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Some Fla. residents trade to beat soft market

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By Paul Owers found at South Florida Sun-Sentinel Posted March 12 2007 at sun-sentinel.com


Tarsha Graham hopes to trade with someone in the Maryland  
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Tarsha Graham, who owns a triplex in Hollywood as investment property, hopes to trade with someone in the Maryland area. She has received inquiries but none leading to serious negotiations.

(Sun-Sentinel/Robert Mayer)


Two or three years ago, a South Florida homeowner looking to move could find a property, sign the papers and sell an existing house quickly to one breathless buyer or another.

But the new reality in the region's marshmallow-soft real estate market is that homes in Palm Beach and Broward counties languish for weeks or months without a showing, let alone an offer.

That ruins other deals contingent on buyers being able to unload their current properties. So savvy but skittish homeowners are considering an alternative: house-swapping.

They're turning to the Internet, hoping to find someone somewhere with whom to trade. In essence, they're willing to buy each other's homes as a way around the prolonged housing slump that analysts say could last into next year.

Eight months ago, Brian Karpf of Weston started Caretotrade.com, a Web site similar to Craigslist that lets people buy, sell, trade and barter items.

"I woke up one morning and there were 20 to 25 houses listed for trade," said Karpf, 25, a third-year law student at Florida International University. "I had no idea that people could trade houses."

Tarsha Graham is trying. She owns a triplex in Hollywood but expects to move to Maryland or Washington, D.C., soon. She's less than thrilled with the prospect of looking for a home there and having to sell her Broward County property.

So she posted the triplex on Caretotrade.com late last year. Graham hopes to find a resident of the mid-Atlantic region willing to swap properties. She's had a few inquiries but none that led to serious negotiations.

"With the market being so slow, it just opens up another avenue," said Graham, 37, who owns a social services agency in Miami.

Another likely house-trading scenario might involve empty-nesters who want to downsize and a young family looking for a larger home. The family trading up would pay the difference in the values of the properties, then buy the larger home.

The empty-nesters would use the cash they received from the family to help pay off the first mortgage and then buy the smaller house. As in any home sale, the parties negotiate a contract and both buyer and seller would likely seek property appraisals.

"I can see the attraction," said Jon Gelman, a Fort Lauderdale real estate lawyer and shareholder in the Greenberg Traurig firm. "Anyone who's trying to upsize or downsize, there's a concern: are they going to be able to sell the house they're in? A lot of insecurity makes it hard to sleep at night."

Caretotrade.com now has more than 400 real estate listings, and about three quarters of those are potential house swaps, Karpf said. Recent postings include: the owner of a home in Spring Hill, north of Tampa, looking to trade for a home in South Florida; and the owner of a condominium on Hollywood beach trying to trade for a home in New York or New Jersey.

Ira Shanes, of Boynton Beach, listed on Caretotrade last year, frustrated after a deal to buy a house fell through when he couldn't sell his existing property.

Shanes is concerned about falling prices. He said his three-bedroom home was appraised two years ago at $419,000; now it's worth roughly $360,000.

"There are just too many houses on the market right now," said Shanes, 29, who operates a Boynton Beach ultrasound company. "You just don't know for sure that your house is going to sell [the traditional way]."

There are, of course, potential roadblocks to trading. It's difficult to arrange if either homeowner owes more on the loan than the house is worth. And getting strangers to agree to swap properties is a bit of a long shot.

"It definitely is like trying to find a needle in a haystack," said Gelman, the lawyer.

For that reason, house-swapping remains a novelty. Real estate agents in Palm Beach and Broward counties say they seldom handle trades. The Florida Association of Realtors doesn't track the trades because the transactions are recorded as regular home sales.

Fort Lauderdale agent Marilynn Obrig said trading is a godsend for certain people, including investors stuck with large properties they can't sell. Trading down allows them to reduce their financial risks.

Wellington agent Jim Corbin said he has worked only three trades in 35 years but acknowledges the market's recent slide makes the concept worth considering.

"There are so few buyers out there that anything you can do to find one is a good thing," Corbin said. "People certainly are being creative these days."

Paul Owers can be reached at powers@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6529.

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