MANY see trouble in falling home prices and rising foreclosures.
Karen Krynen sees opportunity.
So after dropping her two children off at preschool one day last month, Krynen headed for Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk, where foreclosed houses were being auctioned on the steps outside.
The ponytailed Krynen spotted a small crowd gathered against the building's towering, black-marble portico. The two dozen or so bidders, mostly men, whispered into cellphones, tapped into databases from their laptops and juggled clipboards loaded with documents and printouts.
No one seemed particularly friendly.
"I walked up and thought, 'Oh no, this is what they do for a living,' " said Krynen, 42, clad in khaki capri pants and a jean jacket. "They had their Bluetooths, their computers.... They knew what they were doing.
"I kind of hoped that nobody else would be around."
Still, it didn't come as a complete surprise. Krynen had read the headlines: More and more homeowners are going into default as mortgages with low introductory "teaser" rates adjust to higher payments. There were 5,977 foreclosed homes on the auction block in Southern California in the first three months of the year, up from 711 in the same period last year, according to research firm DataQuick Information Systems.
Homes typically enter foreclosure when borrowers can no longer make their payments and can't sell their homes for amounts that would pay off their loans.
State law requires these properties to be sold at public auction, which in theory puts everyone on an equal footing. Amateurs such as Krynen, however, face competition from professional real estate investors as well as the lenders themselves, who come to the auctions ready to bid for homes they issued loans for if it appears that the properties can be resold at higher prices.
For years, Krynen had seen the ads and come-ons promising to reveal the "secrets" of buying foreclosed property. But the notion of buying a home this way didn't take shape until a few weeks ago, when she came across a website for Irvine-based RealtyTrac Inc.
The site offered a trial subscription to troves of foreclosure data, which are public but not very accessible. Krynen was intrigued. A few mouse clicks later, she found a house about five miles from hers in Whittier. The owners had defaulted on the mortgage and were facing an auction in two weeks. Opening bid: $100,000.
Krynen figured the four-bedroom home was worth about $800,000 and thought it would be the perfect replacement for the 1,400-square-foot house she and her husband, Jeff, have owned for 14 years.
"Think 'Brady Bunch' era," is how she described it.
But that's about all she can say about it. Although she has driven past the place at least a dozen times, she could never get inside for a good look.
That was lesson No. 1 Krynen learned about foreclosures: Buyer beware. You buy property "as is," with no chance of a pre-purchase inspection.
"That scared me a bit, that I couldn't see inside," Krynen said. But her husband, a professional contractor, assured her that he would be able to mend whatever needed fixing.
From her online research, Krynen learned that the road to a foreclosure sale in California typically begins when a homeowner misses three mortgage payments. The lender then files a notice of default with the county recorder.
If the homeowner fails to pay up in 90 days, the trustee -- usually the title company -- sets a date for a public auction.
By long-standing custom, most auctions are held outside courthouses or the recorder's office. Krynen found this aspect of the process especially appealing.
"If it goes to the courthouse steps, there's a level playing field," she said.
Neither local government nor the courts play a role, however. The title companies and other trustees hire professional auctioneers to run the sales. It's the real estate equivalent of last rites, making Kyle Speer something of a priest of property.
At 10 a.m. sharp each weekday, Speer, 38, takes his place on the courthouse steps in Norwalk.
With his back against the marble wall and his face to the crowd, the professional auctioneer cracks open his leather portfolio, clears his throat and begins the archaic ritual of "crying the sale."
A 17-year veteran of foreclosure auctions, Speer says he's seen a sharp increase in newbies such as Krynen showing up. Bombarded by questions from beginners, he recently began offering a $200 seminar every Thursday to decode the auction process.
One day last month, as Krynen stood off to the side taking notes, prepping for the upcoming auction of the Whittier house, Speer kicked off the bidding for the day's auction by reading the property's street address, followed by a long string of parcel numbers, deed numbers and loan numbers.
"Do I have any opening bids?" he asked. "Cashier's checks needed to qualify."