This is the most expensive foreclosure in the Tampa Bay market — and what a convoluted history it has

Reminders of the foreclosure crisis are found in listings for "bank-owned'' houses. One is for sale for $1.345 million.
Published March 29
Updated April 1

By most accounts, Tampa Bay's foreclosure crisis ended in 2015. New foreclosure filings had plunged, and lawyers who once represented struggling homeowners began looking for other sources of business.

Yet reminders of those crisis years from 2009 to 2013 can be found in listings for "bank-owned'' houses. Nearly 300 are currently for sale in the four-county bay area, most for under $300,000.

The notable exception: a waterfront house in St. Petersburg priced at $1.345 million. And although its price is unusual, the house has had the kind of convoluted, drawn-out history typical of many Tampa Bay foreclosures.

As the most expensive foreclosure now on the market, the five-bedroom, eight-bath house in Bayway Isles has nearly 6,500 feet of living space and wide-open water views. Except for nearby Tierra Verde with its sumptuous mansions, Bayway Isles is arguably the most desirable community in southernmost Pinellas County.

"When I went to do a valuation, we struggled,'' said Peter Chicouris, the listing agent. "There are no waterfront lots in a neighborhood like that that are over $600,000 and under $2 million. The price is compensation for the older floor-plan style: It had a very poor layout when built (in 1988).''

Nonetheless, Chicouris has had offers, including from neighbors "in a position to put $300,000 or $500,000 on a renovation,'' he said. He expects to have a contract soon.

Joe and Mary Cuffel paid $1.675 million for the home in 2005, the peak of the real estate bubble. In 2014, after they defaulted on the mortgage, U.S. Bank started to foreclose. A judge issued a final judgment of foreclosure in 2015 and scheduled a sale for May 2016. However, Mary Cuffel declared bankruptcy, a move that automatically halted foreclosure proceedings.

After Cuffel's bankruptcy case was dismissed, the sale was reset for July 10, 2017. Three days before, though, the Cuffels deeded the property to a California company, Abacus Investment Group, for $25,000. One day before the sale, Abacus itself filed for bankruptcy protection.

The sale went ahead, with U.S. Bank taking back the house for a $1 million final judgment amount. But Abacus filed a motion to have the sale set aside, arguing that it shouldn't have been held because of the pending bankruptcy case. U.S. Bank and Abacus continued their legal battle over the next year — Abacus declared bankruptcy two more times after previous cases were dismissed — and the bank finally had the sale reset for Sept. 6. It took back the house again but could not get a writ of possession until Jan. 25.

The Cuffels could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear if they continued to stay in the house or if Abacus had rented it out.

Chicouris, who specializes in bank-owned properties, says he has seen a recent uptick in lenders taking back homes because the prices at foreclosure sales are getting too high for investors.

"For a while, there were many private investors and companies that purchased through the foreclosure site,'' he said, referring to the Pinellas County clerk of court's online foreclosure sales. "Now there aren't a lot — they feel the market is due for a correction soon and they are getting cautious and don't want to get overly invested.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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