Where there are weeds, Adam Raizin sees palm trees, bamboo and a glistening lap pool. Where there is mossy green carpet and white walls, he sees gleaming pine floors and a southwestern color scheme.
The decades-old, rusted blue sink in the garage? He pictures a cabana, complete with a wet bar and period bathroom.
Most importantly, on this piece of land with a Spanish-style home near a quaint town center, Raizin sees dollar signs, lots of them.
"I almost lost this house because I blinked. You can't blink, you can't get distracted," he said. "I always say, 'I can buy a house faster than people can pack a toothbrush,' and that's the only way you can do it when you see a deal."
Raizin finds heaps of deals, usually checking out a hundred or more potential buys a week before snatching the perfect fixer-upper that he can flip for an easy sale and a tidy profit.
A little paint, a new front door and windows, some landscaping and cosmetic touchups can bring him as much as $50,000 in six weeks.
"You always have to know that there are no guarantees and it might all fall apart. But you have to take the risk," Raizin said.
The risks, however, appear minimal in a sizzling real estate market with skyrocketing property values and waiting lists of eager buyers. The seemingly simple profits are luring everyone from savvy investors to charity groups, even as experts caution that rising interest rates could signal the end of the home "flipping" phenomenon.
"We made more money than we ever made doing pancake breakfasts and Christmas tree sales," said Mary Lynn Desjarlais, past president of the Kiwanis Club of South Sarasota, which started flipping homes about 10 years ago to raise money.
The club and its 40 members bought their first fixer-upper when prices were within easy reach -- less than $50,000 for a home with three bedrooms and two baths. The first few homes they flipped brought in about $10,000 each, but their profits soon doubled and tripled as property values spiraled upward.
When homes became too pricey, the Kiwanis turned their money toward mom-and-pop motels that could be converted into condominiums. Their latest project, Bow Point, could reap a 100 percent return on a $600,000 investment.
The money has allowed the charity to build new facilities for an organization that helps children and adults with disabilities, restart a Dial-a-Book library program for children and assist the health department in tracking kids' immunizations.
"We're in the nice position of asking, 'Where do we want to put our money? Who do we want to help?' " said Desjarlais, who is also a real estate attorney. "But the club is being cautious. They're not putting all their money in it."
Although Desjarlais believes a continued flood of baby boomers moving to Florida will keep home prices here on the rise, experts caution that a real estate bubble could turn the big gains from "flipping" into heavy losses. Some say a dramatic increase in investors trying to turn around homes over the past year shows the market has become overheated.
"Everybody knows somebody whose hairdresser's next-door neighbor's dentist made $60,000 on a flip. There are an enormous number of people in the market, and now it's what I call amateur hour," said Brad Hunter, the South Florida director for Metrostudy, a real estate research firm. "The less sophisticated people will not consider the fact that they're the last ones in, and they may find themselves without a buyer."
That's particularly true for investors who expect profits solely from a market upswing. Many investors buy homes or condominiums before they are complete at pre-construction prices, only to sell them months later when they are finished.
Developers worry that if too many investors scoop up homes before they are complete, they could artificially inflate the market and cause it to collapse. To protect their investment, some are limiting the number of units an individual can buy.
Related Group of Florida tracks buyers by their Social Security numbers to make sure they are signing only one contract at the developer's many condominium projects in south Florida. Buyers who want two properties must sign affidavits saying they're not buying a unit for resale purposes.
"We do not want investors. It is a safer practice for us to make sure that a buyer has one unit, so at the end of the project we can be sure they can close," said Harold Gallo, Related's marketing director.
Developers believe their projects will be more successful with buyers who want to take part in the communities and the lifestyle they're creating. "We want people who want to live in and enjoy their community, so we discourage people coming in to buy and flip, and we train our sales people to look for those buyers," said Joel H. Rassman, chief financial officer for Toll Brothers Inc., a luxury home builder based in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Still, nothing has stopped Adam Raizin from keeping an eye out for run-down homes that can be fixed and flipped. He recently bought one garbage-filled, flea-infested house for $145,000, cleaned it out and sold it to another investor for $172,000 less than two months later. That buyer will renovate it and flip it again, likely for a similar gain.
Raizin, 41, made his first real estate purchase, a duplex, in the late 1980s by putting less than 3 percent down and financing the rest. The profit he made from rent alone hooked him into the business. He now turns around up to a dozen homes a year and makes $30,000 to $60,000 on each, often splitting the profit with an investor, and makes time on the side to run a consulting business.
He said he limits mistakes that newcomers might make by sticking to the market he knows in Lake Worth, a coastal town about 70 miles north of Miami and 10 miles south of West Palm Beach. He charms buyers with cheery yellow and green exteriors and white picket fences and props such as antique window frames and shabby chic furniture.
To keep up in such a frenetic field, Raizin rises at 4 a.m. with a sugary coffee and researches listings on the Internet, then drives around with his chocolate Labrador, Handsome, to check them out. He has contracts completed with everything but the numbers in his glove box and enough investors to know he can come up with the cash for any house he wants. He can act more quickly than most buyers because he's willing to skip the appraisal, home inspection and termite report that banks would demand if they were financing the deal.
"You can't steal in slow motion," Raizin said. "If you want a good deal, you have to seize the day and grab it."