How Las Vegas became the epicenter of the housing crisis

Dec 7 2011 - 11:37pm

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A Bank of America-owned home sits vacant this week in Las Vegas. A battle of perceptions is being waged over whether Nevada is on the edge of economic recovery or still falling four years after the collapse of its mighty housing, tourism and construction industries. (ISAAC BREKKEN/The Associated Press)
A Bank of America-owned home sits vacant this week in Las Vegas. A battle of perceptions is being waged over whether Nevada is on the edge of economic recovery or still falling four years after the collapse of its mighty housing, tourism and construction industries. (ISAAC BREKKEN/The Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS -- If you want to know why this city was the epicenter of America's housing boom and bust, visit the Mountain's Edge community at the southern end of Clark County.

Plunked down in the middle of the desert, the hundreds of Spanish-style homes sprang up at an astonishing pace from 2004 to 2006, selling at constantly escalating prices ranging from $400,000 to $800,000.

Today, even though some streets are still undeveloped, the planned community is already riddled with homes for sale and rent. Seven out of every 10 homes on the market are foreclosures or short sales.

A foreclosure means the bank has taken over the house after the owners defaulted. A short sale means the owner is being allowed to try to sell the house for less than what he owes on it.

Either way, the asking prices have plummeted with skydiver speed. At one two-story, four-bedroom home, the price has dropped from $726,990 to $429,900; at another, the price has fallen from $519,975 to $213,400 in five years.

And over at 9280 Moose Country Place, Jim Tierney is asking $214,000 in a short sale for the five-bedroom house he bought for $425,000 in October 2007.

Like many Las Vegas residents whose homes are "underwater," meaning they owe far more on them than they are now worth, Tierney has a good job, working as a computer engineer for IGT, the world's largest slot machine manufacturer. His girlfriend works there, too, and there is no question that they technically could afford to keep making their monthly payments.

"If we were only $50,000 underwater on our mortgage, we might have stayed," he said, "but $200,000 underwater? We just can't do it. Even if the economy turns around, people are spooked."

And so Tierney is hoping that he can find a buyer at the reduced price, and that his lender, Bank of America, will accept that as his ticket for walking away, and forgive the rest of what he owes.

Linda Rheinberger, who was the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors president during the height of the boom in 2006, said home prices in southern Nevada have dropped 65 percent in the past four years.

That has created some tremendous values, she said, but it has come at the same time that credit standards have tightened up fiercely.

Like Jim Tierney, Ryan Henderson had the misfortune to go house hunting in the middle of the real estate boom in Las Vegas.

Ryan, his wife, Mical, and their four children eventually found a house, an attractive four-bedroom home at the end of a cul-de-sac west of The Strip.

They bought it for $300,000 in 2004, with a $285,000 loan that a mortgage company gave to Henderson despite the fact he was unemployed at the time.

Today, the house is worth an estimated $138,000, and unless something changes, the Hendersons are trapped there by seemingly endless negotiations to avoid foreclosure.

In many ways, the Hendersons' story mirrors what happened to the economy in Las Vegas.

Henderson is a concrete mason, and for many years, he made good money installing slabs and doing other work in the casino and resort industry.

When they began house hunting in 2004, Henderson had quit work temporarily to finish getting his bachelor's degree in accounting.

From the beginning, their problem wasn't getting financing, but finding a home they could afford -- any home.

"Because homes we're going so fast and getting so expensive, we just thought, we need to get into a house before we're priced out of the market." When they learned through friends at church that their present house might be going up for sale, "we jumped on it. It never hit the market."

He also took out a second mortgage of $55,000 to help finance renovation work on the house that he did himself.

And then, in 2008, both of the major casino jobs he was working on halted construction because of the economy, and he was out of steady work.

He began to fall behind on his house payments, making one every six or seven weeks. By this time, his loan was owned by Wells Fargo, one of the biggest home lenders in the nation, and he knew that the bank officials normally wouldn't even talk to homeowners about modifying their loans unless they stopped making payments. So he did, and in 2009, he got a foreclosure notice.

He quickly filed for mediation under a new Nevada law. So far, it hasn't been a pleasant process.

Henderson has been through three mediation meetings last year and this year, and he and his attorney, David Crosby, said bank representatives have not been willing to negotiate, despite the fact that the law requires banks to do so.

Tom Goyda, a Wells Fargo spokesman, said the bank did negotiate with Henderson, "but unfortunately, we were not able to come up with a satisfactory option for them to stay in the home."

The Hendersons' story shows that many caught in the housing collapse in Las Vegas were not avaricious or dishonest.

Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said that in some stories about her city, "it's portrayed like, 'Oh, these greedy homeowners are looking for an excuse to take advantage of the situation,' and I don't see that.

"I see the face of a person who says, 'I've been a plumber for 36 years in this town, I've never been out of work, and first I lost my job, and then I lost the boat, and then I lost the vacation home, and then I lost my wife, and now I have lost my home, and I'm being sued by a credit card company, and I don't know what the hell I'm going to do' -- that's what we see here."

 

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