Creditors of the failed real estate tax shelters established by Equity Programs Investment Corp. (EPIC) have called in a prominent asset-management firm to begin the immense task of selling more than 20,000 EPIC houses.

Palmieri Co., which won national attention for its disposal of the real estate owned by the bankrupt Penn Central railroad, has been hired to develop recommendations on the most efficient way of selling the EPIC property, most of which is tied up in bankruptcy proceedings in Northern Virginia.

Palmieri also is helping several EPIC partnerships that are not in bankruptcy to begin selling off the more than 4,400 properties owned by those partnerships, representatives of the creditors said.

The appointment of Palmieri brings one of the nation's most celebrated corporate fire-sale specialists into one of the most massive real estate failures ever.

More than 350 EPIC partnerships filed for bankruptcy in September after failing to meet payments on more than $1 billion worth of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities used to finance purchase of the EPIC houses.

A plan to bail out the lenders who financed the houses is being developed by a committee of major EPIC creditors. The plan calls for the EPIC houses to be sold over a five-year period to pay the partnerships' mortgage debt and as much of their other debts as possible.

Palmieri has been hired as interim workout manager under this arrangement, although another company could be selected as the permanent manager of the EPIC real estate when and if the plan is approved by the bankruptcy court, lawyers said.

Palmieri Co., founded by Victor H. Palmieri, long has been involved with resuscitating and managing distressed property. Called in in the wake of the Penn Central failure, Palmieri raised more than $900 million through the disposal of the company's nonrail holdings. More recently, it has been involved with rescuing Baldwin-United Corp., the troubled financial-services conglomerate.

John A. Koskinen, the company's president and the head of the Palmieri team working at EPIC, said the firm is studying how best to manage and sell the EPIC houses.

"There is no way of putting all 20,000 houses on the market at once," Koskinen said. "If you're going to sell 20,000 houses, you're going to have to do it with a controlled process."

"We're still at a fact-gathering stage. We don't have any meaningful judgments yet" about how to sell the properties, Koskinen said. But he added: "We have some reasonably good ideas based on our prior experiences."

Neither Koskinen nor lawyers for the creditors would disclose how much Palmieri will be paid by the creditors, who have hired the firm on a monthly fee basis. If Palmieri is picked by the bankruptcy court to manage the property, its compensation could be significant; the company reportedly was paid more than $20 million for its efforts in the Penn Central case.

The property manager will be selected by the creditors, insurers and the Maryland officials acting as court-appointed conservators for EPIC's parent, Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda. That job will not become open until a final plan of reorganization for the EPIC partnerships is approved by the bankruptcy judge. However, lawyers said that the experience Palmieri will likely gain in its short-term capacity will give the firm a leg up over other possible candidates for the long-term job.