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(Un)Real Estate: Builder just flutters away from the disaster

Smith Family Homes built a nice house. Few can argue with that. A tour of its $500,000 model homes could leave a person green with granite countertop envy.

But what to make of this week's disclosure? It seems Smith Family Homes — fresh from bankruptcy liquidation that could leave customers, bankers and suppliers out millions of dollars — is back in business under a new name.

A week before Smith filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July, the family started a venture called Monarch Homebuilders. The logo is a butterfly, apparently fresh from its chrysalis, with the words "A Brand New Life."

The outraged people who e-mailed me obviously hadn't signed onto the triumphant resurrection thing. They're not ready to soar with a butterfly that left so much carnage behind as a homely caterpillar.

Smith Family's debts hover in the tens of millions. Stiffed banks read like a Who's Who of Dixieland lending: Wachovia, Bank of America, SunTrust, Regions. Plumbers, landscapers, carpet layers and electricians swell the list of creditors.

Their argument is compellingly simple: You got money to start a new building business, you got money to pay off your debts. One guy complains that Smith took a $20,000 deposit and left him with a shell. Another buyer, who closed on a house this spring, gets bills from unpaid contractors. The birth of Monarch a week before the death of Smith Family smacks of premeditation.

From what little Smith has revealed, a private investor pulled the plug on its credit. But trouble had been brewing for years. As the Times wrote in May, Smith owed more than $1-million in property taxes to Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

The Smith-to-Monarch switcheroo represents quick change artistry seldom seen since Clark Kent stripped to his tights in the phone booth. But Superman was known for leaping buildings, not leaving them unfinished.

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com.

(Un)Real Estate: Builder just flutters away from the disaster 08/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 2:55pm]
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