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.

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"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.

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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."

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