Lowering the Boom? Speculators Gone Mild
By Eugenia Levenson

(FORTUNE Magazine) - When we profiled a group of amateur real estate speculators last year ("Riding the Boom," May 30, 2005), America was awash in a stark, raving frenzy that looked every bit as crazy as dot-com stocks. Today housing indicators seem to point to a cooling market. Which got us wondering: How have our real estate gold-rushers been faring?

They're still in the game. And they're still hopeful. (At least the ones who would talk to us. One asked if she could call us right back, then stopped answering her phone.) But they have ratcheted down their sky-high expectations. Cheryl Lawyer, whose rehabbed Phoenix homes now sit on the market for months instead of days, has been cautioning friends since last year to forget about flipping. "You've got to hold your properties a little longer," she says.

For some the speculative spirit is alive and well. Austin broker Tom Polk is still giving tours to investors looking for the next hot spot. "I'm as busy as I was last year," he says. And Zareh Tahmassebian, who owned 15 properties in Phoenix when we first reported his story, has purchased eight more in the Albuquerque area. One concession to a possible bust: He refinanced all his mortgages to a fixed rate and rented out his properties (the rents do not cover his costs). Why not take his profits? "It's still going to appreciate better than the stock market," he says. "I'm holding on."

The danger, of course, is that Tahmassebian could be left holding the bag. Which is exactly the type of opportunity that investors like Jason Mitchell are ready to pounce on. When we met him last spring, he had already turned bearish, selling off all but two of his seven properties in Las Vegas. Today he's down to one, and he's lying in wait for distressed investors tied to adjustable mortgages and multiple properties to dump homes for cheap. And when that happens? "I'll pick up anywhere from two to three a month," he says. "I'll get in full-force." Top of page