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'We Buy Houses' investors target seniors with below market offers

Willoughby Mariano, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Home and Consumer News

ATLANTA -- Debbie McGauley considered moving from the house she loved to be the at-home caregiver to her 80-year-old uncle. Its hallways were too narrow for an ambulance stretcher, which the bedridden man would surely need in the years to come.

When a friendly investor offered to buy it for $95,000, she signed a form thinking that she was agreeing to continue discussions, she said. In fact, she had agreed to sell the home for some $25,000 less than what she could have gotten through a real estate broker, according to her attorney and other estimates.

McGauley, 60, had lived in the west Atlanta home for 22 years and owned it free and clear. It is where four generations of her family had gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, and her mother danced all night long on her last Christmas alive. The home was her family's refuge, and an inexpensive place to live in a region where affordability is growing scarce.

"If they were going to take it, they weren't going to take it without a fight," said McGauley, who is disabled. She lives on a social security payments of about $1,040 a month, according to court records.

A growing number of homeowners, often seniors, are being coaxed by real estate investors into selling their homes for far less than what they're worth.

These investors, often known as wholesalers, have blanketed parts of the city with "We Buy Houses" signs, leaflets, mailers and cold calls, searching for houses that are not on the market. They convince homeowners to sell at a discount, then re-sell them -- often on the same day -- for at least thousands of dollars more. They do so without making a single upgrade.

 

Experts warn that wholesalers and other investors are stripping longtime residents of tens of thousands of dollars in hard-earned wealth. Homeowners too often sell without knowing the real value of their home, and realize too late that they cannot afford a new place to live with cash from the deal. In Atlanta, even subsidized senior housing can cost hundreds of dollars a month.

The impacts can reach across generations, experts warn. A house is often a family's most valuable asset, especially among African Americans, research shows. The profit from a sale can send a grandchild to college, or help the next generation put down payments on their own homes.

Jacob Naviaux, a representative for SMQ Properties, LLC, the investment company that offered to buy McGauley's house, said he treated her fairly and followed the law during her sale. Some wholesalers may deserve criticism for their tactics, but he explained his deal with McGauley carefully.

"She breached her contact on her house," Naviaux said. "Sellers can't just choose one day to back out of a sale."

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