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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 24, 2005

Investor finds 'money maker'

Associated Press

Real estate investors Trisha Allen and her fiance, Michael Reiser, check out this house they planned to bid on in Tulsa, Okla., where home prices have risen a modest 2.8 percent over the past three years.

Sue Ogroki | Associated Press


TULSA, Okla. — The Pink House does not look like a family establishment.

Outside, the battered house on the scruffy north side of Tulsa is the color of Pepto Bismol — hence the name.

Inside, walls have been painted a nauseating turquoise-and-magenta pattern. There is a bar where the dining room would be. In the corner of one cavernous room is a tiny, carpeted stage.

"I've always wanted to be a strip-club owner," investor Trisha Allen quipped as she strolled around the place.

Yet when she surveyed the overgrown yard and grimy commercial kitchen, Allen saw it as the charming yet affordable future abode for a big Midwestern clan.

"This is a money maker," said Kent Hildebrand, her real-estate agent.

In the past eight months, the 30-year-old computer technician has turned less than $20,000 into an impressive little collection of rental properties. The Pink House is her most recent acquisition. But her eyes are on a bigger prize — a million-dollar commercial property that would produce sufficient income to enable her to quit her job dealing with "PCs and the people who break them."

In this era of skyrocketing prices and rock-bottom interest rates, many people share Allen's dream. Late-night infomercials babble about big payoffs with no money down. Slick self-help gurus host $3,000 seminars where they promise to reveal "secrets" that can turn anybody — even you — into a real-estate tycoon. In especially hot markets such as Miami and San Diego, people buy and sell condos as if they were trading tchotchkes on eBay.

Any economist will tell you this is nuts.

"Housing turnover is now reaching Ponzi-like proportions," warns Stephen S. Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley.

Real-estate mania is this decade's version of the irrational exuberance that pushed Internet stocks to ridiculous heights during the past decade, only to come crashing down at the beginning of this one. And just as many investors wish they'd never heard of etoys.com or XO Communications, a lot of would-be real-estate tycoons may soon rue the day they started buying property.

But Allen isn't likely to be one of them. She lives and invests outside the bubble, where home values have climbed much more modestly over the past few years and landlords can still expect to collect enough rent to cover their costs. In a world gone mad for metes and bounds, she is an example of what it takes to succeed in real-estate reality — hard work, business acumen and a high tolerance for the odor of mildew.

Home prices in Tulsa have risen a modest 2.8 percent over the past three years, a tiny fraction of the appreciation in bigger cities such as Los Angeles (84.9 percent), New York (53.3 percent) and even Milwaukee (31.9 percent).

There are some signs of froth on the south side of town, where executive McMansions are sprouting the way drilling rigs did back in the 1920s, when Tulsa was the "Oil Capital of the World."

But Allen wants nothing to do with granite countertops and double-height foyers — never mind that she can't afford it. She obsessively scours the real-estate listings for rundown properties that are listed below their true value. Then she bargains hard to get the best possible price.

"A lot of it is just recognizing deals where other people don't see them," she said.

Take the Pink House. The place immediately stood out when Allen spotted it in the real-estate listings — and not just because of the paint job. Here was a 2,300-square-foot house selling for $24,000. That's incredibly cheap, even for Tulsa.

Allen's first question: Why?

"Let's go find out what's wrong with it," she said to Hildebrand.

When they pulled up to the house, the two were immediately struck by its extreme pinkness and unsightly steel fire door. But what really grabbed their attention was the neat black lettering on one wall identifying the place as "The Pink House."

And below that, in fancier script: "Giving Back to the Neighborhood."

What could it be? A charitable organization? Some kind of sorority?

Those hypotheses crumbled once they stepped inside and beheld the ancient bar, the windowless performance space and the room in the back of the house that had been split up into two bed-sized alcoves with easy access to a rear exit.

But Allen's primary interest is in the future of the Pink House, not its sordid past. With about $10,000 worth of work, she estimated, it could be remodeled into a five-bedroom house worth $80,000 or more. Hildebrand guessed it could pull in $1,000 a month in rent under the federal government's Section 8 program, which gives low-income families vouchers that they can use to pay rent on privately owned properties.

After renting them, Allen might be able to flip her houses for a quick buck. But she prefers the steady rental income she gets by hanging onto them.

"She's probably making a decent return on the rent," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "When, let's say, mortgage rates go up, she'll still have the rent coming in."

Even so, Allen's scheme is far from risk-free. She capitalized her venture with a credit-card advance, hardly the most economical way to borrow money. And though she has paid off the cash advance and is careful not to mortgage more than 80 percent of each property's appraised value, a slowdown in the rental market could spell trouble.