Longform

Miami street signs that promise to change your life

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By the end of the year, Pichardo wants to have 50 handymen onboard, as well as bases in Broward and Palm Beach counties. He also wants to meet with British aviation and media impresario Richard Branson to share another one of his grand business ideas. Pichardo is very familiar with Branson's grandiose scheme for commercial space travel. "I want to talk to him about developing the first orbital hotel," Pichardo says. "I'm rather disappointed we haven't built one yet."

I ask him if he knows of any roadside signs advertising a dating service, since my chances of finding a woman on echatepaca.com are about as good as Pichardo and Branson in astronaut suits hobnobbing around a space station. Pichardo gives me a quizzical look. "No, haven't seen any of those. But it's a good idea."

On a muggy July evening, more than two dozen people congregate at the lobby bar inside the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Dressed in a dark dress shirt with a black tie, black vest, and black slacks, Angel Taipale makes his way to the front entrance of the hotel's Arkadia nightclub to talk to me. The 25-year-old Cuban-American works six nights a week as a floor supervisor for Arkadia so that he can dedicate some daytime hours to his fledgling enterprise — buying and selling real estate at wholesale prices to investors. You'll find his number stamped on signs advertising cash for houses. He's also Pichardo's roommate and onetime Nouveau Riche employee. The pair lives in a luxurious two-bedroom condo in North Bay Village.

"I met Sam four years ago at a real estate class he was holding," Taipale says. "He is a really bright kid. He can flip anything. I started off doing leg work on some of Sam's deals." Two years later, he has been doing real estate transactions on his own, as well as partnering with his roommate to buy properties. "I sometimes use his capital to close deals," Taipale admits. "I've already done six transactions on my own this past year. That was my learning curve."

When Taipale gets calls from people wanting to sell a property, he puts them through a screening process to determine how serious they are about quickly consummating a deal. "You have to gauge their motivation to sell first," Taipale says. "So I will ask them a series of questions, like how much they owe the bank and what condition the property is in."

His goal is to buy single-family houses at 50 to 60 percent lower than the assessed market value and then flip the assets to wholesale investors within 30 days. Using Sam's handyman referral service, Taipale fixes up any properties that need work.

On his most recent deal, a three-bedroom house in Miami Gardens, Taipale claims he made a $5,000 profit. "Last year I cleared about $25,000," he says. "I'm also starting to do deals on multihousing units. Right now I have a building with six apartments I'm trying to let go."

Road signs have been his most effective marketing tool, he says. "It generates a high volume of calls while saving me a ton of money on advertising. As a business owner just getting started," he says, "you gotta work with what you got."

The oldest of five siblings, Taipale took a job as a pool attendant after he graduated from Miami Beach Senior High in 2004. Like Pichardo, Taipale also dropped out of Miami Dade College. "I went for about a month," Taipale explains. "But the classes were too slow for me, and I always wanted to be my own boss."

Working at Arkadia, he meets a lot of successful businessmen who provide him with inspiration and leads, Taipale notes. "I've met guys who have money that they don't know what to do with," he says. "These dudes who come to Arkadia can do whatever they want. All they do now is oversee their money. That's something I want."

I feel Taipale's go-getter enthusiasm rubbing off on me. I admire his moxie. He convinces me that I can start my own global empire teaching immigrants English, flipping real estate in the hood, and finding jobs for handymen. But, I think to myself, I still need to get in tip-top physical shape. Not just to prepare myself for my next hustle, but to impress the debutante I might eventually meet via a sign post.

On a late Tuesday afternoon, I come across a road sign promising a buff body in six weeks at Xtreme Gym at 230 71st St. in Miami Beach. Alas, the phone number listed on the cardboard is disconnected. I locate a former gym member named Juan, who informs me Xtreme closed one month after he signed up for a membership. "Luckily I was paying month-to-month," Juan says. "So I only lost the 45 bucks I paid for the first month."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.