They were lovely weekends, those choreographed lot sales events at North Carolina's eruption of new coastal and mountain subdivisions during the height of the real estate boom between 2004 and 2007.
At several developments, invitation-only crowds - some staying in free hotel rooms - grazed on catered buffets under rented tents, picked up gift bags and listened to live music, including a harpist at one Mitchell County soiree.
Between the almost-standard helicopter tours and the chair massages came testimonials about soaring land values and advice from sales agents about pouncing immediately to assure a place on that proverbial ground floor. At some events, the climactic moment was a festive, bingolike drawing to determine the order in which buyers could pick their lots.
But the parties ended along with the real estate bubble, and now the tab is coming due as angry buyers file lawsuit after lawsuit against the developers, appraisers and lenders, alleging fraud.
There are at least a dozen lawsuits now in state and federal court, more than half of them filed in the past four months. Involved are nearly 700 plaintiffs, at least nine subdivisions - some with more than 3,000 lots - and three major developers: Raleigh-based Wakefield Development Co., Charlotte-based R.A. North Development and Coastal Communities of Brunswick County.
The oldest was filed in 2007 by Attorney General Roy Cooper against the organizers of a 1,300-acre Mitchell County project, the Village of Penland. The most recent was filed March 26 against Coastal.
Thousands of other lot buyers aren't suing. With the market for such lots at a virtual standstill, though, many are walking away from their loans instead of making payments on land that now may be worth only 10 percent of what they owe, if it can be sold at all.
Angela Stack Harris of Mooresville enjoyed the helicopter tour over the Seawatch subdivision in Brunswick County in 2005, but now she is among the buyers there who believe they were taken on another kind of ride. She blames Mark Saunders, owner of Coastal Communities.
"Looking back, it was just a fancy dog-and-pony show with a lot of hype, a lot of big stories and big promises," Harris said.
The sales agent for the developer, Harris said, told her and her husband "amazing things are happening here" and that they would probably make $100,000 profit in two years on the $105,000 lot. They signed.
She said that she and her husband got nothing in writing saying they would double their money but that the message had been clear when they bought.
A Wilmington law firm, Hodges & Coxe, has filed five suits since December against Coastal Communities, the developer who sold Harris her lot, on behalf of people who bought lots in four of the company's Brunswick subdivisions. It filed another against Wakefield for clients who bought in one of its two Brunswick projects, San Rio Ocean and River Club.
Wakefield officials didn't return calls. A Raleigh attorney for Coastal said the suits were unusually flimsy.
"Basically it is a whole lot of smoke without any fire," said Chris Graebe.
A spokeswoman for Cooper's office, Noelle Talley, said that its Consumer Protection Division is investigating 13 complaints about sales at several of Saunders' subdivisions, and five involving sales in two R.A. North developments: Cannonsgate in Carteret County and Summerhouse in Onslow County.
Four defendants have settled in the Penland civil case, and five of the defendants have pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges, Talley said.
There have been no criminal charges in any of the other cases. R.A. North has settled for an undisclosed amount with a group of more than 100 buyers, mainly from Virginia, without admitting wrongdoing.
Principal comes due
This lawsuit rush is partly driven by the kind of loan that many buyers picked. The deals were perfect for speculators who planned to sell quickly for a profit: an interest-only loan with no payments due for two years. Many suing Saunders say that now they are making big payments on land that's worthless because roads, water or sewer lines or expected amenities such as clubhouses and pools haven't been finished.
Attorneys for defendants in several of the cases say there was no fraud, that the real problems are plaintiffs' attorneys looking for a big payday and buyers frustrated by the collapse in the real estate market.
Most of the buyers in Saunders' developments have not joined the suits, Graebe said, and those who have are hurting the value of their own property with the public claims of fraud.
Attorney Wes Hodges, whose firm filed the suits against Saunders, said that buyers were subjected to high-pressure sales tactics. He said they were told it was certain that they would reap big profits by the time the two-year loans came due and that the subdivisions would be finished by then.
He said prices of the lots were artificially increased via fraudulent appraisals and that the lender - BB&T in most cases - signed off on the loans knowing the prices had beenhyped. The frontline bankers approving the loans were paid bonuses of up to 100 percent of their annual salary for hitting targets for the number of loans written, he said.
BB&T is a defendant.A spokeswoman for the bank said it doesn't comment on ongoing litigation but that it will vigorously contest the allegations.
Appraisals under review
The appraiser that Hodges said apparently performed all the appraisals in Coastal's subdivisions, Lynn Rabello, is also a defendant. She declined to comment except to say that she hadn't done anything wrong.
After an investigation into a complaint about Rabello that was similar to the allegations in the suits, the N.C. Appraisal Board ordered her in November 2008 to take three courses on appraisal techniques or face a six-month suspension of her license.
Don Rodgers, executive director of the N.C. Appraisal Board, said the $290,000 appraisal involved was for a lot in Saunders' Ocean Isle Palms subdivision and that his board is now investigating three other complaints about her work in Saunders' developments.
It also has opened five cases involving four appraisers who worked in R.A. North developments and is looking into 375 appraisal reports in Summerhouse and 15 in Cannonsgate. The R.A. North investigations are based on referrals from other agencies and the board's decisions rather than consumer complaints, he said.
One of the main contentions in the lawsuits against Coastal is that it hasn't completed roads and water and sewer lines that it was obligated to build under the sales contracts, nor has it finished the amenities such as clubhouses and pools that buyers say they were promised.
Sales documents that buyers provided in complaints to Cooper's office state that the completion dates for the infrastructure are estimates and that the amenities were proposed and that Saunders does not have to build them.
While the work has slowed because the economy and real estate market have tanked, Coastal is making progress, Graebe said, and fully intends to complete all the subdivisions.
"It's taking longer than anyone would have liked," he said. "But we are in the worst economy any of us has ever seen. Developers are walking away from projects all up and down the coast ... but that's not what's going on here. This developer has every intention of completing the subdivisions, all of them."
Richard "Bud" Cass of Ringoes, N.J., who bought two lots at Coastal's Seawatch development, said there is no excuse for the delays. By his calculations Saunders had sold between $500 million and $1 billion worth of lots in the boom years, and like many other buyers he doesn't understand why Saunders is claiming he doesn't have enough to finish the subdivisions.
The lawsuits against Saunders portray an elaborate marketing strategy involving things such as the lottery drawings at the parties and a tactic called "pushing" in which teams of sales assistants would drive onto lots adjacent to those that potential buyers were being shown, with one pretending to be another potential buyer, all to create a false sense of urgency.
Graebe scoffed at the notion that the demand wasn't real. During the boom, potential buyers slept in their cars and on couches in sales offices to get a crack at the land, he said.
"People were clamoring to buy these lots, and prices were going up," he said. "They weren't coming to Ocean Ridge or Ocean Isle Palms because they wanted to hear a band."
In his motion to dismiss, he says that the allegations about vigorous marketing and "pushing" don't support the suit's legal claims. "That's just salesmanship, not fraud," says the motion.
Now, lots won't sell
It's unclear when land will start selling again on the coast, and at what level prices will stabilize. Meanwhile, the banks are repossessing hundreds of coastal lots that are now worth a fraction of the loans they made. The developers who haven't filed for bankruptcy are facing a dead market.
And the thousands of lot owners are deciding whether to default or make hefty payments on land that seems all but worthless.
Angela Harris isn't among those who are suing. She said she couldn't afford the legal bills. Instead, she filed one of the complaints with the state Attorney General's office, hoping it can get her money back.
Unfortunately, that's not her only real estate problem. She and her husband, who is a builder, bought another lot north of Wilmington for $150,000, and they also have two homes her husband built on speculation. That means they are paying five mortgages, counting the house they live in, and they have to figure out in what order they're going to walk away from the properties.
The first things to go, she said, will be the coastal lots, which have been on the market for several years without a nibble.
"No one has even tried to offer some crazy low price," she said. "I don't think those things will ever sell."
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