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ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The home foreclosure business was very good to Todd Haupt. He started buying and flipping foreclosed houses in 1994, when he was 20, and by 2000 he graduated to building homes.
A vacant lot in a half-completed subdivision near Troy, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, is now owned by a bank.
At 32, with just one semester of community college, he owned a BMW, a Corvette and a 5,000-square-foot house worth $1.2 million. He was a creation of the boom. “I was on top of the world,” Mr. Haupt said recently.
Then, last May, the real estate market stopped booming.
Now Mr. Haupt’s house is in the hands of his creditors, as are the cars, three small office buildings and 89 lots he bought in a subdivision in neighboring Lincoln County.
He owes about $6 million in personal and business debt, and as Mr. Haupt’s fortunes soured, so have those of plumbers, electricians, framers, landscapers, supply stores and others that relied on his business, which he estimated at $300,000 per month.
“And that’s just little bitty me,” he said.
Mr. Haupt is one of thousands of Americans who jumped into the raging housing market of the last decade, which was heralded in stories of neighbors’ windfalls and reality television shows like “Flip That House,” “Flip This House” and “Flipping Out.”
Driving past his empty house recently, Mr. Haupt considered how things had crashed so fast.
“I feel like, yes, I overextended myself,” he said. “But when do you know not to overextend yourself? If I had a crystal ball, I never would have built my house. But when do you know? That’s why we’re speculators.”
He added, “If the banks had a crystal ball, they might not be in this mess either.”
St. Charles County, an affluent, fast-growing neighbor of St. Louis, was a natural incubator for speculators like Mr. Haupt, with a construction boom that doubled the population from 1980 to 2001.
Subdivisions with names like Crimson Meadows, Spring Mill and Barton Creek, pushed the suburban frontier ever farther from St. Louis. For a young builder, the low price of credit drove down the costs of building and drove up the homes’ sale prices.
As long as the market kept going, Mr. Haupt felt he could not lose.
His million-dollar house now sits forlorn and unattended, a dead spot in an expensive subdivision that was once all cornfields. Asked to identify the architectural style, he said, “I call it ‘Bank Repossession’ now.”
He now rents a small house for $1,275 a month. He became a born-again Christian in February, after his business and his marriage collapsed.
At 20, taking a mortgage that required no income check (also called a stated income or liar loan), he bought a house for $20,000, then flipped it for a quick profit of $4,000 or $5,000.
It was less than he had hoped, but more than he was making at UPS. He was hooked. By 2000, he was carrying as many as 25 foreclosed houses at a time, renovating them and selling at a profit of $10,000 to $15,000 each. With his success, he was able to establish lines of credit with eight commercial banks. He never thought about the homeowners who had lost the houses that he flipped.
“It’s a fine line,” he said. “You’re making money off what they lost. Is that wrong? Now that I’m in that position today, losing my house, I see that it’s just business.”
As the price of foreclosed houses rose, reducing his profits, Mr. Haupt shifted to building houses in subdivisions in Lincoln County, a less affluent area slightly farther from St. Louis. That required heavier borrowing but brought higher profits.
For the price of a longer commute to work, buyers got new homes that promised to go up in value as development continued around them. By last May Mr. Haupt owned 65 lots and had a contract to buy 20 more, for about $650,000.
Then gasoline prices spiked, and the longer commute became a deal-breaker.
Mr. Haupt had never questioned the ability of buyers to afford the increasingly expensive homes, or how far the boom could continue. “I never did any homework on the home buyers; I just built the houses,” he said. “My feeling was, if they’re approved, they’re approved, I’m going to build them a house.”
By February, he said, he was sitting in his 5,000-square-foot house with no money, a quarter tank of gas, and too much pride to accept money from his family or friends. “I couldn’t put the key in the ignition because I didn’t know where I’d get my next tank of gas,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Cort Schneider, a St. Charles real estate agent, pointed out foreclosed properties on a drive through the area — new houses in new subdivisions, just old enough for their adjustable rate mortgages to reset beyond the owners’ means.
Lori Henderson, a vice president at First Advantage Bank, who arranged loans for Mr. Haupt since 2001, said that until the market turned, he was a good risk. “Todd performs,” Ms. Henderson said. But when she advised him not to buy more lots last year, he simply went to other lenders.
“People were upset about the war, gas prices were up, people were backing out of contracts,” she said. “It wasn’t the time for a small builder to take on two and a half years’ worth of inventory.”
Despite its fast growth, St. Charles County has been spared the precipitous ups and downs of the housing markets on the coasts, said Mark Stallman, chief executor of the St. Charles County Association of Realtors.
But for builders like Mr. Haupt, who were heavily leveraged, the slowdown — especially in Lincoln County — was catastrophic.
“It’s a bad time to be a builder,” Mr. Stallman said. “But it’s a good time to buy a house.”
In a county where one in 10 workers is employed in construction, twice the national average, the slump has taken its toll. Ron Vogt, an electrical contractor who often worked for Mr. Haupt, said his business had fallen to 15 percent of its former level, which in a good year did $700,000 worth of work. The 89 lots in Lincoln County have left what Mr. Haupt called a “ghost town” effect for the homeowners in the unfinished development.
“I can see why they’re upset,” he said. “When they moved in, they thought the neighborhood was going to be built up.” Mr. Haupt now works for a company that sells bottled water and energy drinks, and drives an orange pickup truck covered with logos for Tahitian Noni water.
He picks up money from side jobs, including finding houses for speculators still in the market.
Colleagues who became wealthy when he did are in the same situation, he said. “I asked one guy, ‘What are you doing today?’” he said. “He said, ‘I’m going to cut the grass, then my wife is going to make me eggs.’”
Diperik daripada http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/09/us/09speculate.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2