Friday, January 4, 2008

Bankrupt Home Builders Break Dreams

What a scary time to be a buyer in the real estate market right now. While everyone knows it's a buyers market, the deals are great, and prices are falling faster than a rock, you still have to be careful about taking that final leap and putting a contract on a new home someplace warm.

In November 2007, a popular builder of active adult retirement communities throughout the SunBelt, Levitt and Sons, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This has left buyers stranded with partially or wholly unfinished homes, not to mention unfinished community amenities. Deposits as high as $50k per, are also presumed lost.

Levitt and Sons is a "wholly owned subsidiary of Levitt Corporation (NYSE: LEV) whose other divisions include Core Communities and bluegreen Vacation Resorts. Levitt Corp. is apparently trying to sever its ties all together with Levitt and Sons so that they won't have to pick up the tab for the unfinished homes, communities, and lost deposits. Merry Christmas have a nice day!

If it can happen to a development company the size of Levitt and Sons, assume that it can happen to anyone. What can be done to protect yourself, your money, and your dreams of owning a (completely finished) new home?

Thats a tough question to answer. To avoid having to put up such a large deposit (most new home builders require 10-20% or more) you could go the construction loan route where you will essentially pay the builder in different phases tied to the construction of the home. But as I've written before, this is not without it's troubles.

Another option that this article says to try is to get the builder to agree to place your deposit in an escrow account held by a third party. If something happens, you'd at least be able to get your money back.

In my experience, I'd say good luck to this. While you might get the smallest of builders and developers to agree to this, most will not. Look...these guys have in-house counsel, out-house counsel, and every other which way of counsel you could think of protecting their (ass)ets first. They're going to make sure that they are covered and protected before you are.

The best solution I can come up with? For now, in today's real estate environment, buy a house that's already built or almost complete (trust me...there's plenty out there) and buy it in a community that is already somewhat established with completed amenities you are happy with. This way if something happens and the second community swimming pool you as a buyer were promised never gets built, you've got the amenities already there to fall back on.