INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Joseph Erickson owned a condo in this beachfront community but the view was of the Intracoastal Waterway, not the beach. So when he saw that a gulf-front condo in a nearby complex was up for sale at a foreclosure auction, he decided to try his luck.
On Sept. 23, 2018, Erickson won out over several other bidders and bought the condo for $385,000. He knew that $35,000 would go to the Happy Fiddler Condominium Association, which had filed the foreclosure case to collect unpaid dues. But he expected Pinellas County’s Clerk of Court would return the $350,000 "surplus'' to him. Erickson hired a contractor and started renovating his new condo.
Then came two shocks. Erickson hadn’t done a title search, so only after the auction did he learn that there was a $350,697 mortgage on the property. After getting over that jolt, he figured he had enough in the surplus funds to pay off the bank before it too foreclosed.
But Erickson never received the $350,000 surplus. A company called Locations of Pinellas Inc. claims that it is the condo’s true owner and asked the clerk’s office to give it the money. Erickson’s attorney filed an emergency motion to block the release but that sparked a legal battle that pits Erickson against a man who spent four years staving off foreclosure on a $1.6 million Tierra Verde mansion in which he had been living rent-free.
"The first time I do this, it blows up in my face,'' Erickson, 53, said of his foray into foreclosure auctions. "It’s devastating, it’s life-changing. As far as any thought of retirement, that’s out the window.''
Foreclosures have dropped dramatically since 2013, but there still are enough properties being auctioned to attract the attention of people looking for a good deal. And that means there are still situations where a bidder who doesn’t fully understand the process can get hammered despite warnings the clerk’s office posts on the auction site.
The Happy Fiddler case began in 2010 when the condo association sued a woman who owed $14,458 in dues on her unit. A final judgment was issued in 2013 and a foreclosure auction was set, but Locations of Pinellas, Inc. intervened.
The company, started by Samuel W. Ballinger, said that the city of Madeira Beach had given it the right to foreclose on code violation liens the woman had run up on properties she owned in that town. Those liens took priority over the condo lien, the company argued in getting the Indian Rocks Beach condo auction cancelled.
Eventually, the condo association and Locations of Pinellas reached an agreement whereby the company paid at least part of the rapidly mounting delinquent dues, records indicate. Locations got title to the condo in a 2016 foreclosure sale and continued paying the dues for a "period of months,'' a court filing said. Then Locations defaulted, prompting the association to sue it and setting the stage for the 2018 auction at which Erickson was the winning bidder.
During this time, Ballinger was living in an exclusive gated community on Tierra Verde. The owners had gone bankrupt, and a bankruptcy trustee had sold the run-down, heavily mortgaged property for $8,500 to a buyer who then deeded it to Ballinger. When the bank started to foreclose, Ballinger declared bankruptcy, which automatically stops a foreclosure. He listed himself as an unemployed mechanic with no assets and just $1,000 in monthly income provided by a relative.
"In truth, Mr. Ballinger was certainly, and may still be, a player in the purchase and management of distressed real estate,'' according to an order and memorandum from the United States Trustee’s office. "He drove a Ferrari and a Maserati. He operated numerous corporate entities, including one that he used potentially as a personal piggy bank.''
As officials tried to put together an accurate picture of his business interests, Ballinger failed to appear for hearings, provided "dribs and drabs of information sprinkled with misleading bits of information'' and concealed records to the point that the court had to issue "a blanket of subpoenas to all major banks in the Tampa Bay area.''
In short, "he is a sophisticated businessman whose courtroom demeanor suggests that he is highly intelligent, business savvy and not unaccustomed to delivering a compelling sales pitch,'' the order said in denying Balllinger’s petition to have his debts forgiven.
Regions Bank foreclosed on the Tierra Verde house in 2017, and sold it last year for $1.25 million. Ballinger, who said the Tampa Bay Times had done a "hatchet job'' in a story on that house, said he didn’t want to talk about the Happy Fiddler condo case.
Erickson, who owns two fitness centers, said the money he invested in the condo was his retirement savings. On Wednesday, he and his attorney will ask Pinellas County Circuit Judge Keith Meyer to vacate the 2018 auction and order the release of the $350,000 surplus. Erickson, who has been in talks with the lender, said he will pay off the mortgage and keep the condo if he wins.
If he loses, he will walk away from his gulf-front dream home and Locations of Pinellas will get the $350,000.
Regardless of what happens, Erickson figures he is out the $64,000 he already has spent — on attorney’s fees, property taxes and the renovations that he started. He also owes the condo association about $7,000 in dues he stopped paying on his attorney’s advice when the case went into litigation.
"My fiance and I have been jumping through all these hoops and hoping it all to end on Wednesday,'' Erickson said. "My ultimate goal is so other people don’t run into this same con.''