Heavily promoted "no-money-down," get-rich-quick real-estate techniques are attracting increasing attention from state and federal legal authorities. They're also pushing some of their high-flying promoters and users into the ultimate "no-money" situation: bankruptcy proceedings.
The Federal Trade Commission has begun a national investigation of "no-money-down" programs, according to sources close to the agency. Although the FTC never comments publicly on its probes while they are under way, regulatory officials outside the agency say the focus is on "abusive" real-estate-acquisition techniques that hurt home sellers and lending institutions.
State investigations of no-money-down real-estate deals are likely to lead to lawsuits in the near future. The California Department of Real Estate is preparing "at least three major cases" involving abuses of no-money-down techniques, according to Randy Brendia, head of the Los Angeles district office of that agency.
The lawsuits will not be aimed at seminar, tape and book promoters, according to Brendia, but rather at "some of their so-called graduates who take the basic ideas, twist them and then use them to steal and defraud."
Brendia said the most common abusive technique is the "cash-to-buyer" ploy. A purchaser convinces a home seller to accept a sizable down payment in the form of a second mortgage or deed of trust that is purportedly secured by another piece of real estate owned by the purchaser. The fine print on the note, however, reveals it in fact to be an unsecured IOU, worth nothing in case of default.
Having "bought" a house with valueless paper, the purchaser next applies for and obtains one or more mortgage loans. The lending institution (a bank or savings and loan) is led to believe that the transaction is a garden-variety home purchase transaction, and hands the no-money-down buyer tens of thousands of dollars, up to 80 or 90 percent of the property's market value.
With cash in hand, the buyer disappears or leases the house to tenants for a period of time, pocketing the rent. The buyer makes few or no payments to the home seller or lender. When the dust settles -- often months after the transaction -- the buyer is nowhere to be found, the lender is trying to recover some of its money through foreclosure and the hapless home seller has neither a house nor a dime from the sale.
"Cash-to-buyer deals have literally dozens of variations," Brendia said. Sometimes the seller is in collusion with the buyer and gets some of the unsuspecting lender's loan money.
Sometimes an unscrupulous appraiser is involved, and tells the bank or S&L that a house is worth $200,000 when it's actually worth only $150,000. The $50,000 extra then ends up in the pocket of the no-money-down buyer, after paying off the appraiser.
Brendia charged that the profusion of no-money-down seminars, books, cassette tapes and TV shows in the past three years "has fostered a very disturbing, dangerous mind set: that you can truly acquire real estate for nothing. Some people take that message and get themselves into very hot water." Although Brendia declined to name specific promoters, he warned that any programs that promise investors they'll be able to walk away from new purchases with cash in their pockets "are certainly contributing to the problem."
The number of active promoters of get-rich-quick seminars may be on the downswing nationwide. Two of the highest-profile sponsors of coast-to-coast traveling-seminar blitzes have recently ceased operation. The Reno-based marketing firm that sponsored the "Robert Allen Nothing Down" seminars has filed for bankruptcy, according to Matthew Parvis, conference director for Allen Group Inc. of Provo, Utah.
Best-selling author Robert G. Allen had a "royalty arrangement" with the marketing firm to use his name, but had no corporate or other connection to the Reno company, Parvis said. The Allen Group's own seminars are conducted independently under the aegis of the American Congress on Real Estate (ACRE), based in Provo. Allen himself was not available for comment last week.
The firm promoting the seminars of Albert J. Lowry, another best-selling real-estate author, also has ceased operations.
In a telephone interview last week, Lowry said he had "withdrawn" from the firm and turned it over to associates with a royalty arrangement prior to its financial problems.
Heavy TV and print-media marketing expenses, plus cut-rate competition from dozens of aggressive no-money-down promoters across the country, created severe economic strains for the weekend-long Lowry seminar format, he said. "The whole game today is to charge people a few bucks' admission price to the meeting and try to sell them 400 bucks worth of cassette tapes," explained Lowry. "That wasn't my approach."
One longtime sponsor of books, tapes and seminars on real-estate investing (who requested anonymity) said that "the entire no-money-down business is on the verge of a blowout. Half of the new people in it are going down the tubes, and that's fine with me."