Vultures Circle Miami's Condo Market

Is anyone enjoying the housing implosion? You betcha.

A brushed-chrome-and-wood elevator rises through a Sunny Isles tower just off Collins Avenue, lifting Jenny Huertas toward an 11th-floor condo with an eye-popping balcony view: the barrier island stretching green and leafy to the north, slicing between a sailboat-speckled slate-colored bay and a placid aquamarine ocean.

"We're getting this place for 50 cents on the dollar, literally," Huertas says matter-of-factly in a quick, Spanish-inflected patter as she walks back through the condo. The carpets have been ripped out, wires hang from the ceiling, and trash litters the kitchen. But that view...

"This is an extremely distressed building. They need to sell now," says Huertas, an agent for Condo Vultures, a firm that does exactly what its name implies: buys distressed condos on the cheap from desperate owners and sells them off to investors.

As Miami's historically overbuilt condo market has imploded — with more than 25,000 units languishing and owners growing increasingly frantic to unload them — not everyone has suffered. Groups such as Condo Vultures have found a niche among all the carnage.

Peter Zalewski, a former journalist, quit the Daily Business Review and founded Condo Vultures in spring 2006, a few months before the bubble burst. Today he employs about 35 agents and just opened field offices in Las Vegas and San Diego. He estimates his realtors close about 30 deals a month, up from 12 to 15 per month last year.

But who, exactly, is coming to Miami and low-balling their way into condo ownership?

"If a family of four with a dog come to us, we'd help them gladly. But they don't understand us," Zalewski says. "An investor who has owned before and wants to close fast and cheap, they love us."

On this picturesque winter's day in Sunny Isles, that investor is Sunny Kim, a cheerful back surgeon from Minneapolis.

"I'm a bottom feeder, just like them," Kim says with a smile. "I think this market is pretty close to the bottom, so I'm ready to get in on it."

 
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