Once upon a time in America, a piece of property evidencing its owner's bad fortune or neglect would literally be auctioned off on the courthouse steps.
The scene involved both entrepreneurship and gumption — the property owner's bad luck notwithstanding. Sharp-eyed people who had done their research would gather on the concrete steps of the Hillsborough County courthouse as homes and lots with unpaid property taxes were put out to the highest bidder.
Then it was close-to-the-vest strategy, fast-talk money and the occasional twist, when a property owner swooped in at the last second to make good on taxes owed, denying a potential steal. This was enterprise in action.
Along about 1993, somebody got wise to the fact that this is Florida, where it's hot and rains a lot, and moved the whole drama indoors.
The idea remained the same: Thursdays before 10 a.m. in the roomy air-conditioned jury auditorium, the savvy regulars, niche investors and brash hopefuls would settle in to the rows of chairs, prepared to throw out numbers before the clerk could say, "Going once, going twice . . . "
After this week, Hillsborough's tax deed auctions go online, something Pinellas has already done. And with it, a bit of hometown Americana goes the way of phone booths, check-writing and talking to the person sitting across from you in a restaurant instead of pecking at your respective cellphones.
Gone will be the fast patter and the occasional mild trash talk. No longer will you be able to take measure of the person bidding against you two rows over. After this, your faceless rival for a tasty piece of property could be in South Tampa, Chicago or Seattle.
"Yeah, it's quite a change," says Abraham Warren, a real estate investor who is such a frequent flier at the courthouse he rents himself a parking space with his name on it behind the hot dog vendor. "I hate to see it," he says of this particular progress.
Court clerk's office spokesman Tom Scherberger says the convenience of online auctioning — you can bid from your living room — potentially means more investors. But regulars will miss the public forum, the interaction, the familiar faces.
"You really feel like it's a fair and judicial process handled in a public way. You could see this is what happens with this asset," Warren says. "Who knows who's sitting there at a computer in New York."
I am here before the start of the second-to-last live auction as people arrive with their documents and their photos of properties snapped on cellphones. ("Squatters," an investor confides to me, showing a boarded-up house the clerk is describing in legalese.) They know which lots have room for squeezing in more houses and the ones that sit in areas of tantalizing potential like the edges of Ybor City.
But Warren says true steals are a rarity. "It's not sexy," he says. "You've got to do your homework."
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Attendees — mostly investors or people working for them — perk up as the clerk announces a property's starting price at $10,237.80. Bids fly and numbers jump: $40,000, $50,000, into the 80s and 90s. Someone tries to throw off momentum with an odd bid: "Ninety-four thousand seven hundred and fifty!" At six figures, it's pretty much two bidders and everyone watching, and sold for $112,100. It's like letting your breath out at the end of a horse race.
So what's next is progress. Streamlining. Perfectly sensible. And also the end of something interesting.
Warren sounds philosophical: "I guess I'll be sitting on the beach," he says, "doing the auction in my swimming trunks."