Investors rush to rent out foreclosures

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The foreclosed home in Aurora, Ill., was an outdated, unkempt eyesore until crews arrived this fall, performing thousands of dollars of work to make it attractive and modern, inside and out.

But it wasn’t until workers walked across the street to ask for some water that neighbors Mario Cervantes and Oralia Balderas-Cervantes learned that a corporation, not a consumer, had bought the house, intending to turn it into a rental property. Despite being landlords themselves, the couple aren’t sure they like the idea.

“If it’s going to be a company that is watching out for the community, yes,” Cervantes said. “If it’s going to be a company that is watching out for themselves, no.”

Similar scenarios and concerns are unfolding in markets hard-hit by the housing crisis. Well-capitalized, out-of-town private equity funds are scouring neighborhoods, paying cash for distressed single-family homes and renting them out. The opportunities are plentiful, enabling investment groups to profit from low home prices, rising rents and an increase in the number of potential renters.

The transactions are returning vacant properties to active use. But they also are stoking fears among neighbors and municipalities about the long-term effect of large, private investors — including many that are operating under the radar — in their communities.

The general strategy of the companies is the same: buy low, make the necessary upgrades, fill them with tenants and then sell the homes in three to seven years. With companies and analysts anticipating projected returns of at least 8 percent, there also is talk of creating publicly traded real estate investment trusts.

But investors aren’t flocking to all neighborhoods equally. Most want homes in desirable neighborhoods with strong area employment. They also look at the strength of local rules protecting landlords in disputes with tenants.

It remains to be seen whether their expectations will be met. One problem with the business model is there’s no performance track record to speak of. And as housing prices slowly recover, acquisition costs also will increase and cut into returns.

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