A short-sale expert says he can predict market slumps by client traffic. Next stop: The Sunshine State.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) July 06, 2007 — A tidal wave of foreclosures may be heading toward Florida, if you judge by the number of homeowners looking to get rid of their homes as fast as they can.

Duane LeGate, president of House Buyer Network, arranges quick sales for home owners in distress. He claims he can predict where markets will go bad by looking at the traffic on his Web site.

“We can tell you what’s going to happen nine months from now,” he said. His most endangered market right now is Orange County, Florida, home of Disney World.

“Orlando has blown up. There’s been a 700 percent increase in traffic of people filling out our forms,” he said. “I could put a bull’s-eye on Orlando and write the headline for what will be going on in January and February.”

What will be going on could include a large increase in foreclosures as well as lower prices, longer inventories and a slower sales pace.

Here’s how the House Buyer Network works: A homeowner wants a quick sale and signs up. The network connects the homeowner with a real estate agent who gets an appraisal for, say, $200,000. The agent markets the home at $195,000. If it fails to sell within the time stipulated in the contract, the agent will buy the house at a prearranged, discounted price of perhaps $180,000.

LeGate estimates the discount from what sellers would get if they didn’t need to sell quickly is 5 percent to 8 percent, once all the costs and fees are figured in.

Latest home prices
LeGate’s forecast runs ahead of the latest home price statistics. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), Orlando prices for the first quarter rose 2.5 percent compared with a year ago, which would point to a weak – but more stable – market. Nevertheless, LeGate trusts his indicators.

According to him, much of Central Florida is foundering. Other counties with large traffic bumps include Osceola (up 100 percent in May 2007 compared with May 2006), Polk (136 percent) and Lake (143 percent).

LeGate’s prediction doesn’t surprise Jonas Lee, whose company, Redbrick Partners, buys properties in distressed markets all around the country. Redbrick focuses further south in Florida, but he sees similarities with Orlando.

“There are tax issues that are depressing the market,” said Lee, Property taxes jump when houses change hands. “And insurance rates spiked after the hurricane season of a couple of years ago,” he said.

Most affordable housing markets
Many of LeGate’s clients contracted to buy new homes before they sold their old ones, and they can’t afford two sets of mortgages.

Other customers may have gotten an offer, only to have the transaction fall through after they themselves contracted for a new home.

And yet other clients simply cannot keep up with mortgage payments. Many took on subprime hybrid adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) that came with low initial interest rates but are now resetting at much higher levels.

Short-sale interest can indicate slumping markets that are not detectable by traditional price indices. NAR’s median home price stats and same-home sale-prices from the Office of Housing Enterprise Oversight can lag or disguise actual market conditions.

Most deals close months after prices are agreed on. Evidence of changes in market conditions may not come out for months afterwards. Evidence of significant discounts in a majority of homes sold wouldn’t appear for a while.

When LeGate sees big jumps in client contacts from a single county, he concludes that the area has hit a rough patch that may not come out in price stats for months. It’s played out that way in the past when he saw other markets going into distress.

“We called Phoenix, two counties in California and West Palm Beach, Florida in June of 2005,” he said, at a time when those areas were still perceived to be white-hot.

Now, according to figures from RealtyTrac, which markets foreclosure properties online, the Phoenix metro area has 10 of the top 11 zip codes for foreclosure filings in Arizona, and all 10 are among the 500 worst hit zip codes in the nation. The other areas are also suffering a deep slump.

Besides the Florida markets, other locales LeGate identified as likely trouble spots include Clark County, Nevada and Riverside County, California where the site’s traffic more than doubled between June, 2006 and May, 2007, and Price George County, Maryland, where it tripled.

Fastest growing cities
Some markets are turning positive, according to LeGate. The number of client contacts from Maricopa County, Arizona – the Phoenix area – dropped this year by about 38 percent.

Also looking good are Prince William County, Virginia in the D.C. metro area, where client contacts fell 37 percent, and nearby Fairfax County, where they’re down 40 percent.

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