Meet the major players in the
ghost subdivision game
The most active sellers of Volusia County swampland hail from far and wide, including residents of Canada, South Florida, New Jersey and South Daytona. Here are some of the heavy hitters and some up-and-comers:
MICHAEL SCOTT GREIG - Vancouver, B.C., resident has sold at least 65 lots in University Highlands since 2002. Paid $500 for a four-lot package in University Highlands on May 14. Divided the package into three pieces and sold it for $17,000 to three buyers in September.
DAVLAR INC. - South Daytona-based company run by David McCutcheon and Larry Mayfield. Sold 60 lots in University Highlands and 14 in Cape Atlantic Estates between January and October 2004. According to Volusia County court records, paid $92,460 for the 74 parcels and sold them for $392,152. Paid a Dallas couple $1,000 for a lot on July 12 and sold it two months later for $19,000 to a woman from Brooklyn, N.Y.
DREAM COAST PROPERTIES - In 2004, Boca Raton company sold 26 lots in University Highlands under company name or officer Eve Serrano. Other officers include Stephen Jordan and John Alahouzas, according to state Division of Corporations.
ITZHAK AGAMI AND BAT EL BENZINO - Coral Springs partners purchased 45 parcels in Cape Atlantic Estates and University Highlands between May and November 2004. Sold 17 between August and November.
DOUGLAS J. YOUNG - Daytona Beach resident sold nine University Highlands parcels since August 2004.
KEITH ANDERSON - Somers Point, N.J., resident has sold 25 parcels in University Highlands since November 2003.
DON HILSCHER - Sold 31 lots in University Highlands and seven in Cape Atlantic Estates in 2004. Markets on eBay under the name "yuccacake."
Protect Yourself When Buying Land
Looking for a patch of Florida paradise as an investment, or perhaps to someday build your dream home? You should be very careful whom you deal with, and closely check out land offers, says Shawn Goepfert, a local real estate agent and president-elect of the Daytona Beach Area Association of Realtors. Before purchasing land, especially if advertised on Internet sites such as eBay, Goepfert suggests contacting a licensed Realtor or real estate attorney familiar with allowable land uses in the area. Just because a lot is near the ocean in a hot-demand state like Florida doesn't necessarily mean it's worth much, he says. The first test is to look at how much it costs. "A great price should raise a red flag," he says. Advice from others familiar with Florida land sales:
Go on the Internet to find out what the county's property appraiser says parcels are worth. Many of the Volusia County lots selling for $5,000 or more on eBay are assessed at just $300.
Call city and county zoning departments to check out allowable uses. You'll need to give them a parcel number. There's little chance you'll get a building permit if there's no adjacent road, no available utilities, if the lot is "locked in" by other parcels, in a flood hazard area, or too small to abide by front-, side- and rear-yard setback requirements, county zoning officials say.
Look for warning signs. If an ad says a lot is undeveloped, uncleared and offered for speculative or investment purposes, that usually means it's not a buildable home site, at least in its present legal and physical condition.
Ask the seller if he's registered with the state Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes. According to state law, just about everybody who sells more than one lot - site unseen - in unimproved subdivisions comprising 50 or more lots must register as a subdivider. They're also required to file detailed reports about their offerings and submit all copies of advertising for review for misleading or fraudulent claims.
Internet land sellers frequently ignore or are unaware of these consumer-protection requirements, retired land sales investigator William Sanborn says. Consumers can call (850) 488-1122 to see if a seller is registered.
A black eye on Florida from decades ago - the sale of swampy, undeveloped land to unsuspecting buyers - returns with a vengeance via the Internet.
Second-place winner, Public Service, Florida Press Club 2005 awards
Published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal on January 9, 2005
Padamjeet Singh wouldn't be able to find the Volusia County property he purchased in August if he tried.It's stuck on the fringes of a vast water recharge area - also known as a "swamp" - just east of DeLand.
There are no roads to the property, just muddy trails. No one has surveyed it.
The property is in University Highlands, one of dozens of "paper subdivisions" in the state marketed as investments in the 1960s and '70s to buyers who mistakenly believed Florida land would never lose value.
Thanks to the Internet, sales in paper subdivisions are exploding again four decades after sparking national outrage and a state crackdown. As state officials look into the new trend, experts fear that today's buyers, many of whom are immigrants in northern states, are repeating costly mistakes.
Singh, a software engineer from Germantown, Md., paid $7,900 for the 2 1/2-acre parcel in August. He sent his money to a South Daytona company that paid $1,000 for the same parcel two months earlier, just before advertising it for sale on the Internet auction site, eBay.
The company's ad didn't say that Volusia County development codes render the property virtually undevelopable.
Meanwhile, the trend is undermining county wetlands protection efforts as competition by eBay sellers drives prices out of reach of a voter-approved program to preserve the region's water supply.
"This is the sort of thing that puts a black eye on all of Florida," says Glenn Storch, a local land-use attorney and member of a countywide committee to guide environmentally friendly development. "Eventually these people will come down and see what they've bought, just like what happened in the 1960s."
Not all paper subdivision lots are useless as home sites. Over the years, a handful of owners lucky enough to buy dry lots on roads received the county permits to build homes.
Storch points out - and state land-sales regulators agree - there's nothing illegal about selling a piece of land for any price a buyer is willing to spend.
But high-volume sellers of unimproved subdivided lots are required to comply with laws intended to protect consumers.
Weeks after saying they were unaware of the eBay trend, regulators with the state Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes now say they're investigating the practice for possible violations. Division chief Michael Cochran declined to provide any details of the investigation.
Under state law, the division is responsible for determining whether sellers of subdivided land, like many offered on eBay, register with the state and submit advertising for review for fraudulent or misleading claims.
Typical ads begin with large-type statements hyping sun-drenched beaches, proximity of Central Florida attractions and skyrocketing Florida property values. Deep inside the ads, in much-smaller type, are disclaimers that land is offered for speculative purposes only, and no building projects are planned.
Some recent eBay ads contain banned claims - such as citing increases in local home prices as examples of how high swampland values might increase, according to William Sanborn, a recently retired state land-sales investigator.
Singh thought he was making a sound investment. He figured he could build on his lot or make a profit by selling it in five to 10 years.
He didn't research the history of the property or seek advice from any Volusia County real estate expert before buying.
When told the background of his parcel in a telephone interview last fall, Singh responded with two words: "Oh, man."
University Highlands, east of DeLand between U.S. 92 and Interstate 4, earned notoriety as an example of a classic Florida swampland deal in national newspaper and magazine stories, U.S. Senate hearings and a book, "The Great Land Hustle," published in 1972.
Lots in University Highlands and a similar-sized development near New Smyrna Beach, Cape Atlantic Estates, weren't considered good investments in the 1960s for the same reason many longtime owners have since unloaded them for pennies on the dollar:
Many are waist-deep under water. The marketers never built drainage ditches or roads, or water, power or sewer utilities. And they never hired surveyors to actually go to the sites and mark off property boundaries.
Such basic infrastructure needs to be in place before any building permits can be issued for any of the lots, Volusia County zoning officials say.
And with the subdivisions divided among thousands of owners throughout the world, prospects are slim that any single developer or group of developers could easily assemble enough of the lots to make a development feasible, says Rob Walsh, project manager for the Volusia Forever land acquisition program.
"The ownership pattern out there is a nightmare," Walsh says. Even with a few owners holding dozens, or hundreds of parcels, "There's no one entity holding enough contiguous parcels that (a developer) can go out there and say, 'Hey, I want to buy the 6,000 lots you own.' "
Walsh stops short of declaring that the paper subdivisions can never be developed, but says, "the likelihood is extremely small."
So what can owners do on their lots, assuming they can find some way to identify and get to them?
"You can sit on it," he says. "You can camp on it, if you can find your actual parcel. You can (cut) timber."
WHAT GOES AROUND . . .
Back in the 1960s, outrage over high-pressure telephone marketing of properties in the subdivisions led the state to create a regulatory office to enforce new laws protecting buyers from misleading or fraudulent sale practices.
Sales tapered off during the 1970s, after the subdivisions were mostly sold out, and sellers tired of complying with the new state regulations, according to Morton C. Paulson, a former News-Journal business editor who covered the issue for a decade before authoring "The Great Land Hustle."
State employees regulating land sales full time dwindled from 27 in the 1970s to two.
But in recent years, a new generation of sellers has discovered eBay as an ideal venue for marketing those same parcels - bought at county auctions or from the 1960s-era investors - to new buyers for profits as high as 1,900 percent.
Most are likely unaware of land-sales regulations in Chapter 498 of Florida's Statutes, says former state land-sales investigator Sanborn, who retired in July.
If they learn of the requirements, "it is not unusual that they will simply conclude that the chances of being caught are minimal and will proceed as planned," Sanborn says.
Daytona Beach-based developer Mori Hosseini, chairman and chief executive of ICI Homes, says sales of lots in paper subdivisions seem connected to a bubble in real estate speculation driving land prices to worrisome levels across the nation.
Hosseini, who came to the United States from Iran, says cheap land attracts immigrants because many come from nations where land is priced out of their reach.
Yet, many immigrants buy property here with little knowledge of land development laws in the United States, he says.
"They think that in the Middle East, if they own a property you can build on that property," he says. "That's not so in this country. As soon as they go down to get a permit, they go, 'Uh-oh.' "
Though most sellers are careful in their eBay ads to describe sites as uncleared, undeveloped "investment properties" rather than home sites, some are loaded with statements that could be misleading, or even illegal, Sanborn says.
A recent eBay ad for a University Highlands parcel included a claim that the land could be valued at "$10,000- $15,000 and has the potential of $50,000. + in the near future."
That claim appears to violate provisions of state law barring sellers from "creating false impressions," and making "predictions of specific or immediate price or value increases," he says. A claim in the ad that the seller's own home increased in value by $94,000 might violate a separate law prohibiting ads from comparing land values "unless the comparison is accurate, relevant and fair, and it is clear who is making the comparison," Sanborn says.
Nelson Barker of North Miami ran ads on eBay in mid-December for University Highlands lots. Near the top of the ads was the statement, "Here comes the neighborhood."
Reached by telephone in response to an e-mail expressing interest in one of his lots, Barker said he knew of no plans to create any neighborhood on or near his property. "I just put that there to get their attention," he said.
Storch, the land-use attorney, says sellers should be required, on eBay or in other ads, to disclose "latent defects" such as wetlands restrictions or lack of access that prevent buyers from developing their properties.
"It's important for people to know what they're buying," he says.
EBAY: BUYER BEWARE
Officials of eBay say they have no plans to restrict or eliminate advertising of lots on their Web site.
Buyers hold sole responsibility for investigating land offers before buying, even if sellers post exaggerated or misleading sales come-ons on eBay, company spokesman Hani Durzy says.
If they take sellers' claims at face value and fail to investigate further before sending money, "the responsibility for whatever happens to them is on their own shoulders," Durzy says.
Unlike all other items sold via eBay, real estate sales cannot be finalized on the auction site, Durzy points out.
Auction-style real estate advertisements are not binding contracts, and buyers and sellers must contact each other through other channels to consummate purchases, he says. This fact is not stated on eBay pages advertising real estate, but on a "real estate rules" page accessible from the eBay real estate home page.
The difference might not be apparent to eBay users accustomed to the site's normal policy that a bid on an item represents a "binding contract" to purchase that item, Durzy acknowledges.
Sellers, however, misrepresent eBay's real estate rules to compel bidders to pay after clicking the purchase button.
Advertisements posted by the South Daytona-based seller, Davlar Inc., owned by David McCutcheon and Larry Mayfield, include these statements:
"Your winning bid/purchase is a binding contract to purchase this property."
Durzy calls the statement "incorrect."
Because eBay has only recently gained popularity as a real estate marketplace, most recent buyers of University Highlands lots likely remain unaware of the problems they'll have building homes or reselling at a profit, Storch says.
"I suspect you won't see complaints on this until people come down and see what they actually bought or try to access what they actually bought," he says.
For now, some of the strongest words of caution come from eBay customers who have purchased or investigated available properties.
On the auction site, searching sellers' sales histories turns up a few negative "feedback" comments sprinkled among large numbers of positive comments buyers and sellers reflexively post about each other after completing transactions.
In November, a Pennsylvania physician who gave his name only as "Mohammed" posted an advertisement on eBay indistinguishable, at first, from dozens of similar offers for Volusia County land.
But users who clicked on the listing touting "1 3/4 acres (in) DeLand FL" got a surprise.
"Hi, I recently bought this land over eBay," his message begins. "I paid more than $3,500 after bidding. Guess what, after I paid $1,000 within 24 hours (of the auction's close) I found out . . . that this is wet land and I can not build on that."
The ad warns potential buyers not to "get greedy" by assuming they can buy cheap Florida land, close to the beach and Disney.
Reached by telephone, Mohammed explains he placed his ad to warn other bidders not to make the same mistake he made. After buying the lot, he called Volusia County and learned his new lot is considered a wetland and cannot be developed.
He wrote to eBay, explaining that the ad contained a photo "that had nothing to do with the land."
EBay's response to his letter? "They're not going to do anything," he says.
"I don't know how they're getting away with it. Why eBay's not doing anything, I don't know."
After he was contacted for this report, Padamjeet Singh, who spent $7,900 for a University Highlands parcel that Davlar Inc. bought two months earlier for $1,000, decided not to hold onto the parcel after all.
By early October, Singh sold his land to Tuong K Do of Paramus, N.J., for $6,002, taking a loss of nearly $1,900.
Singh found his buyer by advertising the property on eBay.
Copyright, 2005, The News-Journal Corporation