Postcards from the Bust

Exploring the wreckage of South Florida's condo meltdown.

Tao, which broke ground in January 2006, was supposed to attract wealthy new residents to the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall. The condos pre-sold for $300,000 to $800,000. Buyers were wined and dined at the BankAtlantic Center.

Today, money problems and lawsuits are quietly wreaking havoc on the project. Last November, Tao construction lender Corus Bank took the project back from developer Harry Weitzer and his partners. By then, some of the construction still hadn't been completed, and none of the buyers had closed on deals. Although the building is now finished, sales have not improved much since the bank took over.

By mid-June, only 33 units in the building had sold and closed, according to the property records. Some Tao buyers have filed lawsuits in Broward to get their deposits back, alleging a breach of contract because their units weren't ready by the February 2008 completion date. Others are still trying to negotiate lower prices.

The building is empty, but Sara Gordon loves it.
C. Stiles
The building is empty, but Sara Gordon loves it.

Oswaldo Mateus and his wife were among the first people to buy at Tao two years ago, putting down a 20 percent deposit for a $300,000 unit. But they never closed or moved in. Since then, they have moved to Bogota, Colombia, because it's cheaper to rent an apartment there. He's not eager to be the lone resident of an empty building. "It's kind of unsafe to move into a place like that," he says.

Fort Lauderdale

On 17th Way in Fort Lauderdale, Villa Medici was supposed to bring a "new level of luxury" to the city, with some units boasting private elevators. As recently as March 2008, one townhouse sold for $675,000.

But the complex has since become an uncomfortable example of how crime and a collapsing economy can sabotage a development. Andrea Stern began renting in Villa Medici in May 2008 and witnessed the downfall firsthand. First, she was robbed. A burglar broke in through an open garage door while she and her roommate were sleeping; swiped two Wiis, her laptop, and even some vodka; and then took off in her Scion.

Then, on September 18, Richard Shepherd was upstairs in his townhouse watching television when he heard a doorknob turn. His dog began barking and ran downstairs. Shepherd, age 26, got up to investigate and heard a gunshot — then the pitiful sound of his dog whimpering.

As a panicked Shepherd called police, the crook had already found more victims. A few doors down, Viviana Garguilo and 11-year-old Valeria Balcarce had just pulled into their garage and were getting out of the car when a man with a gun tried to push the girl away from the driver's side door, according to a police report. Garguilo and Balcarce began screaming and then escaped.

Watching Shepherd's dog being taken away in a body bag, Stern knew she'd had enough of Villa Medici. "After that, a lot of people got scared," she says. She moved out that month.

In the past ten months, there have been at least 15 foreclosure filings in the 118-unit Villa Medici, according to BlockShopper South Florida. In early May, 19 townhouses were listed for sale, including several three-bedroom units listed between $161,000 and $199,000.

Ads for the place read this way: "Seller is motivated! Everything is negotiable! Bring all offers!"

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