This is how empires rise and fall, pulling our fortunes along with them. Start with virgin territory: back in 1957, the Rosen brothers of Baltimore flew over Cape Coral, Fla., in a plane, liked what they saw, paid $678,000 for the farmland and started dredging 400 miles (640 km) of canals, which is more than Venice can claim. It was a peaceful place for old people Cape Coma, folks called it, until about five years ago, when the gold rush began. College kids were waiting tables to buy condos and flip them; speculators got into bidding wars on unbuilt houses; the price would triple just in the time it took to build. Numbers made no sense; people got drunk and reckless. And then they got crushed. Cape CoralFort Myers, once the third fastest growing metro area in the country, last year became the foreclosure capital of America.
Marc Joseph grew up here, the Realtor son of a Realtor dad. He watched the market go mad and had his revelation: now is the moment to get back in and stake your claim. At 41, he did not expect to be driving around Cape Coral in an old church bus that he bought off Craigslist, painted dollar green and emblazoned with the motto "ForeclosureToursRUs.com." But most people had no idea how to buy a house from a bank, and many were too scared to try, so he decided to lead tours of the new economic frontier. He is a revivalist for this apocalyptic age, living an American story as old as the pilgrims and the 49ers and every pioneer who ever saw opportunity where everyone else saw only ruin. (See pictures of Americans in their homes.)
This morning he has prospective snowbirds from Spain, Ontario ("We just can't ignore these prices"), Boston and Mingo Junction, Ohio, where another steel mill is about to close. "Opportunity is banging at your door," Joseph tells them, and he'd sound like any cheesy salesman if he weren't so attached to this place and so angry at what was done to it; it's as if his house had been burned down by reckless kids playing with matches and he's building it back up again board by board. It's gotten so bad that the courts have had to hire extra judges to handle the 1,000 foreclosures a day that works out to roughly one every 30 seconds.
But those expecting to see buzzards circling overhead will be surprised. As quickly as one myth dies, another rises in its place, and Joseph is an oracle. It's when you buy that determines what money you make, he tells the fortune hunters on his bus. "A scary time? I'd say it's an opportunity. But it wouldn't be an opportunity if it weren't a scary time," he says. The speculators are back but they've changed; he has investors up North who are buying houses sight unseen, for cash. (The conditions? No mold, no Chinese drywall.) And then there are the newly pissed off and liberated: the guy in his 40s who's tired of watching his IRA shrivel, who calls and says, "I'm coming down," who wants six houses at $50,000 each, nice flat homes that he can rent to people who are sick of shoveling snow or climbing stairs. That's less than the land used to sell for; it's as if you get the house for free.
As Joseph talks, you can practically feel the energy rising. This is still Florida; the sun is still shining; how clear is your vision? Gina, a special-ed teacher, and her husband Kurt, a contractor, have already missed out on two houses because they didn't bid fast enough. "Now it's every man for himself," Kurt says. "You have to play fair, put in a decent price." And then, just maybe, there will be rewards for the patient and prudent. "Someone else's loss," he says, "is another's blessing."
Having started the day with a tidy $65,000 three-bedroom ranch (down from $260,000), we end up at a Miami Vice house fireplace in the master bedroom, sailboat access, with a pool on the upstairs deck that overflows in a waterfall into the pool downstairs, and a man cave hidden behind a swinging bookcase. Gina spots signs of water damage; they'll just have to keep looking for their promised land. "The Great Depression only happens once every 100 years or so," she says, "and I don't expect to be around for the next one."
You can look at this many ways. The TV crews from as far away as Germany and Japan come to cruise with the vultures. The greedy got punished, the new prospectors say. But maybe this is just how the life cycle has to work to restore balance to the world. Painted on the side of the green bus is a house being sprinkled with a watering can ("Watch your investment grow!") and a tree with dollar bills hanging on it. Anything can grow here in all this hope and sunshine, if you bury your fear deep enough.