On a Sunday morning in Hillcrest, at the intersection of Vermont and Cleveland, realtors Dan Cassidy and Mary Young fight the wind and rain to tape banners to the sides of a bus. The banners read Repo Express: Foreclosure Bus Tour.
Two blocks away, Dan Webb, a realtor and the tour coordinator, greets guests in the offices of the Coshow Real Estate Group, Repo Express headquarters. Webb prints out nametags and passes out plastic folders holding information sheets on bank-owned properties. Each sheet includes a property’s asking price, original listing price, number of days on the market, and a comparative sales analysis. Extra sheets are provided for notes.
The free three-and-a-half-hour Repo Express tour takes house hunters to newly listed REOs, or real estate-owned properties, in a 25-passenger bus, rented for $60 per hour. The tour focuses on presenting “only the best values for foreclosed properties,” Webb says. He and his colleagues stop at nine or ten houses or condos that they deem the best deals, allowing passengers time to look inside and talk to an agent, who has unlocked the front door and can answer any questions.
Webb got the idea for a bus tour while watching an ABC World News piece that featured the Repo Home Tour in Stockton, California, home-foreclosure capital of the country. “I had taped the story, and I said to Carla Coshow, our broker, that you’ve got to come watch this on the TiVo. She came over and watched it, and I said that we had a short window and that we’ve got to get on this as soon as possible. She said we are a go, and within ten days we had created a new brand.”
By the next day, the new brand had its own website, Repoexpresstour.com, and multiple “creative” postings on craigslist. Webb was evasive about advertising strategies. “I did a mass distribution of press releases,” he said. “I have experience in marketing, and I did a pretty big blast, and I have a bulk marketer who also did one.”
The blasts paid off. On the debut tour of the Repo Express, on Saturday, January 26, crews from ABC World News and Channel 10 News, as well as a reporter and photographer from the Union-Tribune, packed their gear onto the bus.
At noon the next day, the day the Union-Tribune’s story ran, the bus departed on its second, fully booked tour. This tour was for first-time buyers in search of good deals in North Park, Normal Heights, and University Heights.
Among the passengers was Darrell Hess, an administrator at San Diego State University who moved here from Chicago. Hess saw an ad for the Repo Express on craigslist. “I moved here in May of 2006 at the height of the housing real estate boom,” he said. “Prices were so inflated that I couldn’t afford anything at that time, and a correction was imminent. I started looking in December 2007.”
Three rows in front of Hess sat Amy Monroe, personal chef and owner of Uptown Chef catering company. She sat next to her parents and family friends. Monroe and her family knew exactly what they were searching for. “I’m looking for a place with a good kitchen,” she said, “preferably with gas, and a lot of storage space for my containers.”
As the bus pulled up to the first listing, a one-bedroom, one-bath, 569-square-foot Normal Heights condo, Webb and Coshow informed the passengers of the condo’s amenities and said that the listing price of $149,000 offered great value. Webb led the pack toward the unit, while Coshow waited for the last passenger to exit the bus.
Repo’s passengers waited in single-file lines to peer into the tiny bathroom and small bedroom and nudged into one another in bumper-car fashion in the small living room, where agent Paul Rucker stood. Some scattered to take a peek at the air conditioner or water heater.
After ten minutes, the passengers filed back onto the bus and talked among one another, as they did after visits to each property.
One passenger, sitting down next to her companion, asked if she could smell the scent of stale beer. “This must have been the party bus last night.” Both laughed it off and eagerly studied the printout for the next stop.
Others, like Eric C., who was on the tour for the second time in two days, circled key points on the printout and discussed with other passengers the location, amenities, and value of the condo.
A few stops later, inside a two-bedroom, 820-square-foot Craftsman built in 1926 and offered at $309,900, the passengers began tossing out ideas for interior design and renovations. The chatter bounced off the walls of the small living room. Forgotten in the excitement was the fact that in this room, at a recent time, the previous owner had coped with the details of losing his or her home.
But the Repo Express passengers were well aware of the situation. When asked how he felt about seeking a good deal on a house that someone else had lost, Sandy Monroe, father of personal chef Amy, responded, “It would bother me if I knew the person or if the person was still occupying the property. If you’re being a vulture, you’re being a vulture on the bank and not on another person, and it’s not like I should have much love for banks.”
Eric C. had a different take. “People were leaving the city before because they couldn’t afford it. Now you have this situation where, not to benefit from someone else’s misfortune, however, if this is happening anyway, this is a great opportunity for other people to come in to utilize the value of what’s out there and have the chance to become first-time homeowners in San Diego.”
“We’re not focusing on the negative part of this,” Dan Webb said, “because let’s talk about what would happen if these properties don’t get sold. You would have vacant homes and vacant buildings, and that’s not good for neighborhoods. And we didn’t have anything to do with the front side of this, you know; we weren’t part of the foreclosure process, and we don’t know what happened. Our goal is to give the story a happy ending.”