At a time when most home buyers and sellers are laying low, Tarik Dinha and Sal Delisi recently closed on 250 properties -- all in one shot. The founders of Urban Development Solutions, a Detroit-based real estate investment firm, these two 30-something speculators started buying homes in low-income neighborhoods last year after the nation's housing market collapsed. As more subprime mortgages went sour and foreclosure rates soared, banks began offloading a growing inventory of empty houses at pennies on the dollar, Dinha says.

Through contacts at banks and mortgage firms, they're able to buy these properties in bulk, turning them over for as low as $1,000 down and $250 per month on so-called land contracts with buyers for 10- to 20-year terms. In the end, most of the homes are sold for under $35,000 at a decent enough profit. In bulk, though, it can add up to a fortune.

"We're turning people into homeowners for half of what it costs to rent and making a huge profit," Dinha says. And though he readily admits none of these homes are "exactly Taj Mahal," Dinha says it goes to show that every bad situation is an opportunity for someone else.

Indeed, Dinha and Delisi are among a handful of entrepreneurs that are turning the nation's real estate bust into booming businesses. While the housing crash has many business owners struggling to stay afloat -- about a third of the nation's small businesses are financed with home equity loans -- for these well-placed ventures, business has never been better.

Like Urban Development Solutions, many are upstart real estate investment firms looking for bulk deals in the foreclosure market. Despite the attraction of bargain prices, bulk buyers risk getting stuck with dozens, even hundreds of low-end properties that continue to languish on the market in neighborhoods that may never fully recover, realty watchers warn.     

Still, other entrepreneurs are finding unique opportunities in the nation's rising foreclosure rates without buying a dime's worth of real estate. Just outside Detroit, Rodney Townsend runs a tour service that takes prospective investors around to recently foreclosed homes. Based in Southfield, Mich., Townsend launched Foreclosure Bus Tours in the wake of massive layoffs at the Big Three auto plants in recent years that pushed the region's foreclosure rates to record highs -- giving him a jump on a market that has since spread across the nation.

Today, the company arranges six-hour tours in over a dozen cities. For $97 each, as many as 20 investors get taken around to some eight foreclosed homes per ride. The tours also include tips on buying in the foreclosure market, as well as the chance to meet a network of real estate investment pros, Townsend says. A real estate investor himself, he says in the past year the tour business has become a full-time job. So far, every tour has been fully booked.

"I want the tours to be available wherever there's a bundle of foreclosures, and that's pretty much everywhere now," Townsend says.

As good as business is, Townsend says that as a real estate investor, he would much rather see the housing market recover. "I need people to buy my houses, so I really want this thing to turn," he says.
So does Kyle Ransom. About the same time Foreclosure Bus Tours took off, Ransom started getting an upswing in sales of the foreclosure consultant training kits he had put together a few years earlier as an Atlanta-based mortgage broker. The kits, which sell online for just under $100 each, are designed to prevent foreclosures by helping agents, brokers and others launch consulting services that mediate between homeowners and lenders. He's now selling upwards of 10 kits per month -- a 10 percent increase from last year -- along with foreclosure rescue kits and other products and services.

A former loan officer, Ransom says he spends most of his time these days preparing stacks of documentations required to file an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He says taking his company public, which he expects to do within the next few months, will secure the extra capital he now needs to ramp up operations and meet a growing demand.

"I don't think the housing market has hit bottom yet," Ransom says. "I think it's got a long way to go."

But rising foreclosure rates are not the only impact of the housing downturn that's creating diverse business opportunities. Lower demand and sagging real estate prices are keeping sellers on the sidelines, where many are starting to invest far more cash into the homes they already own. That's giving some home repair and redecorating firms an unexpected lift.

Andy Bell, the president of Denver-based Handyman Matters, says out-of-work homebuilders have started turning to his lower-key upkeep and repair outlets for a paycheck to tide them over during the construction downturn. That's boosting his staff with a steady flow of skilled workers and helping him to expand into the lucrative bathroom remodeling market.

By contrast, larger home-improvement retailers are struggling. Home Depot recently blamed the housing market downturn on its first annual sales decline, forcing the Atlanta-based chain to shutter 15 U.S. stores and eliminate 1,300 jobs.   

"It's been a real windfall for us," Bell says, referring to the housing crash. In contrast to plummeting revenue and layoffs suffered by bigger builders, sales are rising at most of the 131 Handyman Matters outlets across the United States, Canada, and Ireland. "I think there's a growing realization that people are going to stay put in their homes, so they're willing to put a little more money into quality work," he says.

They're the same type of homeowners that are lifting sales at Decorating Den, an Easton, Md.-based home decorating company. In the past year, its 500 franchises have seen dollars invested in redecorating projects rise by four percent over last year, even as the overall number of projects has dropped.

"There was surge in the number of clients that decided to wait out the housing market downturn and remodel instead," says company president Jeff Bevis. "We've tracked an increase in traffic on our Web site, which correlates with more consulting appointments and other requests."

Launched nearly 40 years ago, the company has seen its share of housing market ups and downs, says Bevis.

"In the past, when the cycle is in a downturn, the upturn comes fast and furious," he says. "In many ways, you have to be just as prepared for the recovery as the crash."


Published on: May 1, 2008