ORLANDO — The white bus rumbles into the quiet suburban neighborhood, heading toward a foreclosed home that sits empty. Neighbors, young and old, cock their heads in curiosity or point at the slow-moving coach.
Once the vehicle stops, about 20 potential buyers file out and become detectives, opening and closing cabinets and drawers, knocking on walls and asking about the price, the previous owners and what repairs may be needed.
Welcome to the Foreclosure Bus Tour, a six-hour expedition to show Orlando-area homes and educate potential buyers on the vagaries of snatching foreclosures. Real estate agents have also organized tours in California, where the idea seems to have originated, and cities such as Phoenix, Detroit, Kansas City and Jacksonville.
The Orlando prospects included working-class people looking for a family home, speculators seeking a bargain investment and even a Brit trying to take advantage of the weak dollar. To avoid embarrassing owners, the bus stops only at empty homes.
"You see some nice, nice properties that are much cheaper than you can get in the U.K. It's been good. You can get a feel for how a place is," said Geoff Lamont, 50, a London tanker truck driver who was on vacation and dreams of moving to Florida with his wife.
The homes were in the market after lenders took them over from owners who failed to make mortgage payments. In February, Florida trailed only Nevada and California in the percentage of homes in foreclosure. RealtyTrac Inc. said 32,447 homes were in foreclosure statewide in February, up more than 69 percent from February of last year and up more than 7 percent from January.
For Janice Ziesig, owner of Z House Realty Group in Orlando, the tours allow her to show homes to lots of people at once. A cost of $45 per person or $65 per couple covered the tour, house information, teaching sessions, a continental breakfast and lunch at Applebee's. Everyone on the bus said the fee was worth it.
The tour also included a mortgage broker; a home inspector who pointed out details such as structural issues, water damage and electrical problems; an attorney who answered questions about title insurance and short sales; and real estate agents with information on square footage, when the home was built and other key information.
The group dynamic, with 20 people from different backgrounds and income levels, made for constant dialogue between prospective buyers and the experts.
Between stops, mortgage broker Cecil Moore answered questions on home loans and risk, telling the riders to get a deal that fits their budget to avoid foreclosure themselves.
"Go with your gut instinct," Moore said. "If you feel like something is not right with your financing or any aspect of the transaction, it's important to feel like … you have the ability to bring things to a halt."
The tour included seven homes, and while Ziesig received no concrete offers for any of the homes, she was happy she was able to make home buying more fun and accessible to potential buyers.
"It's turning out just the way it's supposed to," Ziesig said. "We wanted to do something different. We wanted to teach people. People are interested. It gets people to call."