CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Here at the epicenter of the nation's housing crisis, an ebullient Marc Joseph bounces off a pontoon boat onto a dock behind a lovely waterfront home — it was recently vacated when its former inhabitants couldn't pay the mortgage.
"The tiki hut comes with the house, guys!" the slim 41-year-old real estate agent says as a dozen or so potential buyers disembark from two boats and start poking around the 2,600-square-foot house. It's being offered by a bank for $574,000.
Considering this particular home — situated on a wide canal leading to the Gulf of Mexico — sold for $776,000 in 2005, it's going to be a steal for someone.
Joseph hopes he might have the buyer aboard his latest boat tour of upscale foreclosed homes, all accessed via the network of salt-water canals that snake through the back yards of much of this southwest Florida community.
Having made national news last year with his bus tours of vacant homes here in the county that leads the nation in foreclosures, Joseph is now attacking by sea, filling boats weekly with curious snowbirds, international tourists, potential investors and local lookie-loos.
A three-hour tour on this warm afternoon included four abodes ranging from a 2,000 square-foot ranch-style place with an algae-covered hot tub out back for $279,000, to a McMansion that was purchased for $1.1 million a few years ago and is now being offered for $669,000.
At the latter, an opulent 3,000-square-foot residence, Joseph gestures to the mangroves waving in the breeze 40 yards across the canal. "This is all owned by the state — your view is never going to change," he says.
Pedro and Karin Weber are Germans who recently moved to Florida from Venezuela and hope to set up some sort of retail business so they can stay. They did their homework and deliberately chose to relocate to Cape Coral. They hopped on the boat hoping to find a place in the $350,000 range.
"It's tough at the moment in the whole world, so why not go to the States?" says Karin Weber, a 53-year-old blonde wearing a pink Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt and big Dior sunglasses.
"We're not rich. We have money (put) back for buying a house," she says, standing on a screened pool deck at one of the stops. "So maybe we can buy a house for $300,000 what's worth $500,000 or $600,000. Maybe we can make a good deal. That's why we chose Cape Coral."
Joseph imparts his message emphatically on both the land and sea tours: In southwest Florida, now is the time to buy.
Speculators took advantage of no-money-down loans in 2005 and 2006 to fill cow pastures and scrub lands with new subdivisions full of houses that were left vacant and in foreclosure after the market crashed and the economy tanked. Many of those homes were intended to sell in the $260,000 range. Now they're being offered by the banks for around $90,000.
Joseph sees the boat tour as a way to snag opportunistic buyers who can afford a little larger piece of the Florida dream.
"There's a little fear in the economy, but you've got to understand where you're at, guys," he lectures at one stop. "The sun is still shining. Our roads are full, our beaches are packed. People are down here looking. The product will not last long."
Joseph figures the market will hit bottom in the next six to eight months and then track upward as the glut of empty homes is thinned out. But foreclosed homes continue to flood the market.
The Fort Myers-Cape Coral metro area had the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation in February, with one out of every 65 housing units getting a foreclosure notice during the month, according to foreclosure tracking service RealtyTrac. (Las Vegas was No. 1.)
The bright side: Sales of existing, single-family homes in Lee County were up more than 100 percent in February over the same period in 2008, driven by bargains created by the crisis, according to the Realtor Association of Greater Fort Myers and the Beach Inc. Two-thirds of the homes sold in the county so far this year were foreclosed properties, with a median selling price of $73,000.
Meanwhile, home sales nationwide rose 5 percent in February from a year ago, while the median price fell 16 percent to $165,400, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Jay Martin came to Cape Coral do a little speculating of his own. He got on the boat looking for good buys for the international clients of his San Diego-based investment house.
"This is going to be kind of our Ground Zero," Martin says. "The inventory levels are starting to level out, so it's pretty much go-time."
Just then a woman over on the bank hooks a stingray the size of a dinner plate and hauls it out of the water as her fellow fishermen cheer and a fluffy white dogs yaps from the pool deck.
Martin smiles. "It's beautiful down here," he says.