Celeb Real Estate Broker Goes Broke: Rise and Fall of Carlos Justo

"Keep your head low," cautioned Carlos Justo as he ran under the whirling blades of a helicopter that landed on a vacant lot on Miami Beach's star-studded Star Island -- some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the country.

Within seconds he was onboard and heading for the sky. Justo doesn't miss a beat.

"This is Puff Daddy right here," he said, pointing out the helicopter window at an impressive waterside mansion. "Next home is owned by the Estefans -- I sold that to them. Two doors down is Rosie O'Donnell."

When the Miami real estate market was hot, Justo was red hot, selling $200 million in real estate in one year to multimillionaires and billionaires. He used a helicopter the way most agents use a car.


"Miami is flat," he said, raising his voice in the noisy cabin but clearly reveling in the moment. "Once you get up in the air it changes your whole perspective. That's where the magic happens!"

Justo admits that the helicopter is part of his real estate arsenal. In better times, he chartered helicopters every week to show premium clients prospective homes.

"Typically, whenever I get them in a helicopter, they see it differently. I get them forever. They end up saying, 'This is my thing. This is my guy,'" he said.

Biggest Fish in Shark-Infested Real Estate Market

Just a few years ago a program called "Million Dollar Agents" on the TLC cable channel celebrated Justo as the biggest fish in Miami's shark-infested pool of real estate agents.

When times were good he toured around town in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Million-dollar homes weren't his business. He was only interested in multimillion-dollar homes, and the people who owned them or wanted to.

That was then. Today, the Rolls has been replaced by a Land Rover. The high flyer who was worth $20 million in 2005 is now $12 million dollars in debt and declaring bankruptcy.

For a while, Justo's home was a $7 million waterside Miami mansion. But when the market tanked, he could no longer afford the taxes -- $135,000 a year -- and the mortgage.

"I owned this home and we did the renovation and it didn't sell for about six months," he said as he stood on the driveway. Justo says he lost over $2 million on his own home alone.

His story is typical of many speculators -- it's just that the dollar amounts involved are, in his case, so staggeringly high. At the market peak, he owned 12 homes and carried $50 million in mortgages. Seven have been repossessed by the banks, and the remaining five are all facing foreclosure.

It is a story of a spectacular rise and fall.

From Janitor to Agent to the Stars

Justo came to Miami from Cuba in 1967 at age 11. He never finished high school. His first jobs included bagging groceries at Publix, flipping burgers at McDonald's and wiping floors as a janitor. It took him 30 years to become a multimillionaire. Soon, it will all be gone.

But Justo isn't looking for sympathy.

"I don't know what happened," said the agent, sporting his trademark shaved head and white linen shirt and pants as he looked out the window of the downtown Miami penthouse that he will soon lose to the bank. "What I do know happened is I did it, it was all my doing."

With disarming candor, Justo says he knows what drove him.

"Greed. Ego. Nothing is ever enough," he said. "When the ego drives you, it's like, it's more, more and more. I have no idea what I wanted to do, but some part of me wanted to create more."

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