Recently, when my refrigerator was on the fritz, I called my local appliance repairman, a guy who has been keeping every mechanical/electric thing in my house, including dishwasher and washing machine, running smoothly for more than a decade.

When we spoke, I asked, "Since you are coming out here anyway, could you just do a diagnostic on my two rooftop air conditioning units to make sure they are ready for the Arizona summer?"

"No can do," he apologized. "I’m just too busy."

My repairman had a contract with an investor group buying homes throughout the Phoenix metro area and was having trouble keeping up with all the repair work since the investors were on a tear, adding more and more acquisitions to a portfolio that already numbered in the hundreds.

I’ve touched on the subject of investing in single-family homes in a number of columns and it seems the one trend line that keeps turning up is that families losing their homes are simply looking around the nearby neighborhoods and renting another house in the same area — usually at a deep discount to the mortgage from which they walked away. This phenomenon has been keeping the residential investor market humming.

I was curious if this was a national trend or something particular to the Phoenix metro, one of the hardest-hit residential markets during the current economic downturn.

As it turns out, massive inflows of capital into residential markets by investors, as opposed to owner-occupiers, is not something most cities are experiencing.

However, if you live in one those sun-baked places that has been extremely hard hit by mortgage foreclosures — such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, almost any Florida city and many metros in California — then the local resale market is more than likely dominated by investors, or as DataQuick calls them, "absentee buyers."

DataQuick, a San Diego-based provider of property and land data, has been on the trail of absentee buyers like bloodhounds following a jailbreak. After capturing no bodies but plenty of data, the quick analysis is this: The percentage of absentee buyers has been increasing, but it is a very regional data point.

"You see relatively high levels of absentee buyers in the areas that experienced the most foreclosure activity and where prices have come down the most," reports Andrew LePage, a spokesperson for DataQuick. "That’s where investors like the math in terms of how much you have to put down to buy a rental property and what would the mortgage payments have to be so as to make a hefty profit."

In Phoenix, the percentage of single-family transactions concluded by absentee buyers was an extremely high 39.8 percent in March (the most recent reporting period), reports DataQuick. About the only city with a higher percentage for that month was Las Vegas at 41.5 percent.

Other metros with high absentee buyer levels include Miami at 33.9 percent, Riverside, Calif., at 29.1 percent, and Sacramento at 27.5 percent.

As a comparison, in another western city, Seattle, absentee buyers accounted for just 17.9 percent of all March home sales

I decided to check with a source in Las Vegas, epicenter of the absentee buyer phenomenon, to see what was going on.

Glenn Plantone, a Las Vegas real estate investment adviser and founder of the Real Estate Insider Club of Las Vegas, specializes in the investor market for single-family homes. According to his yard count, DataQuick’s information was too conservative.

More than 50 percent of all sales in Vegas are investor deals, he asserts, and these absentee buyers have been so aggressive they have worn through the inventory.

"People don’t realize how low the inventory is in Las Vegas," says Plantone. "There are currently about 1,200 single-family homes on the MLS that are bank-owned properties. And we are selling about 4,000 homes a month here, so that 1,200 number represents about a two-week supply of homes. As soon as these homes hit the market, they are scarfed up."

Part of the problem in Vegas was that the banks slowed down the foreclosure process so that in January and February only about 900 area homes went back to the banks. Finally, some folks at the banks suddenly woke up to the fact there was an inventory problem and, in March, 2,000 homes went back to the bank, then 3,000 more in April.

Obviously, if you’re an absentee buyer, one question on your mind after establishing a buying price is: How quick can this property be rented? In Vegas, finding renters is not difficult as long as you can hit the right prices points, which are fairly low.

As an example, Plantone works the northwest part of the Vegas metro, an area that really didn’t start getting built up until 2003. Most of the properties are newish.  Plantone maintains a renter could find a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom affair for about $1,000 a month; a 1,500-square-foot home for $1,300; and a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom property for $1,400.

It’s the relatively cheap rent that keeps families who left foreclosed properties staying in single-family homes.

Since investors can buy foreclosed properties from the banks at low costs, to fill up their investments quickly they go to market at lower rent levels, which eventually pushes down rents throughout the whole residential marketplace. A one-bedroom condo rental can be had for $625 a month; a two-bedroom, $750; and a three-bedroom, $900.

"Investors find a house to buy at a great price, way below historical cost, but then they ask, ‘Can we get a renter?’ " Plantone explains. "The answer is yes. Las Vegas is not losing population. People are losing their houses and they are going across the street and renting another house for a thousand dollars cheaper than they were paying on their mortgage."

As an added attraction, the new houses they are renting are in better shape than the ones given up because when the families were in an ownership position they not only couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage but couldn’t maintain upkeep as well.

Generally, the new homes being rented have been rehabbed because when investors come in, they sink a couple of grand into new carpeting, a coat of paint, and hiring contractors — like my home repair guy — to get the appliances in shape before the house is ready to rent.

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