate control. (You should also offer your customers a "layaway" option, as if they're buying a washing machine or an expensive pair of pants.)
Your sales force barely has to disclose anything to these rubes, as long as they sign a piece of paper noting that the homes are sold "as is, where is." Those words are magic. Those words will send your kids to college.
If you need guidance, there are plenty of mentors in Houston. But the man you really need to talk to is Scott Wizig. Through an umbrella company called SWE Homes, Wizig has made a fortune with this method for decades. And while his companies have repeatedly violated state statutes regarding mortgage lending, those companies have been fined only $11,100 since 2010. That's about two and a half closing costs.
The only time Wizig seems to get in real trouble is when he does business in other states. In 2002, after he bought 281 blighted properties in Buffalo and leased many of them under ridiculous terms to people who didn't know any better, then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer investigated. Ultimately, Wizig agreed to pay $50,000 in repairs, rental credits, rescinded mortgages, restitution and investigative costs.
Prosecutors in Buffalo were prepared to take stronger measures: Wizig's housing violations in the city came with the threat of jail time. Prosecutors charged one of Wizig's Buffalo companies, NY Liberty Homes LLC, with ten violations each on 100 properties. Erie County prosecutor Lenora Foote told the Houston Press in 2004 that Wizig, as the corporation's sole managing member, could be personally penalized for the violations. Buffalo's housing laws carried a maximum of 15 days per violation.
Had Liberty been convicted on all counts and Wizig held personally culpable, he could have spent 41 years behind bars. (These charges were largely symbolic; because the city's housing court has jurisdiction only in Erie County, Wizig wouldn't spend a second in jail as long as he never visited Buffalo.) Prosecutors instead settled with Wizig's attorney, who entered guilty pleas on behalf of NY Liberty Homes for roughly 200 violations. Under the terms of the settlement, the corporation was required to establish a $200,000 repair fund. The city also forced Wizig to set aside an additional $175,000 if the repairs weren't completed within six months. (To no one's surprise, they weren't.)
The city's housing court representative called Wizig "the biggest slumlord we've ever seen in Buffalo."
In Baltimore, Wizig bought more than 100 blighted, vacant residential and commercial properties and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with them. He let them rot long enough for the Maryland legislature to pass a law allowing community organizations to sue absentee landlords. Six organizations sued him and won.
But in Texas, Wizig doesn't have such problems. He continues to sell blighted properties to naive home buyers who don't qualify for traditional loans. They agree to exorbitant interest rates and enter into contracts that seem rigged to fail.
Now that's how you get rich in real estate.
In 2006, Bianca Serrano was an undocumented resident who knew nothing about buying a house. She was the quintessential Wizig customer.
Although she was eventually afforded temporary residency under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, back then the 30-year-old was unable to get a traditional loan. When her father saw one of Wizig's signs outside a quaint white house on the south side, not far from Old Spanish Trail, he suggested she call.
Salesman Juan Duenez showed her and her sister the property -- by this time, their father, who ironically is a contractor, was in New Orleans, working on homes damaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Both women say the house looked nice inside and out and that Duenez told them it was ready to move into as soon as Serrano signed the papers. She paid $4,200 down on a $46,000 house at 11.99 percent interest. One of Wizig's LPs had paid $11,000 for the home at auction two years earlier.
"I trusted in him," Serrano says of Duenez. (Duenez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) "It looked livable, but it wasn't."
When she called to open an electricity account, she was told that the house had been deemed a "dangerous building" by the city. There was no HVAC, plumbing or certificate of occupancy. The house was uninhabitable.
She says she sought help from Duenez, who ignored her, and then managed a meeting with Wizig. She says she asked him if he could find a livable home for her or waive her payments until she was able to move in, but he declined. She filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but the company did not respond.
Luckily, the manager of the hotel where she worked as a desk clerk let her live in a room until the house was ready. It took more than a year, she says. Her father sent money from New Orleans, and with her paycheck and credit card payments, she figures she spent $20,000 before the home was habitable.
Based on Serrano's contract, the transaction was completely legal. Duenez provided a "seller's disclosure of property condition" per the state property code, using a standard form approved by the Texas Real Estate Commission. The completed form shows that the seller was aware of some, but not all, "defects/malfunctions" throughout the house.
Curiously, in a handwritten addition at the bottom of the form, someone noted that "this home is in poor physical condition and...the city may have declared it a 'dangerous building.'"
The paperwork paints an outrageous picture: that Serrano, a first-time home buyer unable to secure a bank loan at a reasonable rate, completely understood that she was agreeing to an 11.99 percent interest rate on a home that she wouldn't be able to live in for a year, and only after sinking an additional $20,000 into it -- and the salesman at no time told her that she could move in immediately.
Fortunately for Serrano, she was granted a two-year work permit in 2013, and was able to refinance her mortgage with a bank earlier this year. The experience cost her dearly, but, unlike many of Wizig's customers, she's still in her home eight years later.
Neither Wizig nor his endless entities' lawyer, R. Gary Laws, responded to multiple requests for comment, but Wizig told the Houston Press in 2004 that his business practices aren't predatory. He told the Press that his sales staff's motto is "underpromise and over-deliver," and that even though his customers may have troubled financial histories, "We're a company that really prides ourselves on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt."
Robert Wisner, an attorney who drafted the rent-to-own leases that once made up a huge chunk of Wizig's business, told the Press for the same story that Wizig has "put people in homes who would not otherwise have an ability to get homes." But apparently because these people have a tendency toward shiftiness, Wisner also explained, "You've got to keep on these people a little bit harder and make sure you get paid every month...Otherwise, you know, they'll kill you -- you know, you'll end up with people just living in your homes, not paying you."
Presumably, Wizig could save himself the headache and just sell homes to people who can afford them, or at least not sell homes that have been deemed "dangerous" by city officials.
But if you, like Wizig, aren't ready to make such a leap, it would behoove you to engage in some public relations. It won't make you rich today, but it will help in the long run if you create the impression that you're a pillar of the community. All you'll need is a little cognitive dissonance.
On SWE Homes' blog, which it appears is no longer active, the company claims to have supported a bunch of worthy organizations, such as youth sports leagues, the Sheriffs' Association of Texas, United Cerebral Palsy, Jewish Family Service and the American Cancer Society.
And on the company's Facebook page, volunteers can be seen repainting elderly homeowners' properties through a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together-Houston. It never hurts to slap photos on social media of your salespeople helping needy old people, along with statements like "It is always great when you do something fun and good for the community."
Now that we've got the basics down pat, it's time to branch out.
Any schlub can sell a shack at 12 percent interest to some desperate soul and foreclose a short while later, but it takes a real entrepreneur to find new ways to take someone's home.
Once again, you'll want to look at Wizig for pointers. But you probably have a lot of catching up to do. According to SWE Homes' blog, Wizig was an early starter: "Scott started working at a young age, first selling lemonade to construction workers, then taking on a paper route and eventually repairing bikes to resale [sic] them in his neighborhood."
Fast-forward a bit, and Wizig "started his real estate venture by purchasing his first properties in the late [1980s] during the oil bust," according to the blog. "In 1999, in a multi-million dollar transaction, Scott purchased...over 1,000 loans secured by real estate and 100 properties in over fifty counties across Texas. SWE Homes has since become a renowned name in Houston, Texas real estate."
Now that's a foundation you can build on. You can spread your wings and find new ways to foreclose on people.
Look at one of Wizig's companies, Tax Rescue, which claims to pay off homeowners' delinquent property taxes so they can stay in their homes. In exchange, the homeowner signs a promissory note secured by the deed to the house. Court records show that Tax Rescue's interest rate can be as high as 24 percent. When the person defaults, Tax Rescue forecloses and takes the home for around the same cost, or less, that the company may have paid at auction.
This kind of deal is also a good way to take people's homes out from under them. A good example is when Wizig foreclosed on a 74-year-old woman raising four grandkids on a disability check and 83 cents in her savings account.
Eartha Singletary, who was foreclosed on in 2012, could not be located for comment. She certainly no longer lives in the Fifth Ward home her son deeded to her in 2002, when he was in prison (and still is) for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.
In 2003, Singletary obtained a $35,000 home loan from a company called Assurance Lending Services. That company went bankrupt in 2007, at which time Singletary modified her loan through the court's trustee. A year later, the trustee sold a handful of Assurance's mortgages to Wizig's umbrella company, SWE Homes.
Singletary was $3,900 in arrears when SWE assumed her loan and appears to have threatened to foreclose, because Singletary sought bankruptcy protection. She originally filed pro se and had difficulty meeting filing deadlines. Court records show that she worked out a payment arrangement with SWE, contingent upon the plan being approved by the bankruptcy trustee.
Singletary's attorney noted in a filing that "debtor is an elderly individual who resides alone and has suffered from severe health issues," and didn't realize she could seek bankruptcy protection until she "received an advertisement letter for bankruptcy service."
Ultimately, the requirements -- such as taking online credit counseling classes -- proved too much for Singletary. The trustee dismissed her case, freeing SWE to finally foreclose.
She also sought relief in district court, suing Wizig and SWE Homes for wrongful foreclosure. Her affidavit in that case suggests she was confused by the entire situation. She stated that an SWE representative "informed me that if I paid a sum of $5,000, my home would not be foreclosed. I paid the amount, but my home was subsequently foreclosed."
She also wrote: "I am still ready, willing, and able to pay off my mortgage. I only owe $26,000 on the property. I have the funds to pay off my mortgage as long as the rightful owner of my note shows up to collect it. I do not know SWE Homes, LP. I did not conduct any business with SWE Homes, LP."
Ultimately, Singletary and her grandchildren moved out of their home. In April 2013, Wizig sold the house for $89,750.
Singletary's attorney in district court, Alphonsus Ezeoke, says Wizig is just the symptom of a broken system.
"I think the big issue is when the courts help people like Wizig get away with their atrocities," Ezeoke told the Press in an email. "Wizig is just exploiting the system. The system is the bigger problem when it allows anyone to foreclose on someone's property and file for eviction. At the eviction hearing, the justice of the peace only wants to know who is the current holder of the trustee's deed -- whether obtained by fraud or not. The courts grant eviction to the holder of the trustee's deed. The attorney [for the homeowner] is basically powerless."
Ezeoke's not kidding -- Wizig's actions here expose a flaw in the system that means more money for you, should you decide to follow his path.
Of course, if you're going to be originating a boatload of mortgages instead of gobbling others' up, it helps to stay on top of things lest you get hit with pesky fines. In Texas, the entity that has given Wizig more grief than any other is the Texas Department of Savings and Mortgage Lending, which has accused Wizig's entities of engaging in unlicensed activity and failing to issue required disclosure forms, such as Good Faith Estimate or Truth in Lending documents, according to the department's associate general counsel. In four years, Wizig's companies have been fined $11,100.
"When we first ran into Mr. Wizig, his company and his people were unlicensed," Chris Schneider explained in an email. "He got the company and some of his people licensed, but we continue to find violations."
You can chalk that up to the cost of doing business, just like you can if this next technique -- a real doozy -- doesn't work out. It's sort of the pièce de résistance of getting rich in real estate: foreclosing on property you really have nothing to do with.
Behold Wizig's attempt to foreclose on a property for which he was sorta-kinda able to obtain a deed of trust -- but only because justices of the peace in property auctions don't have time to make sure people aren't foreclosing on homes they have no claim to. Once you understand the cracks in the system, a whole new world opens up.
Pay attention: In 2003, Magdaleno Gomez bought land in southwest Houston on which he built a warehouse to store equipment for his landscaping service.
In 2010, a debt-collection company called Pharia won a $5,000 default judgment against Agustin Saucedo, the previous owner of Gomez's property. Saucedo never showed up to court or filed a response. Under what's called a writ of execution, the court transferred what it thought was Saucedo's property -- but was actually Gomez's property -- to Pharia.
Pharia auctioned off the property in October 2011. At $8,000, a Wizig company called Tu Primera Casa was the highest bidder.
Two months later, Tu Primera notified Gomez of the purported new ownership; a representative left a note asking Gomez to let them know if he'd like to rent the building from them or if he'd be moving out.
Although Gomez immediately had his real estate agent fax over a copy of the deed showing he was the rightful owner, Tu Primera foreclosed on the property. He scrambled to find a lawyer to fight the case, and had to spend about $10,000 to fight to keep his own property.
Gomez's attorney, Jeffrey Dorrell, told the Press that Wizig and Tu Primera Casa continued with the eviction process even after receiving proof that Gomez was the rightful owner.
"You could sort of forgive it if the mistake was because of the crappy [real estate records]...but when you keep on down the path after you've got undeniable proof of actual, official documents, then there's something else going on," Dorrell said, adding, "somebody who looked at [the deed] could in two seconds confirm that Agustin Saucedo had no interest in this property and they had no right to evict the residents from it. And [Wizig's company] just refused to do it -- they just ignored it."
Dorrell said he was initially ignored as well: "But then I wrote letters to the same people -- certified letters to Wizig and his employees and that company, Tu Primera Casa, and they just ignored it...They were proceeding to evict him from the premises, and I had to rush to court to get a restraining order to stop that process and to abate the eviction proceeding in the justice court."
Gomez came "within a matter of days" of being evicted, Dorrell said, adding, "I was so offended at the way [Wizig's company] had absolutely no interest in the truth."
Fortunately, Dorrell said, Wizig finally knew when he had been beaten: "I spoke to him personally on the phone, and he knew exactly that the jig was up...He knew exactly what he was up to, and he knew when he had gotten caught. And he just waved the white flag."
Gomez ultimately dropped his suit -- with prejudice -- suggesting he was able to get a satisfactory settlement.
Now, you might be scratching your head, because this appears to be an example of Wizig losing and not getting rich in real estate. And you'd be right. But here's what you've got to ask yourself: Is everyone going to fight like Gomez?
If you're looking to export your new business model to other cities, you're on your own. Not every city is as freewheelin' when it comes to letting absentee landlords sit on festering eyesores.
Take Baltimore City Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke. She has a problem in her district, and its name is Scott Wizig.
Technically, it goes by many names, including Compound Yield Play LLC, Wiz Homes LLC and, presumably in honor of Wizig's son, Nicky's Row Homes LLC. These shells, along with others, own a bunch of eyesores in Clarke's neighborhood.
"The effect is devastating," Clarke told the Press. "One immediate effect is that nearby homeowners can't get [homeowner's] insurance, so they become doubly vulnerable, because they have a blighted property nearby and then they cannot even protect their own well-kept property from damage."
Thanks to a citywide program called Healthy Neighborhoods, Clarke's district has otherwise been flourishing. The program is an organization of banks and nonprofits providing low-interest loans for buying and rehabilitating properties, or for residents to fix their homes.
"It's especially frustrating -- because we've made such progress -- to have slumlords in the neighborhood that will not work with the neighborhood associations," Clarke says.
Wizig owns 165 properties in Baltimore, 138 of which are vacant, according to Jason Hessler of the Baltimore Housing Department's Permits and Code Enforcement Division. He says the city has liens on most of the properties, and explains that his introduction to Wizig came when the city fined him for placing hundreds of illegal bandit signs in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. Wizig paid $40,000 in fines and stopped posting the signs.
But it's been a long battle. In a 2004 Baltimore City Paper story, reporter Gadi Dechter noted how Wizig's Baltimore activities were reminiscent of his stint in Buffalo. The New York state's attorney who prosecuted him told Dechter, "I'd never before seen a landlord renting apartments with no electricity, heat or -water. In some cases, the waste system [in the properties] wasn't hooked up to the sewer -system."
Fortunately, a 2012 amendment to Maryland's Community Bill of Rights statute made it easier for neighborhood associations to sue absentee landlords, and Clarke's district is a testing ground for such cases.
In April 2013, six community organizations sued Wizig and his flock of LLCs, accusing him of buying dilapidated properties at tax sales and then doing absolutely nothing with them.
Per the suit, Wizig's rotting properties "attract vagrants and criminal activity, function as trash receptacles, [emit] odors, diminish the value of neighboring properties, and put adjacent neighbors and passersby in imminent danger, especially as the structures collapse as a result of Defendants' neglect."
In July 2014, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Pamela J. White agreed, ruling that Wizig's properties suffered from "unsafe and uninhabitable conditions" that have "remained unabated despite ongoing violations and nuisance(s)."
White ordered Wizig to correct code violations on 49 properties in 90 days.
Kristine Dunkerton, executive director of the Community Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the organizations, issued a statement calling the order "a triumph for neighborhoods suffering from dilapidated properties."
But instead of complying, Wizig's lawyer filed a motion for reconsideration.
In deft legal maneuvering, attorney Cynthia Leppert argued that the community organizations had failed "to prove the existence of a 'nuisance'" and that Wizig shouldn't be personally liable for the properties.
To that end, Wizig filed an affidavit stating, "I am not the owner or titleholder of the properties." He claimed that, although he's the managing member of each LLC, "I do not run their day-to-day affairs and business." The motion is pending the judge's decision.
Those daily affairs "are conducted by a management company, through multiple employees other than myself, located in Houston, Texas."
Bottom line, per Wizig: "I did not personally commit, participate in, or inspire any nuisances that may have been caused by the Defendant LLCs."
It's a far cry from what he told City Paper ten years earlier when describing the management of his properties that were actually being rented: "We really want to know that these properties are being maintained and that these tenants are being taken care of." He also said: "I believe in Baltimore. The city is starting to turn around, and there are lots of positive things happening."
Now you should be well on your way to a successful career in selling junk houses at exorbitant interest rates to folks who don't know any better. You have learned from the best.
And don't forget: Just because a certain demographic may think you're a predatory lender, they're not the demographic that counts. They're not empowered socially or politically. In the end, they don't matter.
You have a voice politically, so speak: Do like Wizig and contribute to candidates who you feel are good for your bottom line. You can contribute in your own name or in the names of your myriad LLCs.
Give a lot to Democrats and a little to Republicans. Sure, Wizig threw away $2,000 by supporting Wendy Davis's bid for governor, but you take the bad with the good. He gave $3,900 to U.S. Representative Al Green between 2009 and 2014, and $500 to Texas state Senator Joan Huffman.
And don't forget about local elected officials -- Wizig has donated $1,100 to City Councilmember Ellen Cohen's office since 2008, and he contributed $1,250 to Judge Steven Kirkland's campaign in 2011.
Your customers, like Wizig's, don't have that kind of dough to spread. Nor will they rub elbows with VIPs at the kinds of swanky functions that are covered in the Houston Chronicle's society pages. The kinds of affairs where Wizig can conspicuously display his charitable role in the community.
So make sure you get the Chron to photograph you and your wife at functions like the Lyndon Baines Johnson Moral Courage Award Dinner, which hosts speakers such as Martin Luther King III and U.S. Representative John Lewis. (Extra points if you can host a "private breakfast" for these luminaries at your $2.9 million Bellaire home, which, incidentally, you did not purchase on layaway.)
Donate to a mostly minority youth football league. Sponsor a mostly minority middle school class's field trip to the Holocaust Museum Houston. (Extra points if your wife sits on the museum's board of trustees.)
It will pay in the long run to be nice to kids like these. Not only does doing so enhance your standing in the community, but it might ensure a future customer or two.
And don't forget the obvious -- peppering your website with customer testimonials. That's what Wizig did for SWE Homes' site, which features a couple's quote: "We were very impressed with the professionalism and high level of customer service we received."
Chances are, no one will look that couple up in court records. So you can just leave out the part about evicting them after six months.
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