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Aggressive foreclosures backfire on Florida homeowners associations

Ralph and Michael Chancey have gotten some great deals on real estate.

A $1.15 million bayfront Apollo Beach home for $10,010. A 3,700-square-foot house in North Tampa for $8,090. Dozens of homes in Brandon and Riverview for less than $4,000 each.

The houses are in communities where members must pay fees to a homeowners association for maintenance of common areas. When the economy soured and owners stopped paying their fees, the associations foreclosed and the houses were deeded to companies connected to the Chanceys — typically for just the amount of fees owed.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported last June, it was supposed to be a great deal for associations running short of money for even routine cleaning and lawn work.

"I get paid, the association gets paid and that buyer becomes responsible for the upkeep and the HOA fees," said Robert Tankel, a Dunedin lawyer who represents several associations in which the Chanceys acquired houses.

But things haven't always worked out as they were supposed to.

At least seven homeowners associations — including two of Tankel's clients — have recently filed liens against Chancey-connected companies for failing to pay the maintenance fees. In some cases, the companies owe more than the original owners did.

Meanwhile, the Chanceys have moved in tenants and collected thousands of dollars in rent.

Richard Wiley, a private lender who holds the first mortgage on a New Tampa home, foreclosed this month to get back the deed from one of the Chancey companies, Prop Inc. After acquiring the house in May for $6,200, Prop Inc. rented it out for $1,150 a month.

"It appears to me they take the property for a small amount of money and then basically collect rent until they have to leave,'' Wiley said. "I think it's legal, but I also think it's shady.''

Race to foreclose

Like banks, homeowners associations have the right to foreclose if people don't pay. But in what Tankel has called a "race to the courthouse steps,'' the associations have an advantage.

Because most owners owe less than $15,000, associations can file their cases in county court instead of circuit court with its heavier caseloads and higher dollar amounts. That way an association can get a final judgment of foreclosure in as few as 270 days, compared to the 800 days it takes for the average bank foreclosure in Florida.

After the foreclosure, the property usually goes to auction, where buyers pay a few thousand dollars to cover delinquent fees. If no one bids, the association can negotiate its own sale. Either way, the new owner can then rent out the home while the bank foreclosure drags on.

Association foreclosures created a lucrative opportunity for investors like Tampa marketing executive Ralph Chancey, his son Michael and their associates. As of June, records show, companies incorporated by Michael Chancey had acquired at least 71 properties in Hillsborough County with a market value of more than $8 million. The total outlay: less than $230,000.

The Chanceys did not respond to requests for comments for this story. Last year, Ralph Chancey said buying houses through homeowners associations was a boon to both the associations and to people who have a hard time renting.

The house at 10411 Paragon Place in Riverview tells a different story.

Early this month, nursing assistant Deora Towers met with an agent for HOAAC, one of Chancey's companies. Short of cash, Towers thought she had worked out a deal to pay $1,000 down and $1,000 by March 24 on the house, which is in the South Pointe community. She said she cleaned the kitchen, had the lights turned on in her name and moved several boxes of possessions into the four-bedroom home.

A few days later "I went over there and there were people living in the house. I said, 'Where the hell were are my belongings?' "

The seven new tenants included Charlotte Cannon.

She said she and the agent first negotiated a lease for another Chancey property, a townhouse in Brandon, for $1,100 month. But the people there had yet to move out.

So the agent "told me she was going to give me this for $1,000 because of the inconvenience on the other place,'' Cannon said.

The agent disclosed the house was in foreclosure, Cannon said, but indicated it would be months before anything happened. In fact, U.S. Bank took ownership of the house two days later, on March 6.

Thanks to a federal law designed to protect tenants in foreclosed properties, Cannon's family can stay for the length of their year's lease.

Towers wasn't so fortunate. She said HOAAC kept her $1,000 deposit and wouldn't tell her what it did with the kitchen items and other belongings she had moved in.

The Southe Pointe Homeowners Association got stuck, too.

Prop Inc. originally got the house in July after the owner failed to pay $2,138 in association fees. By the time the bank foreclosed, Prop Inc. had run up a delinquent bill of $8,985.

Private deals

Since the Times story in June, Michael Chancey has incorporated three new companies that have acquired houses in deals that circumvented the usual auction process.

Brian Damasiewicz defaulted on the mortgage on his Tampa house and owed $900 in dues to the Westchester homeowners association. The association sued, and after talks between his lawyer and the association's lawyer, Damasiewicz deeded the house Sept. 30 to Chancey's HOAAC 1 in return for the lawsuit being dropped.

Michael Chancey had formed HOAAC 1 just nine days earlier.

"I thought it was weird but I just wanted to get out of (the house),'' Damasiewicz said.

The association was represented by Tankel, who urges his clients to foreclose quickly and "show no mercy'' to homeowners. Almost half of the houses that Chancey's companies acquired are in associations Tankel represents, records show.

Tankel did not respond to requests for comment. Because the Damasiewicz deal was private, it is not known what HOAAC 1 paid for the Westchester house, which is in the desirable Westchase area and has an assessed value of nearly $180,000. The publicly recorded deed shows a transfer amount of $10.

In December, HOAAC 1 rented the house for $1,900 a month to George Weller, who was moving from Central Florida with his wife and two children to take an ad agency job in Tampa.

The Wellers thought the price was good, but found the house in bad shape. The walls had holes in them, the yard was overgrown and mildew blackened the sides of the pool. The Wellers paid to fix the property.

The family had barely settled in when they got a notice from the bank. They said they hadn't been told the house was in foreclosure.

No one in the Westchester homeowners association could be reached for comment on whether Chancey's company has been paying maintenance fees.

But given the condition of the house, "I'd be surprised if they did,'' Jennifer Weller said. "They're not the best landlords.''

Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@tampbay.com.

Aggressive foreclosures backfire on Florida homeowners associations 03/18/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 12:56am]

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