How Condo Fever Burned Investors in Florida

For more than a decade, Scott and Lori Pustizzi did everything right. They have two happy children, a good marriage and a beautiful house that they got with a manageable mortgage.

They also have good jobs. He is a human resources director; she's a pharmaceutical sales representative.

The couple earned their comfortable life through hard work. They met 15 years ago at a local Publix Grocery store, where he was stocking shelves and she was working the cash register. They paid for their own college education and their own wedding. Now they're both in their 30s, and they figured this was the time to start doing some wise investing.

So back in 2004, when Florida was seized with condo fever, Scott and Lori wanted a piece of the action.


"Everywhere you went people were talking about buying condos, flipping condos," says Lori. "Demand was so high and the market wasn't even at its height, it was just going up and up and up. The anticipation was you were going to get in today and six months later you are never going to end up closing on this unit, because you're going to be able to flip it to someone else before you even become financially obligated."

And so they studied the market carefully, re-mortgaged their home and used the proceeds to join the stampede of condo speculators. First, they bought a two-bedroom condo on a canal in Aventura, Florida, and then they bought a one-bedroom unit in the newly renovated downtown of Hollywood, Florida.


Scott says they never planned to keep the units. Like so many others, they just wanted to flip them and take the profits.

But when Florida's real estate bubble burst in late 2005, so did Scott and Lori's dreams.

There was no one to sell to.

The sobering reality of their predicament came home to them when they received letters from the two developers last year notifying them that the closings were approaching and they would have to pay the remaining 80 percent of the purchase price.

"You get that letter from the developer saying 'we're ready to close, get your financing in order' and we said, 'Wow!'"' says Scott with an anxious smile as he remembers the moment.

They had already re-mortgaged their home to get money for the deposits for the two condos. Now they needed two more mortgages to pay for the full purchase.

That financing is crushing them. When they began in 2004 they had one manageable mortgage on their home. Now that they've had to buy the two investment condos, the monthly carrying costs for the three properties are more than Scott makes in a month.

With thousands of new condos sitting empty, desperate speculators are competing for buyers and renters. The Pustizzis have rented both units, but the rent covers just half their monthly payment. Scott says he can't raise the rent any higher because the market simply won't bear it. In one building another desperate speculator tried to steal his tenant.

And so a lifetime of hard work, aggressive savings and careful planning is disintegrating around them.

"For us it's almost like living a disguise," says Scott as he sits with Lori at the kitchen table of the home they love so much. "It's almost like here we are living with all this debt, but we're still trying to uphold the life that we lived."

"We're not looking for sympathy," he says. "I think what we're looking for is that we're not uncommon. There are a lot of people that are in our situation."

It is true. More than 30,000 new condo units have been built here in South Florida since the boom began five years ago and it's estimated that 70 percent of the buyers were speculators who never planned to hold onto the units.

"It will be a long time before those units are worth what they paid for it," says condo market analyst Lou Goodkin, of Miami-based Goodkin Consulting.

"They are either going to pay a lot of money to in effect retain their credit rating, money that will be going down a rat-hole, or they walk away."

Goodkin says the condo market in South Florida isn't likely to recover for five years, and with so many buildings just now being finished he thinks it's going to drop much further before it hits bottom.

The Pustizzis keep hoping the market will begin to recover but Goodkin offers some sobering advice. He says the market isn't going to revive fast enough to let people like the Pustizzis recover their investment: "You are not going to appreciate yourself out of this hole."

Lori struggles to retain her composure when she reflects on the costly mistake the family has made.

"I guess to me the most important thing is that people not feel bad for us but," she says, "people not view us as out to get a quick buck or being greedy because we weren't going out and trying to be the next Trumps. We were just trying to jump a couple of steps to give our family, the security, the financial security that we knew that just going to work every day wasn't going to bring."

They thought investing in Florida's condo market would be their road to financial security. Instead, they are overwhelmed by uncertainty.