Foreclosures create opportunities in Prince George's, Md.

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; C01

The house on 29th Street in Mount Rainier is a shambles. Mold and mildew cover the walls. The carpet reeks of urine. A chandelier in the dining room and dingy white curtains in the windows are the only reminders that the house was once a home.

"They let it sit so long it became a crack house," said Karl L. Granzow Jr. as he walked through the building, looking out for rodents, roaches or their remains.

Despite the condition of the house, it is just the type of property that Granzow, his business partner, Patrick Ricker, and other investors have been snatching up in Prince George's County since the housing bubble burst about three years ago. Granzow and Ricker bought the home on 29th Street a few months ago.

The properties are inexpensive. They are inside the Capital Beltway. And they are in communities where redevelopment projects and new construction are underway.

Granzow and Ricker said their company, Property and Industry Coordinators, has bought and renovated eight homes in the past year. Most of them are in Mount Rainier and Hyattsville. Bright Lusk Properties, a family-owned business in Hyattsville, has bought three since 2008. All are in Hyattsville, one of the Prince George's communities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis.

Last year, Prince George's had 13,412 foreclosure filings, more than any other jurisdiction in the state. A filing could mean that the homeowner received a notice threatening foreclosure or that the property was sold at auction or was repossessed. The county, with 13.8 percent of the state's housing units, had 31 percent of the state's foreclosure filings.

Under the circumstances, housing and foreclosure experts said, it is no wonder that investors are eyeing places such as Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and Capitol Heights, communities with older housing stock near the District line.

"These are desirable locations," said state Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who has sponsored a number of bills dealing with foreclosure in recent years and who prosecutes mortgage fraud as an assistant state's attorney. "Mount Rainier and Hyattsville are strong and attractive communities to folks, even in the current economic recession."

Maryland does not track what happens to homes after they go into foreclosure or how many of those homes are bought by investors, said Raymond A. Skinner, state secretary of housing and community development.

But Skinner said it seemed likely that people would be looking for bargains and that many investors would focus on older communities, where the prices are lower and the chances of resale are greater.

Rebekah Lusk, a resident of Hyattsville and a founder of Bright Lusk Properties, said she chose to buy a house in the county's Lewisdale section because her company wants to be part of the redevelopment effort in the city. All of its properties have been renovated and are being rented out.

"Our goal is to be active investors and be involved in the community," she said. "We don't flip. That's not our goal. We're not looking to put properties back on the market when there are so many already on the market."

Niemann, who has toured some of Property and Industry Coordinators' properties, said he is pleased to see homegrown investors working in the community. He said he is not bothered that Ricker and Granzow are renovating and quickly reselling the properties they buy, a process known as flipping, because they are "bringing the homes up to high-quality status."

Niemann said the properties would otherwise become increasingly blighted or would be scooped up by speculators with no ties to the community.

Ricker said that he has made a living brokering real estate deals and investing in new developments -- his company's offices were raided by the FBI in 2008 during a probe of a proposed development near the Greenbelt Metro station -- but that he had to refocus when the market dried up.

As he drives his black Cadillac Escalade through Mount Rainier and Hyattsville, he searches for signs of neglect in the neighborhoods. Brown lawns. Weeds. Missing curtains. He is looking for any possible indication that a homeowner is in foreclosure.

"When the bubble burst, I said, 'Why not buy some of these homes?' " he recalled.

Instead of going to auctions, Ricker negotiates with lenders to arrive at an acceptable price.

He bought one house in Brentwood for about $100,000. He gutted it, installed marble countertops in the kitchen, new appliances and new bathroom fixtures, and he transformed attic space into a master bedroom. He said the house will sell for about $300,000.

"The positive is that they are not fly-by-night speculators who want to make a quick buck," Niemann said. "Yes, they are making a return on their money, but there seems to be a strategy to make the community stronger."

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