Real Estate Liquidation Auctions

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With the market turndown, Liquidation auctions are becoming a big thing. They were just advertising one on all the stations around here. The other agents in my office asked if I was going, and I told them, "There will be no bargains there." Two of them went anyway, one going so far as to take a client.

To be fair, this only applies 100% to one specific auction house, which I'm not going to name - but the tactics and terms are pretty standard. Here's the claims they make: "Huge selection" (which means, in this case, 222 properties of all sorts, 147 of them in the county, 75 out of the county, as opposed to 20,600 active residential properties in San Diego County MLS on the day in question), "Easy financing" (they rent some space to one specific lender). In fact, they do their best to restrict choice of lenders - giving some minor preferred terms if you do business with their tame lender, which isn't known in the business for being a good lender to do business with. This violates RESPA, by the way. "Perfect for families." If you believe this, I own not only beachfront property in Florida but also a bridge in Brooklyn and an albino pachyderm, and I want to sell them all to you for a low discount package price -contact me for private details. You've got to be some kind of idiot to believe that it's a good idea to bring kids - a genetic and conditioned emotional distraction - to a real estate auction. Their commercials have sound bite interviews with people right after they win an auction - excited that they "won" an emotional battle for a house! Of their very own! Not later, once they've discovered how rotten the situation is that they have gotten themselves into.

Reading the fine print, it didn't take much to figure out what's really going on here: They want to get buyers together in an emotional auction environment where it's psychologically very easy to overbid for a property, get them committed to buying the property, and cut them off from all of the really good due diligence they're allowed to do on every other property out there. Lock the buyers into what they do in the heat of the most emotional moment these artisans can create - while the sellers are free to reject the deal on a whim. They allow the prospective buyers no "cooling off" period at all. This is legal for purchases, but isn't a good situation to be getting yourself into as a buyer, particularly not in the current environment for most of the country.

Here's the skinny: First off, prospective buyers need a $5000 cashiers check made out to yourself, which you will endorse over to them, and the balance of 5% of the purchase price in the form of a personal check or something similar. What this means is that no matter what, the lender is getting $5000 of that buyer's money. Period, end of sentence. Furthermore, they have to put 5% of purchase price into escrow. This is way above the "traditional" 2% which is far too high for most transactions nowadays. Putting it into escrow means that, at a minimum, somebody else is holding onto it until and unless all parties agree to release it or a court tells them to. Given that you have to use their special "purchase contract" which wasn't available ahead of time, what do you expect that the terms of that contract are as regards to things like liquidated damages and money owed to the lenders for the "privilege" of sitting in escrow on a property where there's no real due diligence done? Their brochure said the purchase contract was available on their website, but I couldn't find it, and I not only checked their site map, but clicked on everything that I thought could conceivably be associated with it - which was basically everything. It wasn't there, but I don't have any reason to distrust their claim that it renders you liable for damages if you don't carry through on purchase. In other words, you find out a reason why you don't want the property, you still pay for the fact that you had the high bid. Not to mention their purchase contract is completely mandatory, and you can't negotiate anything about it, and you don't even find out what those terms are until after you've agreed to the price. Since contract terms can move the price by thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in regular negotiations, it shouldn't stretch your imagination to figure there's a reason they're waiting to spring all of this upon you - most likely a contract people wouldn't have signed at the peak of the seller's market in 2003. Furthermore, you're required to sign a "winning bidder confirmation" immediately upon making the high bid. What that says also wasn't subject to prior investigation - which is a polite way of saying they want it to be a deep dark secret until you "win" the auction for a given piece of property. Use your imagination for a moment, and ask yourself, "Why would they want to keep it secret until then? What might such a document say?" I'll bet you millions to milliamps the reality would be worse. These folks are professionals.

Did I mention that you're agreeing that you've already done your due diligence? Yes, but I didn't go into what it really means. They supposedly have three open houses for inspection, but how many people are really going to drag an inspector, an appraiser, a termite inspector, etcetera out to the property just because they might be thinking about bidding on the property? That's sinking anywhere from $800 on up into the property just on speculation of winning the bidding. If a prospective buyer does this due diligence ahead of time, it psychologically prepares them to be willing to go higher on the bid (they've already spent money). If they don't do this due diligence ahead of time, they're putting that 5% of the purchase price - however many thousands of dollars - at risk. Suppose you bid $400,000 and it's accepted. You need to put $20,000 into escrow immediately! If a prospective buyer thinks they might bid on two properties, that's twice as much. Furthermore, although the purchase contract wasn't available, I'm quite willing to take the word of their brochure that there are no financing or appraisal contingencies allowed in that contract, even for their preferred lender. Their verbiage is adamant on the point of "as is, where is, including all faults." They're very explicit about no liability by sellers, which is basically standard for lender owned property, but they're not going to accept any requests for repairs either, which isn't. In fact, in some circumstances, it's illegal. Not to mention that you normally have seventeen calendar days to do your due diligence after there's a fully negotiated purchase contract, even with lender owned properties, before your deposit is likely to be in jeopardy.

They use a "property previously valued to" come-on, which is disclosed in the fine print to be the highest of 1) an appraisal 2) asking price, 3) assessed value or 4 ) broker's price opinion. You shouldn't need to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that this means the asking price - the exceptions just make for something even more cockeyed. It's been on the market for months, and it didn't sell for that price. If it had, they wouldn't be auctioning them off in these circumstances.

There's also an undisclosed reserve price. What this means is that if the auction doesn't get high enough to go over the reserve price, you don't get the property even if you have the high bid. Furthermore, reading through the fine print, you find that the auction has planted other bidders in the crowd, who can and will bid the price up. If claims they won't go over the reserve price, but since neither the identity of the plant nor the reserve price is disclosed, it's somewhat difficult to verify this. The job given these plants is plain and simple: Get the bidding going, and get it emotional, so people will keep bidding for a long time. Since the auctioneer knows both the plant and the reserve price, they can collude quite easily to a common purpose. As a matter of fact, the fine print says the owners don't even have to accept the reserve price. What does this mean? If, after all the psychological games they can play with you, you don't bid enough to make them happy, you still don't get the property! In fact, they've got 15 days to turn you down. You, on the other hand, are required to close escrow within thirty days, which means you had better get working immediately, even though they reserve the right to pull the rug out from under you.

If all of this isn't enough, they reserve the right to alter terms and conditions as they go, specifically including, "Advancing the bidding," which is a euphemism for jacking up the price for no apparent reason. In addition to that, there's a 5% surcharge on all winning bids in order to arrive at the final sales price. So someone knows their limit is $300,000 and advances the bidding to $297,000 before winning - only to discover that this translates to a "real" price of $312,000 - a price they already know they can't afford! Result? Minimum of $5000 in their pocket (your endorsed cashier's check), and they offer the property for sale again right away.

Have I mentioned the psychology of an auction yet? Particularly one with inexperienced bidders? Most of whom have no idea of the risks they are taking, let alone the fact that they should be compensated for them, or how much? I've heard too many inexperienced people saying that "Everybody knows" that foreclosures and auctions are great deals. I'd like to meet this Everybody, because he's spewing rank fertilizer in the form of unsubstantiated rumors that are far from universal even if they are sometimes valid when you've got a sharp agent on your side in a high transparency situation where both sides have to come to the table as equals. That's not the case here.

I looked through their book of available properties. There was precisely one that I had been in. It was a 3 bedroom 1.75 bath property on a lot that was mostly level because the developer had terraced it fifty years ago, with a deep crack in the foundation the entire width of the house - you could even see the evidence on the outside, for crying out loud. Nice paint, great view, some other nice touches - but flat roof I couldn't see, no yard, no close parks, no place for kids or pets, all the fixtures and surfaces other than the carpet were original, it sat on a busy connector street, and I couldn't tell you whether that house was going to be there tomorrow without a soil engineer's report on how well the leveling of the lot was standing up, how well the soil had been compacted, etcetera. I suspect problems, because the foundation wouldn't likely have cracked if there hadn't been soil compaction issues. I remember thinking, "Maybe $300,000, if the soil report comes back solid. Otherwise, you couldn't pay me to take this property." They were telling people it was valued at $429,000. Seriously, I would rather have a 1970s vintage townhome less than a mile away listing for $279,000 - and this includes HOA dues and dealing with a homeowner's association in the first place. More usable yard, a couple of small communal parks and a communal pool, and less environmental noise - not to mention that even if that condominium had structural issues I didn't spot, dealing with them would have been a communal issue as well. This seemed about average for what was being offered. The less desirable areas seemed to be heavily over-represented in their offerings. This is about as coincidental as falling down when you trip. All the usual war zones that people don't want, even when they think they're getting a deal.

The point of all of this is to get people foolish enough to bid on these properties locked into deals, where the sellers are not locked in at all. Get them emotional, so they bid up the price, and if they can't do that well enough, the seller has the option of taking their marbles and going back to what they were doing. So you can imagine that I wasn't very surprised when my two co-workers called me about halfway through the proceedings to say, "You were right. We're leaving. There are no bargains here."

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 19, 2008 7:00 AM.

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