ELKHART — Sixteen homes sold in less than 20 minutes at Elkhart County’s first foreclosure property sale of the year, marking the largest number of houses purchased at the monthly sale in at least five years.
Attorneys, real estate agents and prospective homeowners packed the auction Wednesday, hoping to get their hands on one of 85 foreclosed houses. Looking around the room after the sale ended, Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department clerk Connie Stull said the crowd was the largest she had seen in a long time.
“There were over 100 people here,” said Stull, who helped run the sale with fellow clerk Kelsey Cameron and Lt. Travis Adamson. “That’s pretty unusual.”
Sheriff’s sales between 2008 and 2012 have sold an average of roughly four homes to bidders each month, according to records from the sheriff’s department. The number of properties on the foreclosure list have ebbed and flowed with the economy over the past five years, Elkhart real estate agent Cory White said. In 2008, there was an average of 96 homes listed for auction each month. A year later, the average was 126. The number of homes on the list dipped dramatically in 2011 after banks got in trouble for not following federal laws regulating foreclosure procedures, White said. In 2012, about 97 homes appeared in the sheriff’s sale each month.
“That’s a lot of people losing their homes,” said Ralph Stalter, who attended the sheriff’s sale for the first time on Wednesday. “I would say most of those homes have pretty sad stories behind them.”
Stalter, a Nappanee resident, stood near the back of the room during the auction to observe the bidding process. Stalter said he is remodeling a house and may want to buy others to renovate in the future.
White said buying homes at a sheriff’s sale is a big risk because bidders do not get an opportunity to check out the interior of the houses before purchasing them. Often, he said, the homes are abandoned, but sometimes there are still people living inside. There are state laws in place that protect tenants whose landlords have defaulted on their mortgage, he added. For example, White said Indiana passed a law in 2009 that says if a tenant can provide an active lease, the new homeowners have to rent to them according to the terms of the lease with some stipulations.
Fritz Hartman and Natasha Loop bought a house through a sheriff’s sale seven years ago before the market crashed and decided to try their luck again Wednesday. The husband and wife team from New Paris won the bid on a house in Goshen for about $33,000. The couple hopes to remodel the house, but Loop noted that the original homeowner is still living there, so they have only been able to see the outside so far.
“It’s an older house,” Loop said. “It’s cute, and it has nice curb appeal, sort of charming. We loved the neighborhood.”
Rich Schmucker, of Middlebury, said he has had relatively good luck buying cheaper homes on the foreclosure list.
“I’m picking up houses for $15,000 or $20,000, so the risk is a lot less there,” he said. “Some of these guys are spending $100,000 on a house that they haven’t been able to get to see. That’s risky.”
Schmucker has been going to sheriff’s sales for about six months.
“Right now, I’m renting the houses out, but my hope is in three or four years when the market turns around to be able to sell them,” he said.
Schmucker does quite a bit of research before deciding whether to bid on a home, including driving by to see the exterior of the house.
“I look at the roof and make sure there’s a gas or electric meter on the house because those are things that cost money to get reinstalled if they’re not there,” he said. “I look to see if there is an air conditioner, and I look to see if there are new windows, kind of the big dollar items that you can see from the outside.”
White said foreclosed homes make up a small fraction of his real estate listings, a far cry from a few years ago. Things seem to be looking up for homeowners, he said.
“It could end up being a strong year for homeowners,” he said. “I think we’re on the tail end of the foreclosures, and what we’re seeing now is just kind of the leftovers of years past.”